By Masarat Daud:
In 2014, when I was asked to speak at TED, I was trying to explain to my parents how great an opportunity this was. After a few minutes, my mother asks, “So what are you talking about?”
“Hijab. And well, the burqa,” I reply.
“The burqa? You are going all the way to Vancouver to speak about something so mundane?”
“Well, it’s a big deal there…”
This excerpt encapsulates the dichotomy between the non-hijabis’ obsession and hatred towards it and the opposite side’s annoyance at the focus a woman’s cover receives. It is exhausting now to justify or explain my choice when some hurl abuses at us while others express their disgust at our propagation of patriarchy.
Secularisation theory says that as societies modernise, the role of religion should decline. For many, it must be baffling to see the inward moving of this tide among Muslims. Aside from the politics of identity framework, Ozan Aksoy and Diego Gambetta share two important findings from their recent study, “Behind the Veil: The Strategic Use of Religious Garb“. Veiling as a way to ‘prevent the breach of religious norms’ and as a ‘signalling of women’s piety to their communities’ were the main reasons that in Muslim communities, as people modernised, the rate of veiling increased. In this push-pull debate between the people who wear the cover (of any sort — face, head, body) and the ones who don’t, this is a great point to start a discussion.
I was made to cover at the age of 17 and both the reasons listed above were true for me. It was my parents’ fear that my radical teenage tantrums needed to be doused before I picked up any habits that were not respectable for a girl in a conservative society. Their biggest lesson has been that the cover is no insulation from any of the society ills they had expected it to protect me from. I carried on, the hijab in tow, doing everything that I had wanted to do in life.
To be a covered Muslim woman is akin to looking outside the window with people hurling their stereotypes at you and baying for the burqa’s blood. While inside, you struggle to deal with the hypocrisy a sartorial symbol brings. A thick beard qualifies a man into unquestioned terrain of piety and the more a woman covers, the easier her membership into this area becomes. We often joked about girls in our university who wore miniskirts under the burqa and painted their faces to unrecognisable standards under the face veil. The conversation was never about oppression — it was always about hypocrisy and this false notion of piety that extra hair or clothes were awarded.
Then comes the sticky question: is veiling the only way to channel modesty? The lack of a modesty index makes this judgement very difficult, with everyone rating as per their judgemental index. In many conservative circles, I am still reprimanded for a few hairs peeking out of my headscarf.
The bad news is that this will never be resolved; shortly after the verses were revealed to Mohamed in which his wives were asked to cover as a way of protection (since they openly interacted with men who came to them for knowledge and advice), there are discrepancies in its implementation among the wives of Mohamed. While one of his wives, Sawda, opted for a more rigid interpretation and refused to go out of the house, Asma Sayeed writes that his other wife Aisha “did not view the hijab rulings as unilaterally confining her to her home”. To be played in the hands of interpretations is the reason there will be never be a binary view of the covering of a Muslim woman.
Oppression is the West’s favourite pastime. This continuous need to save the outsiders is a form of neo-colonialism. This is a key reason why the endless op-eds by people who have never covered or understood its value in a societal context will often find their words falling on deaf ears. If there is anything that you can do is to be our ally, to support our choices and to help focus on the bigger achievements in life without reducing us to the length of our body covers.