Saturday, October 11, 2008

Hijabs - to be or not to be?

Now I am entering a territory that some of my friends would term "dangerous" but this entire discussion and talk about hijabs triggered off some thoughts which I thought I would pen down.These are just thoughts, and, not a judgement on a religion or its people.

One hears a lot of discussions on the hijab and the rights of Muslim women. I remember asking some Egyptian friends / acquaintances / women I met, who wear a hijab, about what prompted them to wear the hijab, and, the responses were interestingly varied.

Obviousy, a couple said that they wore it cos their religion mandated it. Some others said that they started wearing it only after marriage because their husbands demanded it, and felt that they would be answerable to Allah if their wives did not wear it! So for some, its pressure from husband / family/ relatives etc which I can understand.

However, what surprised me were two sets of reasons which came from the younger lot!

One was safety and the other economics, and they were both interlinked. Couple of young women mentioned that they needed to go out and work, given economic imperatives, but their families were worried about them being alone and out of the house. Wearing the hijab offered protection, as many people believed that if you wore the hijab you were pious, and, were therefore left alone. So wearing the hijab enabled them to step out and work. Now while this may sound simplistic and far fetched, I increasingly find that safety and economics do play a large part in many of the younger women voluntarily wearing the veil.

That set me off on another trail, whether wearing a hijab actually ensures safety or not? And I came across a newspaper article (Daily Star), an extract of which I am reproducing below.

Sexual harassment has become an overwhelming and very real problem experienced by all women in Egyptian society, often on a daily basis, in public places,” said the study released last week by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights, a Cairo-based organization.

The survey showed that 83% of Egyptian women of different ages reported ...

... exposure to harassment, while 98% of foreign women stated they had been sexually harassed while in Egypt. Harassed women have experienced men staring inappropriately at their bodies, inappropriate touching, sexually explicit comments and stalking, stated the study".

So I am left wondering whether wearing the hijab really affords any safety to the women wearing it?

On the issue of hijabs, there is a lot of heated debate on how it impinges on a woman's freedom. Sometimes I think this is driven by the Western concept of "personal freedom" which in some sense is true but again, in many Asian / Oriental cultures, "personal freedom" does not merit a premium. It is not a prominent part of our ethos. Though I also wonder that if it has been ingrained in you since you were a child, that you must wear a hijab, then is wearing it really a choice?

As a non Muslim, I, like many others, tend to think of the hijab as restrictive, and, impinging on a woman's position, especially cos there is no equivalent hullabaloo about men covering themselves in any which way!

But then on the other hand, isn't wearing a hijab better than some of the other ills that women are subjected to the world over? Being burnt alive for dowry, being sexually harrassed, physical abuse, women being denied the right to chose their husbands, being battered and domestic violence? One reads about so many evils that a woman is subjected to, that having to wear a hijab, actually seems heaven in comparision!

And does wearing a hijab take away from the woman the right to look attractive? Met a very educated gentleman, who was rather critical of the fact that Egyptian women make the hijab a fashion statement. He was deeply offended that they chose to be well dressed rather than look like a sack of potatoes! I was astonished that a man as educated as him could hold such archaic views, and, even more amazed when I realised that he was not an isolated case! There are many men, and, tragically, some women who believe this too.

And finally, I wonder if Islam really specifies behavioural / dress norms only for women, and, none for the men? Someone once told me that the equivalent norm for men, is having a long beard, but I am not sure if that is really true. If it is, then why is there no "song and dance" about men and their beards? Or is the burden of religion only the woman's to carry?

None of this is intended as a sleight to the religion, (and, my apologies if I have unintentionally hurt any sentiments) but just my thoughts on the practices of a religion that I, unfortunately, know little about. I admire it for some of its tenets which ensure that the blessed share their wealth with the less fortunate, and, the sense of community and oneness it fosters, but these are things for which I am trying to understand the rationale, and, find myself at a complete loss....


Lillian said...

I guess for Westerners its difficult to imagine being FORCED to cover ourselves. So we find it difficult to accept the hijab and think of it as curbing a woman's independence.

Anonymous said...

Muslims still debating if hijab is a "Fard"(must be applied to satisfy Allah), so iam not sure Islam instruct females to wear hijab, wahabism for sure impose it on females but me nor Muslims are sure Islam does impose it.

