Sunday, April 22, 2012

The hijab matrix: Part 1

In the words of Lila Abu-Lughod, 'veiling is a complex practice'. A few months ago I was doodling, trying to capture the different thoughts and opinions of the Muslim women I knew, when it comes to the contested issue of hijab. 


On one of the nights spent in Athens on a study trip, I came up with a table of belief intersecting with practice:-


Hijab
No Hijab
Divine order
1
2
Not divine
4
3

Hijab/No hijab
By this binary I'm referring to the norm of wearing a headscarf regularly, and in the presence of all men who are not related to her. During an interview not too long ago on this matter I realised that the use of 'putting on' or 'taking off' the hijab did not capture the entire story, because that happens every time you go out or come home. What I believe the interviewer (and many other people who use this term) meant was, 'wearing it regularly' as opposed to 'wearing it occasionally' or 'never wearing it'.

Although hijab refers to a physical barrier in the Qur'an, the contemporary use of hijab is interlinked with the concept of modesty (haya), piety (taqwa), and a marker of Muslim womanhood in general. Covering the hair is considered part of being modest, because the hair is considered a sign of beauty/vanity/sex appeal. One's conviction to wear the hijab and commit to it (i.e. while camping, traveling, sports; sometimes requiring alternatives like hoodies or beanies) can also be taken as one's commitment to being a 'true' Muslim. This is especially true in the case of the pressure felt by some female converts/reverts to Islam.

No hijab.

Divine order
I refer to the belief that hijab is mandated by God, according to verse 24:31 in the Qur'an. The dominant interpretation verse exhorts women to lengthen their khimar (headcovering) to cover the chest area, in the presence of a list of male relatives. The extent of the covering commonly refers to everything except the face and hands, although minority opinions consider the following to be also part of a women's awrah (private parts): face, eyes, voice.

Since the explanation of the hijab matrix promises to be super long, I'll write about women who believe that hijab is a religious obligation in this post, and women who do not think so in the next post :)

Muslimah 1: "I wear the hijab for the sake of God"
The hijabi in this category believes that she is fulfilling a divine requirement. Her reasons for doing so can be quite clear. She also enjoys the peace of mind of being able to carry out what she believes in. Of course, society can be encouraging or discouraging of this.

She can be the most fashionable of hijabis, owning 50 different scarves in all colours and patterns, and harmonising it with other accessories and her outfit, or prefer (long) plain scarves in neutral colours.

Some reasons she may give:
"I am preserving my modesty"
"God wants to protect women with the hijab"
"A woman is a pearl that should be hidden"
"Women are the symbols of Islam"
Muslimah 2. "I'm not ready yet"
This hijabi  believes that covering her hair is a divine requirement, but for some reason or other doesn't carry out her obligation yet. Sometimes she can be waiting to do it when she feels she has a higher level of faith or conviction. Sometimes she may think that because she is still 'sinning' e.g. dancing at nightclubs, drinking alcohol, not praying regularly, she doesn't see herself as being worthy of a headscarf -- a symbol of piety.

She can also feel conflicted and suffer cognitive dissonance because of the contradiction between her beliefs and her actions. But, she still hopes that she will be able to be a hijabi in the future.

Some reasons that she can give:
"I don't want to be a bad example of a hijabi"
"I'll wear it after I come back from haj (pilgrimage)"
"I'm not a good Muslim, so I don't want to mislead people" 
Many women who don't wear a headscarf regularly are treated as if they belong to this category, because the hijab is taken by the majority of Muslim society as an order from God. As we'll see in the next post, there are also a group of non-hijabi who don't necessarily feel this way, and find this attitude towards them highly patronising! (Read: Yours truly.)

Read Part 2 here.

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