Issues in Interdisciplinarity 2019-20/The Power of the Hijab

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The Hijab through an anthropological lense[edit]

Western feminist speeches give the “veil” a connotation of inferiority; it became a symbol for the subordination and inferiority of the Muslim woman. Although some undeniably defend this argument like Saba Mahmood in his work Politics of Piety (2004), the “veil” originally had a radically different meaning. In fact, Islam wasn´t the first religion to introduce the piece of clothing: it existed for men and women in Hellenic, Judaic, Byzantine and Balkan cultures. The “veil” did evolve into a distinct and characteristic meaning in Arab society however. The women in Arabo-Islamic societies held important positions (in terms of religious and social life of the community) unlike under Christian and Judaic traditions, where the concept of purity and impurity of women and connections between womanhood and nature reign. This meant they had a bearing on individual self-image and the public and religious sense of self: “Any woman who prays with her head unveiled dishonours her head – it is the same as if her head were shaven. For if a woman will not veil herself then she should cut off her hair, but if it is a disgraceful for a woman to be shorn of shaven, let her wear a veil. For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man.” (Corinthians I: 3-7).It originally wasn’t exclusively a piece of clothing for women. Turkish and Persian represented often Prophet Muhammad with his head covered by a white veil. In fact, according to the Qur’an, clothing was a metaphor for a sacred divide since humans weren’t naked in their beginnings: it separated obedience from disobedience, God from Satan, mortal from immortal, heaven from earth. The original piece of clothing wasn’t the Hijab: this term became frequently used when the veil became the centre of feminist and nationalist discourse in Egypt during its British rule. Only one of the Qur’an’s references to the hijab concerns women’s clothing: when the hand of Umar (the Prophet’s companion touched the hand of one of the Prophet’s wives during a meal, the hijab was prescribed. The “verse of the veil”: “O believers, enter not the dwellings of the Prophet, unless invited…And when you ask of his wives anything, ask from behind a hijab. That is purer for your hearts and for their hearts” (33:53) is interesting. The piece of clothing represented the need to protect a woman’s right to privacy regarding the comportment of men who are seen as slaves of lust and desire: men had to ask permission and talk to the Prophet’s wives from behind a partition or curtain. So the hijab also has a separating aspect, not just when it comes to gender, but also deity from mortals, wrongdoers from the righteous; the Prophet’s wives held a special position: “O wives of the Prophet, you are not like other women” (Sura 33:31). The hijab isn’t the only piece of clothing concerned: each way to cover women’s head is an indicator of their dedication to Islam. One of the most covering, the niqab (covers the head, face and torso) gives the women a sense of virtuosity in retrospect of those who wear the hijab. The correlation of “veil” with “seclusion” fails to capture the Arabic nuances and oversimplifies a complex phenomenon. It does put women in a particular position however: the wives of the Prophet were to protect their privacy, go out only when necessary and avoid exhibitionist dresses after his death. This marks the restraining of Muslim women to one man only, through the veil that sanctifies and preserves their marriage. It is unequal however as men are allowed to have up to four wives.

Political view of the Hijab in the western world[edit]

The Hijab : a tool to patriarchal domination ?[edit]

Wearing the hijab is directly related to the male-female relationship. It is a very sensitive subject to analyse as they are several opposed opinions depending on  countries and their political and social landscape.

For some, it’s a way for men to dominate females, suppressing their femininity and sexual appeal represented by their hair. The power of hijab is used to limit an exchange between a women and a man outside of marriage. It protects women from undermining morality and Islam rules by avoiding the sexual desire of other men in the public space. Feminists consider that wearing the hijab is not a free decision, that it is imposed by males to limit women’s roles to household tasks and the education of children. As a consequence, females are excluded from the labor market with no economical role to play. It creates a financial dependancy that strengthens the husband’s domination.

Two different perceptions of the Hijab in France and in the UK[edit]

Is the hijab a threat to social cohesion ? The hijab as a source of cultural enrichment and social integration

In France, society is built around the principle of republican unity and secularism. Unity doesn’t accept plurality it is built around the marginalization of differences and the affirmation of the homogeneity of the social body. Hijab is presented as a threat to social cohesion and has been forbidden by law in the public space. (rechercher la loi). It provoked a controversal debate leading to the stigmatisation of the muslim community it has been used by nationalists movements to fuel their racist propaganda. Didn’t it create more divison than the expected social cohesion ?  

