“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.