Manisha said...

I am not sure but I remember reading somewhere that there are specific texts in the Quran where the hijab has been specified. Or rather, it has been specified that a woman must cover herself and I guess that takes the form of the hijab / niqab? Is that the "Fard" that you are talking about? Or is it not specified?

Can I also bother and ask if there is something similar specified or a similar "Fard" for men as well?

Marwan said...

Why is such a noise made about the hijab? Why do you westerners get so upset about it?

Connie said...

I think most westerners believe you should wear whatever you want. My kids' old school wanted them to wear US cultural clothes.. what is that? I was tempted to send them in galebeyas dressed as Egyptian-Americans! I do not really care when I know a woman is wearing hijab if I know it is because she wants to.

My problem is women being forced to wear the covering, by family, or social pressure (ie. people think less of them). Or women having to wear it out of fear of physical attack. Or, women who wear it to be 'holier than thou', not to mention more 'fashionably' religious, and see how much money I spent on my fancy religious clothes, and tightly tailored 'look at me' religious clothes that are supposed to be about modesty and humbleness. The last example is a huge problem with Christians in the US too.

Basically - I think westerners aren't upset about hijab itself, it's about perceived lack of personal freedom. I add in the bias against 'religion as a cheap fashion accessory' as my personal pet peeve.

Anonymous said...

i don't remember about any "Fards" for men, in general men in islam as far as i know have Blanche card to do what they wish.

and those verses about the hijab, still some Muslims interpret it as a direct command for females to wear hijab while the other muslims interpret it was commanded for some period of time and now it's expired.

btw iam not Muslim, i just tell what i get from my experience as an Egyptian.

and for Marwan: what are you afraid of dude??

Manisha said...

Marwan, I am not a Westerner. Being an Indian, I am not a stranger to the Muslim community (though I may not know the religion) since we have the largest Muslim population in the world! Yes, even back home, some Muslim women wear a burqa (equivalent of a niqab here) but not so many of them. And a hijab is an even rarer sight.

I am not trying to undermine a practice or make a fuss. I am just trying to understand the rationale behind it, whether its still as valid as it was when it was first propogated, and being a woman trying to figure its impact on another woman - why she does it, is she happy, is it really that important, does she have the freedom to make a choice, using the yardstick of my own existence since that is the only one available to me.

Manisha said...

Connie, I agree - my musings are more related to whether a woman in truth has the freedom to choose or not!

Julia said...

Men do have requirements for their clothing here's an article about that " hijab_for_muslim_men" (take out space before hijab to work). Also many believe beards are required for men, but because of "umla dowla" or secret police threats (many in power in Egypt see the beard as extremism and a threat) some men in Egypt are afraid to wear it, although as hijab has been increasing so has the beard, which is making it harder to prevent it.

I am a westerner (born and raised in AZ, and I became Muslim almost 6 years ago. I chose to wear hijab about 5.5 years ago. It was not forced on me by anyone. Although undoubtedly some people are forced to wear it, they shouldn't be. There is no compulsion in religion (Islamic principle) and we all answer to God for our deeds, whether it be hijab, prayers, etc. Intention is very important in Islam , and if I am wearing hijab because of my husband and not for God, I may not receive the rewards for wearing it.

Juju said...

I enjoyed greatly reading your article and I would like to give you some information if I may...

Both genders have to respect a dressing code AS WELL as a way of conduct. They should both lower their gaze (it is in the Qur'an, e.g.24:30) and wear modest clothes (loose). Women have to cover more than men, but then again when you think about it they have more "revealing" features than men. Muslim men cannot were shorts above the knee or below the navel. Most importantly Muslims should strive to do all their deeds with the intention to please God first.

From the answers you got which I read, it seems to me that some people have forgotten the aim of covering, it's for protection against sins as you mentioned, but also it is how God wishes us to behave ourselves among people not related to us. So women don´t need to cover in front of other women or their father, sons, nephews, same for men. I personally think that it makes marriage quite special, being the only one to see your spouse's beauty is something amazing : )
I don´t want to make a story here, I wear hijab, it is part of me being a woman, wanted to be respected for the content of my brain, less of my bra size when I have to speak to men, this is how i feel, might not be for all my sisters...

