A different perspective on hijab

Veil of Ignorance: Have we gotten the headscarf all wrong?” is an  interesting article on hijab by Leila Ahmed in which she talks about her experience of warming up to seeing hijab on young American Muslim women.

Ahmed thinks that Hourani’s article was “spectacularly incorrect” because “veiling among Muslim women, after steadily gaining ground across the globe in the last two decades, is incontrovertibly ascendant.”

Ahmed accepts that she used to think that education and women’s emancipation would free Muslim women from “this relic of women’s oppression” because to her “hijab’s presence meant not piety — for we knew many women who were deeply devout yet never wore hijab — but Islamism” that had its “signature dress, the hijab.” But now she sees it as “a badge of individuality and justice” after speaking to several young American Muslim women about why they choose to wear hijab.

A friend was disappointed with the article; she said she didn’t like the title and that the “conclusion focuses on Western Muslims. Overall tone of article seems to validate stereotypes about veil.” I too felt it focused on Western Muslims because what stood out for me in the article is when Ahmed quotes Albert Hourani to have written in his article that (I quote Ahmed), “It was only in the Arab world’s “most backward regions,” and specifically Saudi Arabia and Yemen, that the “old order” — and along with it such practices as veiling and polygamy — “still persists unaltered.”” I couldn’t help but notice that in the Arab world where I live, the countries that Hourani had once considered the “most backward regions” are now actually giving up veiling.

A couple of days ago I managed to conduct a small-scale study into hijab with 47 young Arab women. I carried out short and informal group interviews (of 10-15 women in a group) and asked the young women why they wear hijab or don’t wear it. All 47 women wear abaya but 35 of them don’t cover their heads with what is called a hijab here. They only put it around their necks.

Based on informal conversations with Arab women I have pointed many times that hijab in the Arab world (the Gulf region) translates to something very different than hijab in the West. The interviews I conducted proved my hypothesis correct. The young women gave different reasons for their choice on hijab which I will summarise as quotes as follows:

  • “I don’t cover my hair because I don’t like this” [pulls at the headscarf].
  • “I wear the abaya because my mother is a foreigner and if I don’t wear the abaya people will blame her for our loss of Arab tradition. I do it just for my mother’s sake but I can’t cover my head. Not showing my hair doesn’t make me look less attractive. It is useless.”
  • “Yes that is right. People love to talk. Chi, chi, chi. Gossip, gossip, gossip. That is why many of us wear the abaya because we are stuck in a gossiping society.”
  • “I cover my hair and my face in front of men. My uncle is a muttawa … you know who is a muttawa? Yes, he explain(ed) for (to) me the importance of niqab and it is fard. The words are not in Quran but Allah speaks indirectly; my uncle explain(ed) for (to) me everything in a clear way and I follow my uncle’s advice Inshallah. “
  • “I would never wear this if I was not fat. Look at me! I love to look slim and beautiful in nice clothes and once I lost (lose) weight I will stop wearing this. Till then I can stay without hijab only.”
  • “I admit that I wear shalia when I go to malls or when I’m with relatives. When I don’t wear it like now, I feel bad. Kasm bilAllah (I swear upon God) I know it is haraam what I’m doing but I hate the hijab. It makes me look ugly.”

When asked why she thinks not wearing hijab is haraam she said, “Because I know! It is in Al Islam. We all know. Everyone knows. I have not read the Quran but I know hijab is fard (compulsory).”

  • “I am 20 years old but without hijab I look 14-15 years old and then men don’t notice me. With hijab I look older and men stare at me. I want to be free and don’t like men noticing me.”
  • Abaya is my traditional (tradition). I love wearing the abaya so people know I am Arab. I am proud to be Arab. I want others to know that.”
  • “I wear hijab because my father told me that if any man sees my hair he will lock me and will marry me to my cousin. I know he won’t do that, but what if he does?!”
  • “No, my father is very nice. He said no one can judge you, only Allah (can) judge you. You cover your hair if you want and don’t if you don’t want. When my younger brother forced me to cover my hair my father tell to him (told him), “Who are you? I am here. I didn’t say to her cover! I love my father.”
  • “My mother thinks I wear hijab 24/7 but I take it off as soon as I leave home because it makes me hot and look like an egg. But my mother says what will our family say?!”
  • “I wear it because my mother, aunts, sisters all wear it. How I will look if I don’t wear it? Maybe my daughter will not wear it and we’ll see when that happens.”

