by Aya Al-Alami

April 2019

This thesis seeks to analyze and explore the headscarf for Muslim women throughout the Eastern and Western worlds. Views from either side are equally demanding on women – from France’s ban through a secularist, “laïcité,” standpoint, to the Middle East’s enforcing of the scarf, equating it to purity. Either approach is harmful to a woman’s identity; as France’s extreme secularism begins to borderline Islamophobia and racism, while the Middle East’s enforcement allows for a loss of identity. Research through the paper will focus on the question of choice in the context of the headscarf, and how it affects Muslim women’s identities. It will attempt to assess how they seek to individualize themselves in societies that have an inherent problem with Muslim women. 

As a product of living in a patriarchal world, both men and women endure emotional and physical suffering. While men’s suffering may be attributed to their own doing, or self-inflicted, others may very well be victims to the system. On the other hand, women may be “footsoldiers of the patriarchy” (Eltahawy, 2018) and/or victims of it. Footsoldiers of the patriarchy internalize what they learned from the system in place, giving them an illusion of control and grandeur, feeling entitled to impose its harmful effects on others. In this case, as is the case with men who benefit from the patriarchy, our society is hindered from being able to move forward. It negatively affects the lives of women and their psychological being. 

In this paper, I will present two sides of the same issue where Muslim women will be the focal point. From either side of the world, Muslim women, specifically and recently, are the target of the patriarchy. On one side, we have governments, institutions, and civilians telling women to cover up, whether it be just the hijab, the niqab, or even the burqa. They are told that women are impure if they do not wear the hijab, that they will attract general negativity from men (from verbal harassment to sexual assault). Their response to these demands about their attire can affect their status in society, their family’s reputation, and determine if they will get married or get a job. On the other side of the world, Muslim women, who wear the hijab, are told to remove it to unleash their identity. According to those who have adopted this mentality, they believe that by wearing a hijab, you are hiding a core part of yourself: your head and your face – what is most essential to identifying a human being. Evolutionarily, humans learn to trust one another when they are able to see each other’s faces and open palms. The West also believes women who wear the hijab are forced to wear it, as an oppressive symbol rather than an individual choice. 

While exploring both stances from either side of the world, I also want to explore what women themselves want. This is where the world does not do this issue justice: ask Muslim women what they want, why they wear the hijab, why they don’t, and their general experience as Muslim women in their environment. Looking at it from outside the context of Islam, we see other sects of religions and how they modernized their rules to fit today’s world. They allow women to lead prayer, host sermons, and have a more active and vocal role within their religious community. This will be reflected throughout my paper, as I want to draw attention to how scholars of Islam may contribute to “modernizing” the religion and allow it to pertain to the rules of modern life.

Within this paper, I would also like to explore personal stories, as a means of providing background to my intense passion for this subject. My equally Eastern and Western identity has put me in the middle of this discussion at many different points in my life. In my mid-twenties, I feel as though my friends, family, and I lived through many experiences that further complicated this ongoing issue for us. This paper is allowing me to finally vocalize my stance on the issue, while providing closure. My future career will involve me advocating for women’s rights in the Middle East – I cannot write about change without participating in it.

France

France is visible in targeting women who wear the hijab, making it difficult for them to simply exist. France’s headscarf controversies seem to stem from racism, secularism, individualism, and sexuality. Their form of secularism, called laïcité, takes on an extreme view of all religions. Laïcité “refers not simply to separation of church and state but to the role of the state in protecting individuals from the claims of religion” (Scott, 2007). While this may sound fair in theory, it is difficult to execute it without the use of force. People do not respond well to force, and attempting to create a society in which there are no differences allows for a new set of problems to arise. As social creatures, humans are naturally expressive. This includes how they physically present themselves, and whether they wish to publicly display their religious background via jewelry or clothes. 

Therefore, those in France protecting Muslim women from a lack of individualism are being inconsistent and unfair in their Western interpretation of a religion foreign to them. They insist “the headscarf was an endorsement of submission, an abandonment of individuality” (Scott, 2007). Shelina Zahra, a writer for Al Jazeera, states that if people think every woman who wears the hijab doesn’t do it out of free will, then they “violate a core principle of feminism where we uplift a woman’s right to control her own destiny by trusting her ability to choose” (Zahra, 2013).

