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....