What I found particularly remarkable was that no one said they wear hijab because it is their religious choice, or that it liberates them, or that hijab is what Allah wants – reasons often given by Western hijab-wearers. The ones  who believe hijab to be fard believe so because that is what they have been told by others.

Whereas women in the West wear hijab to affirm “pride in Muslim identity in the face of prejudice”, women I spoke with wear it to affirm pride in their Arab heritage. While for an American woman, hijab was a “required dress that made visible the presence of a religious minority entitled to justice and equality”, in a Muslim majority society being an Arab requires the abaya (with or without the headcovering) as a dress that asserts their exclusivity. In the West women who wear hijab choose it because they are “free to wear whatever they want”, whereas the women who spoke to me were forced either overtly by their families or indirectly by relatives and society in the name of tradition.

Obviously this is a very small study but my aim was to get some viewpoints on hijab and I enjoyed listening to the different perspectives. It also made me realise why I couldn’t understand the Western stance on hijab.  These are women who don’t even know the definition of Islamic Feminism and yet their views on hijab are hardly traditional, whereas in the West where according to Ahmed “Islamic feminism is well and alive”, hijab is a move back to Islamic tradition.

Any thoughts?


19 thoughts on “A different perspective on hijab

  1. Lat says:

    I liked the interviews 🙂 One said she looked like an egg!
    Like you said,peity is the least concern for them and more on sociatal norms and expectation which is common among women.And hijab makes for male attraction too as this lady said,

    “I am 20 years old but without hijab I look 14-15 years old and then men don’t notice me. With hijab I look older and men stare at me. I want to be free and don’t like men noticing me”

    Here’s a woman who wants to be less attractive to men by not wearing hijab,quite the opposite of what we would normally hear.Shows how the male population has learnt to observe women’s hijab to their advantage.It always seem to revolve around men.Overseas Muslims or other religious groups tend to stay more traditional than their mother land.Basically of fear of losing their culture in a foreign land.It’s one way of staying distinct and separate but shouldn’t give it overtly religious tone.

    • Metis says:

      “Shows how the male population has learnt to observe women’s hijab to their advantage.It always seem to revolve around men.”

      That is a good analysis, Lat! That is true – men have learned that a girl who has reached a certain age will start to wear hijab and those are the women they want to harass. A woman told me that she was in full hijab WITH her father and a man passed close to them in his class and offered his phone number to her. In fact, women have confessed that when they are without headscarf and abaya local men don’t realise that they are local women and tend to leave them alone whereas they would follow and harass women in full hijab so it offers them little protection and is a cause for harassment.

      You are right that in foreign countries people tend to be more religious. People are religious here as well but they have kept hijab separate from religion maybe because they know that it is an integral part of their culture and not religion.

  2. LK says:

    I have heard about this phenomena of hijab attracting men in eastern countries. Honestly I don’t think its unattractive at all so that part of its purpose kinda seems void. I know hijab has the opposite effect in the US except for on Muslim men. Its like a half and half split in the US; they either want non-hijabi non Muslims or practicing hijabis it seems. So again, is it really serving that purpose? I’m not so sure. But I guess if they look at you they can’t see anything so thats a plus for it. 🙂

    I’m also not surprised to hear that not one of these women wears it for religious reasons. That seems to be very common, even in the US. I had a friend who wore it simply because 1) her family would disown her, not literally but you get the idea and 2) she’d never not worn it so it seemed too weird to take it off. But she admitted that it wasn’t really necessary at all, for her at least.