The secular prohibition of hijab as an encroachment on the Muslim woman’s “freedom” is ultimately about Westerners not grasping the true concept of choosing modesty behind the hijab and not trusting Muslim women to make the right choices for themselves. This allows for radical feminist groups in Europe – namely Femen, whose headquarters happen to be in Paris, France – to push a political, social, and anti-religious agenda onto men and women who do not align with what they believe. With their slogan being, “Nos seins, nos armes! (Our breasts, our weapons!),” its tactics of shocking traditional figures such as priests and women with hijab by appearing nude in public, is without a doubt not applicable nor convincing to many women around the world (Femen.org 2018). 

This faux feminism has attracted the spotlight, removing it from real issues women and men face in which feminism stands for to help fix (Crosby, 2014). The elimination of religion is a privilege within itself, where a country like France that is not predominantly Muslim has the leverage to achieve. A woman who chooses to wear the hijab makes a commitment to it, a topic to be visited later on. By establishing a rule knowing it does not apply to all its citizens, France participates in othering Muslim women. Although they treat Muslim men with the same animosity, with “depictions of Arab men associated with criminality and sex, it was Arab women who piqued the imagination of French colonists” (Scott, 2007). Muslim women who wear the hijab are more easily identifiable, thus making them a more obvious target to France’s laws on banning the hijab in public institutions. Those who side with governments and lawmakers taking a stance against the hijab, labelling it as oppressive, fail to understand that they are being oppressive by insisting the removal of it. This imposition of cultural hegemony on Muslim women in France makes them feel like second-class citizens, enforcing their inferiority not only from a sexist perspective, but a cultural one as well.

The Middle East

With Islam being the second-largest and one of the fastest growing religions (Liu, 2018), Muslims spread all around the world as a product of globalization. This attracts more conflict in areas where they are not the majority. However, even where Muslim women are the majority, they are left with a similar treatment of not being trusted to make choices for themselves. Muslim scholars range in extremism according to what country they are in, their political background, and their social background. 

Before delving into the discussion of the Middle East’s patriarchal stance, it is important to identify the literal meaning of the hijab, a veil worn by some Muslim women “in the presence of any male outside of their immediate families” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hijab). The hijab is typically advised to be worn by women after they go through puberty, as a way to assert their womanhood and enter adulthood. Adolescence is naturally around the time when boys and girls become curious about sexuality in all its forms. Thus, Islam has asserted modesty of both genders, and created parts of the body that are meant by the religion to be covered, called “awrah.” 

The awrah of a man refers to the part of the body from the navel to the knees. The awrah for women is more complicated, as it varies between prayer, in front of her husband, among women, in front of male children, and in front of men she cannot marry (including family members). A hijab typically covers the hair, neck and chest, but some women go as far as covering half or all their face. Most contemporary scholars agree that women’s covering of the face was not mandated by any form of religious text. However, scholars like Al-Razi “held that by covering her face a married woman made clear that she was not available” (Intimate parts in Islam).

It is important to note that even throughout the Middle East, there are different levels of insistence on the hijab. The Gulf holds a firmer stance than the Levant, but holy Muslim cities in the Levant hold firm stances as well. It is mandatory for women in Saudi Arabia and Iran to wear the hijab, and it is likely that the West’s extreme reaction stems from these minority cases. While the impacts of forcing women to wear the hijab are indisputable, they do remain the minority in the context of whether women have a choice in wearing it or not. 

Written texts of Islam are debated on whether the Quran and Hadith display any explicit words on women wearing the hijab. It was understood that the Prophet Mohammad’s wives covered their hair and dressed modestly. The question, then becomes, is the hijab an invention and a product of social and cultural mores in the Middle East and the Muslim world? There is an account of a story, as explained by Muslim author, Sheema Khan: 

Shortly before his death, the Prophet travelled with a trusted companion named AlFadl. During their trip, they passed a group of women. AlFadl began to stare at the face of one who is described as beautiful. The Prophet physically turned AlFadl’s face away. He stared again. The Prophet repeated his gesture. He did not order the woman to cover her face. He placed the onus on the man to refrain from gazing, in compliance with Quranic directives. (Khan, 2009)

This story displays a lack of blame on the woman from the Prophet, who is regarded as the most important human figure in Islam, and instead allowing AlFadl to carry the responsibility of turning away in silence. This is important for both societies, where both are quick to blame women for harassment on all ends of the spectrum. While the focus is usually on the woman and what she was wearing, where she was, and who she was with, attention should be turned to men and how they are responding to women going about their daily lives. Unfortunately, this does not seem to represent the typical, modern-day Middle Eastern man. Blame is easily thrown on the woman. 

