Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The hijab matrix: Part 2

If you haven't read Part 1 of the hijab matrix, read it here first.

In these two posts, I wanted to highlight the different motivations behind the (non-)veiling practices of Muslim women. This blog mostly talks about issues of intersectionality, and within the issue of hijab there are already multiple intersections! Having been one of the four 'Muslimahs' discussed here, at different points in my life, I saw these posts as a way clarifying the issue for myself. And if you get something good out of it -- good on you!

I'm reproducing the matrix here for your reading convenience:

No Hijab
Divine order
Not divine

Muslimah 3: "Modesty is possible without hijab"
This Muslim woman is a practising believer in other visible aspects (e.g. praying, fasting), but she doesn't see hijab as obligatory and she doesn't wear it. This contradiction in her image as a non-hijabi Muslim can confuse people, or make them really concerned. If she has never worn it, they might assume that she is like Muslimah 2. If she used to wear it but no longer does, they will be really concerned. (Because she must have done something really bad to shame her into taking it off, right??)

So why does this woman find hijab unnecessary? It could be due to different interpretations of the Qur'an and ahadith. Although the vast majority of Muslims believe that hijab is obligatory (with some proponents upholding it as the 6th pillar of Islam!), there is a minority view that the word khimar in verse 24:31 may not be referring to a head-scarf, but rather, to any sort of covering. The emphasis is then on covering cleavage or the chest area in general, and not the hair specifically. (See here for an example of this reasoning.)

As for ahadith related to hijab, they may be regarded more as a source of history and not binding law. For example, the most common one cited to indicate the areas to cover (everything except the face and hands after puberty), may be taken more as an indicated of the social context of the Prophet's time and what was considered appropriate.

Needless to say, in a society with a dominant discourse of the obligatory nature of hijab, it is very difficult to state that one holds a minority view.

Muslimah 4: "Hijab has social benefits"
The women in this category do not see hijab  as obligatory for the same reasons as Muslimah 3, but choose to wear hijab. One woman could have been forced to wear it upon reaching puberty, and does not stop wearing it later in life even though she doesn't believe it is obligatory, because of the social risks.

Another woman may chose to wear it later in life because it makes things 'easier'. For example, she may be  active in the Muslim community; attends many religious seminars and classes, or works in a religious institution like a mosque or Islamic school, or finds that her social circles consist of many hijabis and she is constantly questioned for being the odd one out (or she is constantly told that she would look beautiful in a hijab).

Yet another woman could wear it for the social benefits such as appearing more religious, having more legitimacy to speak on religious issues, or reducing peer pressure to dress stylishly. (Although arguably, there is are entire separate fashion trends in the hijabi world. But you can always use the religious discourse of simplicity and modesty to justify your simple clothing choices, no one will fault you.)

One also can't argue that a hijab keeps you fair, protects your hair from exposure to the sun, and makes you more attractive due to the aesthetic nature of framing the face with fabric. In some societies, parents may trust their daughter more and let her go out late, date boys, go to school/work without fear that she will be up to no good.

There are also socio-political benefits: in Singapore for example, the hijab is increasingly a sign of middle-class sophisticated and modern religiosity young women. In Indonesia, scholars saw the rise of the jilbab in the late 1980s as 'resistance to an authoritarian and secular government' [1]. In the Netherlands, it can be a sign of solidarity against wider local and regional sentiments that are hostile to Islam and its visible Muslims.

I wanted to differentiate between the visual practice of hijab, and the beliefs that underlie it. Often a woman that wears hijab is expected to behave in a certain way, without considering her motivations (divine/social). A woman without a hijab suffers likewise from certain assumptions about her religiosity or morality, without considering her beliefs.

The first row of the table represents the dominant discourse in society and for this reason I find the second row of the table more interesting. To me, the motivations of the different categories get more and more interesting from 1 to 4.

I hope that this helps to hold back any quick judgments that we tend to pass on Muslim women because of what we see, because there is much we won't know.


Do you see yourself as any of these Muslimahs? Share your experiences!

1. Brenner, Suzanne. 1996. "Reconstructing Self and Society: Javanese Muslim Women and the Veil, American Ethnologist 23(4):673-97.


orange streaks said...

"One woman could have been forced to wear it upon reaching puberty, and does not stop wearing it later in life even though she doesn't believe it is obligatory, because of the social risks." This! Describes me. I have always wondered what it feels like to have wind in my hair and on bare shoulders. Hahaha. I'm not ruling out going on a honeymoon at some place with a private beach, to do just that. Thank God I know my fiance's views on hijab is at #2.

Sya said...

Thanks for sharing! The great thing is that there is a lot of space on God's big world, for you to feel the wind and sun! :)

Bunga said...

I'll put myself in #3. I do agree that the essence of the veil as mentioned in Qur'an is about modesty, not literally covering all part of yourselves but face and hands. I did use it for three years in junior high school only because it was part of the uniform.

The decision to not wear headscarves leads non-Indonesian friends to think that I'm not muslim, thus they're usually surprised when they found out. But it makes a good opportunity to explain that Islam can be interpreted differently, that ijtihad is an important (but less publicised) feature of Islam.


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