In Great-Britain, the approach is to consider society as a juxtaposition of communities with different values. By allowing communities to display their particularities expectation is to promote cultural enrichment, diversity and inclusion. Hijab isn’t seen as a threat but as an additional contribution to promote cultural enrichment and social integration.

Does the hijab subjugates women and deprive them of liberty ? Or is it just a mean of expressing their peculiarity and cultural richness ? In the end, this debate might be disproportionate and the hijab might be just a garment like any other ?

Social preconceptions and misconception on the Hijab[edit]

Cultural oppression hidden by the image of a multicultural world[edit]

Today, a ethnic change has hit Europe, as Algerian and Moroccan communities are expanding in France, and a similar process is happening in the United Kingdom with Egyptian and Indian communities. When you walk through the streets of any European capitals, a thousand languages are spoken, and any ethnicity and culture is represented. We now live in a multicultural world. However, this discussion of a multicultural world and of integration opens many controversial questions. When we talk about ethnic minorities, issues concerning gender and women’s rights are often linked with religion. In fact, with the recent feminist movements, heads have turned to the arab world, more specifically the muslim religion. Wearing a headscarf, or some form of cover over the head and/or face, is part of the arab-muslim culture and religion. The religion’s sacred text indicate that a women must be covered in order to maintain and preserve her purity. At a first glance this may seem as an oppressive measure practiced in a highly patriarchal society. That is why headscarves have been negatively perceived in the western world. The latter has built a social stigma around headscarves, more commonly known as hijabs, especially after the 9/11 events, when the Western world became fearful of the Middle Eastern culture. This led to many integration problems: veiled women are less likely to find a job, to be able to send their children to schools and to fully integrate a community. The American view of the Islamic world has built many preconceptions and misconceptions of the culture. How many times have people described muslims as “terrorists”? Prejudice today has become unbreakable. The hijab, main symbol of the muslim community, has become an object to fear, to denigrate, to ignore. But, those who do not know the culture cannot understand the reasons behind women’s choice of wearing the hijab.

The hijab is a way to build and feel a stronger connection with your religion. Everyday of your life you are affirming your belief in God. Just as the jewish religion asks men to wear kippahs, and christian preachers wear crosses around their necks, the hijab allow you to confirm your muslim identity. As we previously said, in this multicultural world, that is slowly uniformizing, it is hard to keep your cultural identity. The hijab is a mean to remember your roots and keep your identity.

The Hijab: a new form of feminism[edit]

Nowadays, the hijab has also become a the symbol of a new type of feminism. In fact, many muslim women choose to veil themselves. In a world focused on looks and appearances, covering yourself is a way to highlights your intellectual abilities, and to reject preconceptions based on your exterior physique. Many women found that being veiled allowed them to have a voice on the political scene, a place that has longily been dominated by men. The hijab projects a sense of modesty, a need to stay grounded and connected with your own culture and identity.

Many western countries, such as France, have prohibited the wear of the hijab, claiming it is a liability to national security. However, this creates ethnic prejudices and stigmas that harden the process of national integration.

Others reject the idea that it represents a blind submission to men and religion but consider it’s a personal choice that reflects their values and their identity. They claim the freedom to dispose of their bodies and to dress themselves as they wish. They defend a society where everyone can display disctinctive signs without being excluded from economic and social life. Nevertheless, the power of the hijab depends on the political and social environment of the country.

At the political level, this division can be related to the one that opposes the supporters of the French Republic and the defenders of the Anglo-Saxon community and liberal model.

Conclusion[edit]

Does the hijab subjugates women and deprive them of liberty ? Or is it just a mean of expressing their peculiarity and cultural richness ? In the end, this debate might be disproportionate and the hijab might be just a garment like any other ?

There is 2 major models of society : one that is more about universalism and one about diversity and the agglomeration of cultural wealth. Does the Hijab give power to women or does it on the contrary deprive them of individual liberty in the way that it is a mean for men to assert their patriarchal power. Overall, Islam relies on the subjugation of women on many levels, but the veil should not be seen as the perfect representation of it. In a way, the veil deprives women of their autonomy as much as it grants them power. Women who grew up in Western countries claim that is their choice to wear the veil as it allows them to avoid men in public spaces. Nevertheless, there is an obvious hint of patriarchy in the fact that women religiously need to wear something to hide their bodies – it marks their belonging to one man only. This asymmetry is the key of inequality in genders in Islam.