History of Modesty

Modesty has always been encouraged from the context of religion, in addition to the religion of Islam. “Many Mormons, Amish, Orthodox Jews and Christians promote modest appearance, among men and women, to various degrees,” according to Sarah Quinn of NPR. Certain religions assign certain clothes to be worn by both men and women. It is important to question why religions have a history of promoting modesty. Why is the human body, seen as God-given by those who practice religion, necessary to hide? Perhaps it is a tactic used to control, placing more rules on women. These rules requiring more physical veiling of women subconsciously affects their identities and their exposure to the world. 

In the context of Islam, it is widely disputed as to who and where it is said that women should wear the veil. Some believe it is simply God’s word, as briefly mentioned in the Quran: 

And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, [a list of relatives], [household servants], or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! turn ye all together towards Allah, that ye may attain Bliss. (24:31)

Others believe it was Umar ibn el Khattab who issued the ruling of the scarf, as there is a hadith explaining that Umar issued the Prophet’s wives cover up so they are not targeted. It is widely debated and heavily misunderstood, as some argue the demand for wearing the hijab applies to Prophet Muhammad’s wives only.

Men have a lower list of demands within religion. Though on the other hand, religions tend to treat men as though they cannot control themselves around women. This may produce a self-fulfilling prophecy for men, as they may act that way for the sake of its easiness, and blame religion as reasoning or an excuse. Not only can false interpretations cause harmful gender divisions, but they also help men maintain that feeling of superiority towards women – even if they attack women verbally, physically, or sexually. There are countries in the Middle East that will punish a woman for being sexually assaulted or raped, including forcing her to marry her rapist. A woman is seen as impure when she is no longer a virgin prior to marriage, thus justifying forced marriage to her rapist. These social standards and political policies may seem off-topic, but they coincide and connect with forcing women to cover themselves up and connecting a woman’s social status to her body.

Diversity in Muslim Women’s Stances

Since both sides of the world seem to have an inherent problem with Muslim women, it is important to hear stories from the source, Muslim women, directly. Though Islam does not carry a strict stance on the hijab, it does carry a lack of progressive views when it comes to women. For example, while Jordan insists they are all equal before the law, there are still gender inequalities that stem from traditional gender roles. Women are expected to marry early and tend to domestic responsibilities. There is a presumption that men, in turn, will be the sole financial providers for the family. Also, “because men are free to divorce and stop supporting their wives if they are ‘disobedient,’ another law created an obligatory fund for divorced women, guaranteeing them a settlement from their ex-husband.” (Alami, 2010) In Egypt, honor killings, sexual assault, and female genital mutilation happen relatively regularly. A staggering 98% of foreign women and 83% of native women said they had been sexually harassed in Egypt (BBC, 2012). Women who wear the hijab and the burqa in Egypt are also victims of assault (Estrin, 2011). Nevertheless, laws vary vastly from state to state, and it is not clear whether the Quran or Hadith express support for these greatly specific and patriarchal rules that place women at a disadvantage. 

The feminist author, and a Muslim who once wore the hijab, Mona Eltahawy calls for sexual revolution in the Middle East (Eltahawy, 2016). This includes a political and cultural revolution, as they are very closely intertwined with Islam. The revolution has to start from the people themselves and funnel itself up to the lawmakers. Since it may be hard to reverse years of patriarchal rules of society, it may be useful to elect more progressive men and women into Middle Eastern governments to issue less severe stances on women, and the hijab specifically. 

The issue of policies and attitudes about the hijab ultimately stem from interpretations from the East and West. Some women choose to wear the hijab for the sole purpose of empowerment, like Nadiya Takolia who says, “Wearing the hijab doesn’t have to be about religious dedication. For me, it is political, feminist and empowering…It is me telling the world that my femininity is not available for public consumption. I am taking control of it, and I don’t want to be part of a system that reduces and demeans women” (Takolia, 2012).

This greatly independent stance turns the idea of Muslim women as victims of hijab on its head. Instead of playing into the role of victimhood, Takolia chose a route of direct and personal control, where she can decide her intention of wearing the hijab and how she wants people from both Eastern and Western worlds to view her.