    • Metis says:

      “I’m also not surprised to hear that not one of these women wears it for religious reasons.” Really? I thought more people would say it makes them closer to God. But what about women whose mothers don’t wear it? I think they wear it to appear Muslim and make that statement.

      And non-Muslim men – don’t they harass women with hijab on as part of racism?

      • LK says:

        I dunno Ive never seen anyone harrass a hijabi in person. But yes in America they probably do get harrassed by racists. Who doesn’t?

        I dunno I ran into a lot of “My parents make me do it” in NY. My girlfriends chose it at a later date but the numbers were still higher for the first explanation. Doesn’t mean that the majority of hijabis wear a scarf for non religious reasons. Just my experience. So it doesn’t surprise me to hear that from your research.

  3. Very insightful interviews. It makes sense that women from different regions will not regard the hijab in the same way.

    And this; “Hijab is my traditional (tradition). I love wearing the hijab and abaya so people know I am Arab. I am proud to be Arab. I want others to know that.” is really the reason I don’t wear hijab today. And I don’t mean I have any issues with Arab women feeling proud of their tradition, I’m not Arab and I’m showing pride for my own culture with my tightly-coiled hair and headwraps.

    • Metis says:

      “I’m not Arab and I’m showing pride for my own culture with my tightly-coiled hair and headwraps.”

      I honestly thought I was the only woman who refused hijab for this reason (along with the fact that it originally was meant to separate classes and I’m against that) . Nice to meet you, eccentricyoruba 😀

  4. susanne430 says:

    Enjoyed reading these reasons and I love what eccentricyoruba said. This is why I would not want to wear the abaya and hijab. I’m not Arab and unless I wanted to pretend to be one or identify with their causes, why would I suddenly start dressing like them and saying “inshallah” and “mashallah” when those are not in my language? I always find it weird when a perfectly normal American coverts to Islam and suddenly their blogs are full of Arabic expressions. When they are writing to mostly English speakers, it’s fine to speak to us in English. I guess I’m just against changing who you are culturally for the sake of religion. Can you not be a follower of Jesus without turning into an Israeli? And can you not submit to Allah without donning Arab apparel? Or am I wrong and God wants us all to act alike and speak alike and dress in uniforms so He can keep track of which ones are His?

    I had to laugh at the girl who seemed to equate her muttawa uncle with a scholar giving her advice of what is necessary! And the one lady whose younger brother tried to get her to cover…wow!

    • Metis says:

      I agree with you, Susie. At one time the uktis (sisters) and akhis (brothers) really used to get on my nerves coming from English speaking converts 😀

      Muttawas here are teachers who teach Quran and are held in high esteem. They are the scholars, just not called sheikhs because the sheikhs here are the kings 😀

      • susanne430 says:

        Oh, thank you for correcting me! For some reason I always equated muttawa with religious police and had the visual in my mind of these bearded Pharisee types walking around with sticks prodding along the cattle and hitting them when they got out of line. I didn’t realize they were *scholars*! Oo la la! 🙂

  5. Helene says:

    I share the (irritated) sentiment you expressed in this comment:

    ” I always find it weird when a perfectly normal American coverts to Islam and suddenly their blogs are full of Arabic expressions.”

    I once expressed approximately the same thing to a public figure, about Americans who convert to a Hindu sect. Why is their language suddenly peppered with Hindi expressions? Can’t they just express their religious experience in the vernacular?

    The way he responded did make me realize that the meanings of words are not fully translatable into different languages. When I thought about it, I realized that I myself use French words from time to time, because the English translation is so tepid.

