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The Hijab: From the Side That Is Covered

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By Saachi Sharma:

The Hijab (headscarf) has made news, yet again, with France banning its use in public offices and state schools and more recently, the Shiv Sena calling for a ban on the Burkha (which is inclusive of the headscarf) for ‘security reasons’. The Hijab has traditionally been perceived as ‎symbolic of the overt suppression of gender justice and rights. To what extent is it true? Let’s find out –

1. It is not community or gender specific

Contrary to popular opinion, the Hijab or headscarf does not only pertain to a particular community or gender, that is, Muslim women. Catholic nuns have traditionally worn the headscarf and turbans are common to Sikh and Rajasthani men. The typical rural Indian woman can be seen working in the fields with her Ghoongat in place. In fact, male members of the Turkana Tribe of Kenya cover their head with mud, which is then painted blue and decorated with ostrich and other feathers. Thus, head covering is a practice followed by many communities and singling out a community has resulted in radical and selective perceptions of the headscarf which has further lead to social ostracization.

2. Religious Freedom

It’s very easy, not to mention naive, to take a morally high ground by being outside the ambit of a particular socio-cultural context, however, understanding the nuances of a religion and its subsequent imposition or voluntary adoption is a different ballgame altogether. So long as a woman is making an educated and informed choice, devoid of any kind of societal or familial pressure, we must respect her exercise of the inalienable Right to Freedom.

Noted writer Kamala Das, an Islam convert, epitomizes the principle of an ‘informed religious choice’ based on religious beliefs and faith, bed rocked on individuality. True, many women chose the Hijab due to social conditioning, but in that case, we must enable them to make an educated choice (even if it’s pro Hijab) and not force them to ‘discard’ their religious identity. Change, after all, is not a vigorous chemical reaction; it’s a cauldron of potions brewing on a dimly lighted fire. Any attempt to speed up this process can lead to a catastrophic blast.

3. Women Power – What can a piece of cloth do?

The core belief in the anti — Hijab banter is that it is oppressive, which not only is an anti — feminist perspective, it is also built on shaky grounds. Can a piece of cloth incapacitate a woman to such an extent that she can’t think for herself, she needs to be thought for? That she can’t speak for herself, she needs to be spoken for? That she can’t dream for herself, her dreams need to be shown to her? Clearly not. The Hijab has religious and sentimental value, it by no means belittles a women’s competence or strength of character.

4. The West: Savior of women? Maybe not!

The West is often hailed as the new age Messiah, saving women from the atrocities of Islam, upholding the principles of a functional Democracy, Equality and Secularism. This is flawed in its very essence for it is easy to take off the Hijab in the West, but it is much more difficult to put it on (with those doing so facing employment problems and being viewed with suspicion) and therein lies the inherent contradiction. Respect must be accorded to those donning the Hijab, as well as those dropping it in equal measure, if Secularism needs to be upheld in a Democracy. Selective Secularism will cause nothing but marginalization and the subsequent alienation of a community.

What this really boils down to is an integration based multi — pronged approach, based on the absolute principles of religious and gender equality and mutual respect. It’s high time the veil on the minds of the policy makers and people is lifted and the ‘head’, not the ‘scarf’ is counted.

Image courtesy: http://stylishmuslimah.blogspot.com/2009/01/indian-hijab-style.html

You must be to comment.
  1. Krystall

    This is all well and good, very philosophical and I completely agree with everything you have said, however one should also keep in mind the numbers and proportions of the muslim women that think the way you do. How many do actually have a freedom to choose to wear it, how many are forced, what proportion actually wear it because they personally want to? I know thats perhaps a difficult task to undertake…going round asking those women in a hijab whether its their choice but unless we have numbers it is equally possible that some wear it by choice and the vast majority dont and perhaps then the ‘west’ may have a valid point in terms of freedom of choice.

  2. Saachi Sharma

    I shall tackle this in a two fold way –

    1. When you talk about the ‘Freedom of Choice’ the ‘West’ accords, let us also remember that it swings both way – the freedom to wear the Hijab, as well as the freedom to take it off. With increasing ‘Islamophobia’, the pressure to remove the Hijab is greater. It’s easier to discard it, but it’s much, much difficult to put it on. (Not only for Muslim women, but also for those who have converted)

    The ‘Freedom of Choice’ can’t be based on manufactured or worse, forced consent. It clashes principally with the very idea.

    2. Agreed, many may be forced to wear the Hijab or may be socially conditioned to do so, but in that case, banning a symbol closely associated with religious identity will lead to the alienation of this religion (it has started happening already). The solution here is to educate the women so that the subsequent choice is an informed one, regardless of what it is. A woman may be liberated even if she is wearing a Hijab and we should concentrate on the liberation, not the Hijab.

    Also, there is nothing philosophical about this. NOTHING. What we are talking about here is – gender justice, equality and human rights and their violation. It’s based on pro active logic.

  3. Sango Bidani

    I completely agree with your article and i feel it is disgusting the way we make an issue out of a complete non issue. Its about a person’s individual choice and i feel it is completely justified to wear what one wants to wear.

  4. Krystall

    You misinterpreted what I was saying, or maybe I didnt word it right. I said I completely agree with you, the islamaphobia, the relative ease with which a woman will be accepted was she to remove it (in the WEST only tbh) etc etc. What I disagree with is the reality of the picture you paint. If we’re talking global scale, including the primarily islamic states, what proportion of those women are actually making informed choices? Banning it is completely proposterous but so is enforcing it. The push most certainly should be in the direction of liberation but again, I said your argument was philosophical, I should have said theoretical because there is no method to liberate without socio-cultural-religious implications, usually negative, for the woman. I know a few students that wear the hijab and have started wearing it with pride here in the UK and it makes me incredibly happy for them and I dont feel they are disadvantaged in anyway professionally. To be completely honest the thing I have more issues with is the burkha than the hijab owing to the complete lack of identity the women have, and would genuinely like to know, had they known and, most importantly- understood a life without them, which they would prefer.

    PS: I loved your point about headwear around the world. x

  5. Saachi Sharma

    I don’t paint a realist picture in absolute terms, its more of an idealist position I take. Its a mix of what is happening, what shouldn’t happen and what should happen.
    “So long as a woman is making an educated and informed choice, devoid of any kind of societal or familial pressure, we must respect her exercise of the inalienable Right to Freedom.”

    “True, many women chose the Hijab due to social conditioning, but in that case, we must enable them to make an educated choice (even if it’s pro Hijab) and not force them to ‘discard’ their religious identity. Change, after all, is not a vigorous chemical reaction; it’s a cauldron of potions brewing on a dimly lighted fire. Any attempt to speed up this process can lead to a catastrophic blast.”

    The crux of my arguement being –
    1. It should be an educated choice
    2. If its not, the aim should to liberate the women so as to let them make an educated choice.

    For the record, never did I say that social conditioning or coercion doesn’t exist.I am saying it shouldn’t.

    Thanks, it was fun researching about the types of headwear used around the world.

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