There are also other feminist Muslims who are conducting this sexual revolution by altering key rules of Islamic worship and conduct. Muslim female scholar Amina Wadud, who converted to Islam at the age of twenty, was the first woman to lead a mixed congregational prayer and Friday sermon. This is very rare for women, and could carry penalties in many Muslim countries. Further, her stance on the hijab is summed up by her quote, “If you think the difference between heaven and hell is 45 inches of material, boy will you be surprised” (Hamdah, 2018).

Directing Attention to Men

Men from both backgrounds certainly have been detrimental to women with this issue. Nevertheless, they can and should become allies towards the cause of women’s personal and social freedom. If society is collectively able to unlearn certain mentalities and begin a journey of self-awareness, the situation of women’s oppression could be greatly improved. Realistically, what women can do immediately is to continue to voice their opinions, stories, and experiences. This can be done in a way to include men in the conversation, and understand how they can be of help. With most men silent at present, they are doing more harm than benefitting either the Eastern or Western oppressions Muslim women deal with. 

Men’s historical upper-hand and leadership roles illustrate a sense of entitlement that allows them to believe they can tell women what to wear or what not to wear. This is present in cultures around the world, and certainly not limited to France or the Middle East. Because women’s freedom and attire is a global issue, more awareness towards solutions must constantly be discussed, so humanity can move forward as a whole. 

Personal Experiences

Coming from a Palestinian background, first-generation American, my family has attempted to hold onto its religion. My siblings and I were sent to a private Muslim school from kindergarten through 12th grade. My sister and I had a completely different experience than my brother – literally universes apart in our experiences. As young girls, we were told more women will reside in hell because we assumedly get our eyebrows done (apparently prohibited in Islam) and gossip more than men do. I grew up with teachers tracking the number of days I would be on my period, so they would know if I was skipping out on afternoon prayer. I was told I don’t love Allah because I don’t wear a scarf. We were regularly and openly judged by the teachers and administration for whatever they found out about our private lives through our social media accounts, how we physically present ourselves, and the length of our uniform skirt (despite it being an all girls’ school). The personal side effects of things I endured in that school include a psychiatric diagnosis of trauma.

These experiences led me to realize that religion was being inappropriately used to push a patriarchal agenda, causing me to temporarily lose trust in my own religion. It is certainly a terrifying thought process and experience for a teenager, feeling too foreign to live in the United States (U.S.) and too foreign to live in the Middle East.

But 9/11 defined my central experiences with respect to my identity as a Muslim in the U.S. Friends and family of all ages either adopted wearing the hijab as a means of defying the tactless remarks on Muslims, or others removed the hijab to maintain safety in a world of unknown threats. Perhaps these events, in addition to living away from the Middle East, swayed me from wearing the headscarf. My mother and most women in my family in her generation wear it. For them, the hijab is a matter of fulfilling God’s word – they are not necessarily interested in an empowerment perspective. My sister, on the hand, may have taken it off as a way of aligning more with her true identity – which felt more empowering for her. 

Growing up with these issues and questions clouding my thinking forced me into an early, painful journey of self-awareness, questioning my existence, identity, religion, family, and morals. For Arab-Americans like me, there is an added layer of race and racialization by the majority community. Some would say I am white while others say I am “white-passing,” and having to check off “White” on the U.S. census documents while being treated with discrimination, or “not quite white” (Samhan 1999) further complicates my experience. Lastly, being Palestinian and growing up feeling as if I never had a geographical land to call home allowed for greater complications of identity.

Conclusion

The hijab is a multilayered and multifaceted concept within itself. All of the world’s major religions call for modesty, but the focus on Islam provides more insight to the harsher rules incorporated with the hijab. Things go wrong when religion and politics are mixed, which ironically is the case in both the Eastern and Western worlds. Around the globe, the issue of the hijab ultimately is ingrained in men and women’s minds, making it a social and cultural issue as well. The underlying patriarchal ideology behind politics and religion seems to surround Muslim women with hostility. Though difficult to reach a solution, an important step would be to listen to the voices of as many Muslim women as possible, elect more into office – since it will remain a political issue – and encourage more conversations about the hijab that enable Muslim women to find male allies. The more people understand how simple a choice wearing the hijab could be, the more the world can focus on the experience women are facing around the world. 

 

Works Cited

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