How the hijab became the symbol of so much tension in the world
At first glance, the hijab seems innocuous enough – a medium-sized square piece of cloth that Muslim women use to cover their hair and neck, much in the same way that Orthodox Jewish women wear wigs or women amish wear beanies.
In reality, however, it is a powerful and easily weaponized symbol.
Militarization goes both ways. In some places, it is addressed to the women who wear them; in others, to women who refuse. In Iran, people have been protesting against the government since Mahsa Amini, 22, died on September 16, following her arrest by the country’s so-called “morality police” for allegedly breaking the obligation to wear a hijab that fully covers a woman’s hair. Thousands of women took to the streets in cities across Iran, taking off their hijabs and cutting their hair in solidarity. The protests, which now include men, have spread and been met with further deadly crackdowns.
In other places and at other times, the rules of hijab have been the opposite.
Almost two decades ago in France, which has one of the largest Muslim populations in Europe, the government banned the wearing of religious symbols in public schools, and the hijab landed on the list. In 2010, France became the first European country to ban the wearing of full-face masks in public. Other countries in Europe have similar hijab bans. In Turkey, the rules have changed with the changes of government; a ban was eased by a more Islamic government in 2008, then completely lifted in 2017. In Karnataka, India, where a ban on religious clothing was imposed in February, Muslim girls appealed to the Supreme Court to be allowed to wear hijab to school. They say they are forced to choose between religious observance and education.
There are other such cases, and other historical examples in which the hijab has caused tension and even violence.
But what is the hijab, really, and how did it become such a powerful symbol?
Hijab 101: a story
“Hijab” is the Arabic word for barrier, and it was originally used to refer to a partition or a curtain. The practice of women wearing a veil began long before the birth of the Islamic prophet Muhammed, and in some ancient societies, including Mesopotamia, the hijab signified high social status as it was difficult to perform any kind of manual labor while while wearing one.
Several verses in the Bible refer to Jewish and Christian women wearing the veil. In Genesis 24:65, Rebecca covers herself when Isaac approaches her. According to 1 Corinthians 11:5: “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head – it is the same as having her head shaved.”
Over time, the headscarf has become more closely associated with Islam. The Quran includes call men and women at Dress modestly: “Tell believing men to lower their eyes and keep their private parts. … And tell the believing women to lower their eyes and guard their private parts; that they must not display their beauty and their ornaments, except what (must ordinarily) appear from them” (Chapter 24, verses 30-31). Another refers to a specific covering for women: “O Prophet! Tell your wives and daughters and all [other] believers, let them draw their cloaks (veils) over their bodies that they may be known and not molested” (Chapter 33, verse 59).
Initially, many scholars believed that the hijab was intended only for Muhammed’s wives, but a generation after his death the practice spread among his followers. Over time, it has become a key part of a Muslim woman’s attire.
There are different ways for a woman to cover herself. The hijab is simply a scarf that hides the hair, not to be confused with the “niqab”, which conceals the head, face and body leaving an opening over the eyes, or the burqa, which is similar to the niqab but place a mesh screen over the eye opening. Even among women who only wear the headscarf, the practice takes different forms around the world.
And many Muslim women choose not to cover up at all.
The rules: It depends on where you live
With all these different practices, what does religion require?
This question is not easy to answer; it is a question of interpretation. While the Quran’s requirement of modesty is clear, the precise mandates are not, and today membership takes many forms. Some believe that the veil is not a requirement in the Quran, while others interpret it to mean that no part of a woman’s body should be visible. Women are generally allowed to be discovered in the presence of other women and close male relatives.
In the modern era, hijab requirements have changed with the political winds – as in the case of Turkey over the past decade. The hijab is now compulsory in some countries where it was previously prohibited. Iran is an excellent example; the country banned the hijab in 1936 in an effort to modernize the country and promote European dress as a means of erasing tribal and class differences. The hijab later became a symbol of opposition to the Shah and colonialism; the obligation to wear it, at the heart of current tensions, only became apparent after the Islamic revolution of 1979.
A similar development has occurred in Afghanistan. From the late 1950s, women in Afghanistan were encouraged not to wear the veil in public, as part of social reforms; it is now needed there. The hijab has become compulsory in the Indonesian province of Aceh, but this is no longer the case in Saudi Arabia. And in countries at the other end of the spectrum – especially those in Europe – the hijab is banned in specific places, such as schools and government buildings, and the burqa and niqab are more widely banned.
Rules made by men, consequences felt by women
A constant in almost all the different rules and regulations involving the hijab is that the men in power write the rules and exercise control over the appearance of women. There are women who don’t want to cover up and women who do, and in many places they are not allowed to make their own choices. Or they take great risks in the choices they make, whether to put on or take off the hijab.
Many who oppose the hijab, especially those in the West, believe that the headscarf is a tool of oppression against women – that those who choose to wear it are unaware of this oppression and have suffered a washout of brain by their religion.
As the French historian Nadia Hamour has argued, “It must be explained tirelessly that the veil and the burqa are a symbol of the oppression of women, a mark of sexual segregation, the marginalization of women and the appropriation of power by men”.
Others believe that the idea that women wearing the hijab should be saved from oppression simplifies matters. “It’s almost like talking from above, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing, you’re being brainwashed.'” Semiha Topal, visiting assistant professor of religious studies at William and Mary, said to Grid. This, she says, is humiliating for women who choose to cover up.
Patriarchy is often encountered, at least in part, by feminism, and the hijab was no exception. Women say they want to be free to make their own choices about whether to wear the veil. And there are many who want it, for various reasons ranging from resistance to conformity. Again, it’s complicated. Some women say they choose to cover up because of religious observance; others say they think it protects them from unwanted male gazes; still others say it is a way of adhering to the Quranic call for modesty. For many Muslim women, the hijab is a constant symbolic reminder of their faith, in the same way that a wedding ring is a reminder of their marital vows.
And yet, even the modesty argument has two sides. “On the one hand, it’s supposed to avoid reducing yourself to your body, your sexuality, to put your personality before sexuality, but it also works the other way because you can’t hide your sexuality. when you wear the hijab,” Topal said. “It’s a sign of being female, mark your gender again and again. It has all these complexities.
Religion, politics and personal choice
Why has the hijab generated so much excitement and legislation over the centuries?
In countries where the wearing of the hijab is restricted, those who support these restrictions see the hijab both as an affront to assimilation and, particularly in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, as a symbol of militant Islamism, which they confuse with Islam itself. In countries that impose the wearing of the hijab, it is a means of controlling women and limiting their role in society.
Many Iranian women who now march against hijab mandates actually choose to wear them. For them, and for many Muslim women around the world, the issue is not about religion but about politics and freedom. It’s a simple but profound notion: women want to be free to make their own decisions.
From this perspective, anti-hijab laws designed to free them from oppression are not the answer, because these laws are themselves oppressive. In 2021, when French lawmakers proposed legislation banning girls under 18 from wearing the hijab, the internet exploded with a #HandsOffMyHijab (#PasToucheAMonHijab) hashtag that went viral.
“We constantly vilify these morality police in Iran and Afghanistan, but in countries like France, if you wear the full veil, the police will tell you not to wear it and give you a sanction. How is it different? Topal said. “The state tells them what to wear and what not to wear, it’s a way of controlling women’s bodies. This is the main problem. It is neither religion, nor Islam, nor any other religion.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for writing this article.