    However, this does not change the reality which underlies, in my opinion, the process of conversion for some people. They are running away from the drabness of their ordinary lives, into new cultural life-form, where there are some colorful possibilities, fraught with mystery…

    • susanne430 says:

      Thanks for sharing that, Helene. Yes, I can understand that English is so drab it takes a good “Mashallah” to convey what you truly want to say. (Maybe that’s how I use Hallelujah from time to time…hehehe.) I still find it offputting to read it all.the.freaking.time when someone coverts! 😀

      About your last paragraph, I remember someone saying she read some converts convert for the sheer thrill of being a rebel! “You don’t want a Muslim in your household because you find them scary? Perfect! I want to be a Muslim woman!” I’m sure **by far** this is not the case for most (who covert out of conviction or for a man), but I do find that reason interesting to consider!

      BTW, I love your name!

      • almostclever says:

        wow, very scathing of you susanne, no? are you a convert? are you a Muslim?

        • susanne430 says:

          Which part did you find scathing? I was only sharing my opinion about reading Arabic expressions when people convert and then (kind of) agreeing with Helene that perhaps they convey better what the person wants to say. (Such as my “Hallelujah” example.)

          Sorry if I offended you by not caring for all the “mashallahs” and “assalam aleykums” and “inshallahs.”

  6. Lat says:

    @ Susanne,

    ” I guess I’m just against changing who you are culturally for the sake of religion”

    I find this interesting.Not changing one’s cultural dress is fine.But sometimes words can be different like one coming from a polytheistic culture and believing in a monotheistic God,like me 🙂
    The word “oh my god” in tamil that is commonly said,actually has a meaning of ‘inside the stone is God=idol’.I hope my literal translation makes some sense to you 🙂 I was pointed out when I used this expression some time ago.I’m aware of other Tamil words for God but they aren’t used for normal spontaniety for OMG! expression.So I found it difficult to switch and used Ya Allah! or Rahman instead.Since I’m more familiar with these words i don’t mind using them.While I’m with my hindu friends,we don’t mind hearing each others’ expressions for God among us.It’s pretty interesting to hear so many of God’s names flouting around 🙂

    It seems certain names of God need to be compromised for religion sake depending on one’s culture and esp so if the name doesn’t express enough of the God they believe in.

    • susanne430 says:

      Thanks for your explanation, Lat. I guess I never realized “God willing” and “peace be upon you” might convey a different meaning so the Arabic expressions are better. Thanks for sharing your personal examples. I smiled thinking of you and your Hindu friends speaking together and the expressions involved. Sounds fun. 🙂

  7. Metis says:

    There are so words that can’t be translate exactly because they belong to the culture of the religion like hijab, mashallah, subhanAllah, kunya etc. So using those words is unavoidable. Words like ukti and shukran can be said in English, however.

  8. Nusaiba says:

    I’m supposed to be writing an essay on FGM and how to approach communities that practice it so I haven’t read all the comments so if I repeat something someone has already said, I apologize.

    I found the interviews very telling of the two cultures and the view points when it comes to hijab. There are many people that I know of who wear hijab because their parents forced them to even here in the US, but the majority of people like you said, wear it because they want to+can+and believe it is fard. Like me, that and my parents never forced me, yet in countries where people expect women to wear covering of some sort, many don’t want to because of being overtly forced to, or feeling like an egg (that one made me laugh).

    I wonder if being in America even with how Islam is viewed is helpful to wearing hijab or showing that one is Muslim by wearing hijab because it is supposedly “the land of the free” and here everyone can choose what to wear. (Even with all the problems that come with that), whereas in Arab countries women are told explicitly they must wear it regardless of their beliefs.

    Which always brought my mother and I back to whether or not the women even have intention to wear it, since intention is most important, right?

    And I won’t touch on the being annoyed by reverts saying things in Arabic since I am not one too much, but my revert friends like speaking what they’ve learned of Arabic because it makes them feel closer to the religion (as in we learn the Qu’ran in Arabic and Arabic seems to be so closely linked to Islam) which I don’t see as a problem. Besides saying Mash’Allah and Insh’Allah is good, I thought?

    Sorry if this is all confusing, I’m kind of just typing my thoughts out and it’s almost three in the morning so slightly tired.

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