So the point is, covering and conduct is a way of worshiping God, not only in Islam, it is in the 3 monotheistic religions. God knows best of course and the reward is in sincerity and intention, not in following the latest fashion...!
That's my two cents!

Manisha said...

Julia thanks for the link. Shall check it out.

Julia, out of curiosity, if its not too personal, why did you choose to become a Muslim? I am very intrigued.

Anonymous said...

Being a muslim, european and living in egypt for years, wearing hijab now but more than half of my life not, I can tell that it is not that big deal. Not that big as some wants others to believe.

And there is outer hijab and inner hijab. Inner hijab meaning your conduct. sounds terrible too? That certain behaviour, modesty etc, it just doesn't catch your attention as outer hijab.

Tell you what, we are all forced to many things, freedom is but a daydream.

And there's no freedom without responsibility either, altough many seems to believe there is.

say, you wanna keep your hair in a certain way and don't wanna wear make-up. But your employer says you are forced to do against your "free will" for favour of your employer and his costomers maybe. Say You need to wear a uniform. You're a police but not comfortable with the uniform. Can you wear your jeans because you are free and have free will?


A piece of fabrik,piece of cloth makes a big fuss. But i wish we all could put our efforts and strenght to change the real problems of this mother earth. Gosh, if you are interested to change the position of women, let's do that!! In europe women earn much less than men, let's unite for the equal salaries for same work. Let's demand the education for girls around the world. In china they are killing girlbabies, they have right for one only and it's better be boy. In india women are buried alive when her husband dies. Mormon women are married to a dead husband.
People are dying in diseases and in wars. Who worries about the war orphans? The raped and abused?

In egypt women are rarely forced to wear hijab. More i experience that they are forced to take it off. If you want a good work ok, but without hijab.. No hijab in our school.. even men are forcing their wifes to take off islamic dress, that they can maintain certain position or image.. examples are many.

I do not say that You are wrong to handle with this issue, but take all the angles in consideration.

I am living with my hijab as I was living without it. Ok, I don't need to caomb my hair every time I go out and I do not need to spend money and time doing make-up. But generally it does not prevent me from doing essential things. Maybe i don't get a work because of my hijab, but that's not the hijabs fault. It is a fault in the eye that want's to force me taking it off.
Altough it provokes religious behaviour. I wouldn't feel ok going to bars or drinking or having second looks with men etc. when wearing hijab, wouldn't I?

So I wear it to please God.

Have a nice time in egypt, dear!!

Manisha said...

Juju, thanks for your comments.. yup, covering the head seems to be a part of other religions as well though perhaps not as far spread - look at the nuns in Christianity, and there are instances in Hinduism as well. Am going to go down that path too but this is more for my knowledge and understanding than to draw any comparisions of any sort between religions.

Manisha said...

Anonymous, an interesting perspective! Thanks so much for responding.

I completely agree that there are many ills that plague women the world over, and, a "hijab discussion" pales in comparision(I've said as much)....

But it exists, and these were really my thoughts on a concept that is alien to me, something that I dont understand esp when I come across Muslim women who seem to think so too..I am trying to understand the woman's perspective and not berate the religion.

In fact one of my Muslim friends said something quite interesting - that the hijab sigifies the eternal man-woman power this case more so because the interpretation or rather enforcement of the tenets of the religion is in the hands of the clergy which is predominantly male. Not sure to what extent its true, since I do not practice the religion.

As to the inner hijab, nope does not sound terrible at all. Call it your conscience or inner hijab, but to me behaviour in terms of modesty is far less important than being a good human being.

And I completeley agree that freedom is a personal thing, and, its definition varies person to person. What appears to be restrictive for me, could actually be a sanctury for someone, and finally, if wearing the hijab makes the woman more at peace with herself, her religion, and, her life, then its good for her.

By the way, I love being in Egypt, and, interactions & dialogues like this make my stay even more interesting!

Wonderful reading your comments, thanks.

Anonymous said...

its really interesting to know how non Muslims think about hijab.. still its hard 4 u 2 understand cause u r trying to figure it out based on your own standards.. these standards r created 4 the comfort of your own society they don't necessarily apply 4 other societies.the concept of freedom, oppression ,right, wrong,good, bad ets.. these concepts differ from one place 2 another although u may hv an opinion with against somethings that doesn't mean you are right all the way.. so try to look at our life from our perspective not from yours.