Muslim women’s headgear, or hijab, is “a symbol of a dangerous purity culture” among people “obsessed with honor and virginity.”
I realize that Asra Nomani, who made this comment, has acquired an Islamophobic prejudice about hijab. Many Westerners, especially Islam-baiters, say that the hijab is imposed by bigoted Muslim men on unwilling women. Ms. Nomani was born into a Muslim family in India but has lived in America since she was 4. In her New York Times op-ed, however, she describes herself as a “mainstream Muslim woman,” and maintains that the hijab “has divided Muslim communities … since the Saudi and Iranian regimes promulgated puritanical interpretations of Sunni and Shia Islam.”
I was also born in India, and lived in the Indian subcontinent for three decades. I have had the opportunity to continually travel through Middle Eastern and other Muslim countries on research and reporting stints. I somehow missed the division in Muslim communities over wearing the hijab, which Ms. Nomani has mentioned. And I had thought that most Middle Eastern women had been covering up their heads since the dawn of history.
As far as I know, Persian women wore head covering in the fifth century B.C., if not before. That was a millennium before Islam was born. Many Byzantine Christian women used to wear headscarves as well. Arab women have been wearing them, especially when outdoors, since time immemorial. Headscarves protected their long hair from getting messed up by sand, wafted by winds. In arid deserts water was scarce, and most of them could not afford frequently washing their hair. The scarf also protected their fair skin (a symbol of beauty in Asia) from the scorching 110°F-115°F sun. For the same reason, Arab men, since long before Islam, have been wearing the kaffieh scarf around their heads and cheeks.
When Islam came to Arabia in the seventh century, Muslim men and women kept most of their pre-Islamic dress code: men’s beard, turban and robe; women’s body wrapper and hijab. But, as Ms. Nomani has rightly pointed out, the Quran does not specifically enjoin Muslim women to wear the hijab.
The Islamization of hijab began with an unremarkable incident. One day, in Medina, some women from Prophet Muhammad’s family went shopping, some bareheaded. Several rowdy men from the street jeered at them and made snide remarks about their physical features. When Muhammad heard of the incident, he instructed them to cover up their heads and bodies when they went outdoors.
Muslims the world over try to emulate many social practices associated with the Prophet and early Muslims, and many attach religious merits to them. It is like Christians wearing the cross around their necks and Jewish men putting on the kippa.
Since the late colonial era, many Muslims have attached new significance to the hijab and other Islamic symbols: pride and authenticity. Anti-colonial movements spurred identity consciousness among Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and other colonized peoples. They expressed that consciousness through the revival of their native religious cultural symbols.
Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru were Hindus who led the struggle for India’s independence from British colonial rule. Mohammed Ali Jinnah and Liaqat Ali Khan were Muslims who spearheaded the movement to create the Muslim Pakistan out of British India. All four were Oxford-educated barristers (lawyers), and during their years in Britain all donned Western clothing. As the four barristers plunged into their independence struggles, Gandhi and Nehru switched back to the Hindu dress code, and Jinnah and Liaqat to Islamic clothing (although Jinnah waited longer to do so).
In time, the trend toward religious and cultural revival permeated among the masses in societies colonized by the British, French, Dutch and other European powers. Elements among their elites, however, hung on to the lifestyles of the colonial rulers. They included Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey; Riza Shah (father of Muhammad Riza Pahlavi), who launched a Westernization campaign in Iran; Habib Bourguiba, the leader of the Tunisian independence movement; and others.
The Islamization of most Muslim societies has continued steadily, alongside their modernization and pursuit of Western education, knowhow and political models. It has surged again with a vengeance in response to the Jewish occupation of Palestine, American invasion and domination of Muslim countries, and U.S.-sponsored coups and U.S. support for oppressive governments in several of these countries. The current wave of Muslim militancy and terrorism against the United States and its allies is largely part of that reaction.
So is the hijab’s popularity among Muslim women, many of them Western educated. In most non-Western countries, including Muslim ones, male domination of women is a tradition, and the virginity of unmarried women is a cherished value. Many Muslim men, no doubt, require their wives and daughters to wear the hijab in public, as typical Hindu men would bar their daughters from socializing with Muslim or Christian men. But most Muslim women wear the hijab with pride, and take offense at any criticism of the practice.
I encountered some of them during trips to Turkey. Strolling the upscale Istiqlal Caddsi in Istanbul, the tree-shaded Ataturk Bulvari in Ankara, and other Turkish urban centers, I would often come across young women in hijab chatting away with their older, bareheaded female companions, sometimes locking arms.
I engaged some of them in chitchats, and learned that the older women grew up during Turkey’s “Kemalist” era (mid-1920s through mid-1990s). Turkey was then going through an intense, if controversial, Westernization campaign, launched by the ultra-secularist Ataturk. Ataturk and his followers, the Kemalists, banned many Islamic symbols, including the hijab, from many public institutions. Many Turks who grew up then still feel uncomfortable about adopting those Islamic symbols. Among them are some of the older, uneducated, Turkish women. Many of their daughters and nieces, on other hand, resent the Kemalist Westernization drive, even though they may have acquired a secular Western education and appreciate Western values of freedom and democracy.
These young women believe that the abandonment of Islamic symbols and embrace of European ones by the Kemalists were an uncalled for insult to their proud Turkish Islamic heritage and culture. One of them told me that the Kemalists were social “parasites,” and herself an authentic “heir” to Ottoman Turkey. The Ottomans, she reminded me, were the dominant European power for “two hundred years,” (actually from 1453 to 1529) and one of the greatest Islamic empires. These Muslim women’s worldview was explained by, among others, the renowned British social anthropologist Ernest Gellner (1925-1995).
“Contrary to what outsiders suppose,” wrote the Cambridge University professor, “the typical Muslim woman in a Muslim city doesn’t wear the veil because her grandmother did so, but because her grandmother did not [emphasis original]: her grandmother in her village was far too busy in he field, and she frequented the shrine without a veil, and left the veil to her betters. The granddaughter is celebrating the fact that she has joined her grandmother’s betters.”
I would encourage Asra Nomani to go on an extended trip to our native India and Muslim countries and communities elsewhere. She would, I believe, better appreciate Muslim women’s attachment to the hijab.
- Mustafa Malik, an international affairs commentator in Washington, hosts the blog: Muslim Journey (https://muslimjourney.com).