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Life Arts    H4'ed 7/27/18

Hijab: A Symbol of Domination or a Symbol of Freedom?

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When you hear the word Islam, what immediately comes to your mind? I presume "hijab" might be the word for most people. Candidly, what is the obsession with Muslim women covering their heads even though Quran does not overtly require that? And why has head covering turned into the most visible sign of the collective identity for Muslim societies? It seems that there is a broader hidden agenda behind the veiling of Muslim women, that of controlling women's lives and their bodies in mostly male-dominated Islamic nations in which misogynistic attitudes are widespread. In addition, I believe it is utilized by Islamic religious rulers and leaders to resist the so-called influence of Western culture that, in their view, is corrupt.

Hijab is being promoted to denote many things: the emblem of communal identity, the sign of modesty, and as the means of protecting women from sexual advances, a farfetched claim that is not supported by evidence. Statistics show that In Muslim countries, women are the targets of sexual harassment more frequently than they are in non-Muslim countries where women are free to choose how they want to dress. Consider the UN report on sexual harassment in Muslim countries, either verbal or physical, as reported by female respondents--Egypt 99.3%, Yemen 90%, and 86.5% in Saudi Arabia. These kinds of statistics are reported even in light of the known fact that the incidences of sexual harassment typically remain unreported in Muslim countries for the fear of shame.

Support for women concealing their bodies is also overwhelming in the Muslim world. According to the PEW Research Center, when people were asked what kind of dress is appropriate for women in public, a substantial majority of respondents favored veiling, from complete burqa to a head covering--Pakistan 98%, Saudi Arabia 97%, Iraq 97%, Egypt 96%, Turkey 68%, and Lebanon 51%. According to the same survey, in many Muslim countries, a small percentage of people agree that it should be up to the women to wear whatever they wish; for example, 14% in Egypt, 22% in Pakistan, and 27% in Iraq, indicating weak support for women when it comes to choosing how they would like to appear in public.

It is ironic to know that while there is no direct mention of head covering or a mandate for women to wear hijab in Quran, it has been elevated into the hallmark of women's piety and the most strictly enforced policy in many Muslim countries in which noncompliance results in humiliation and harsh punishment. Even if it is not mandatory in some countries, girls in Muslim families are brought up to cover their heads and, therefore, are framed since childhood to wear hijab. They will be castigated and often rejected from family and Muslim circles if they do not veil.

Hijab that becomes a strict religious duty at certain age is viewed by many as a constraint that prevents women from reaching their potential and flourishing career wise and otherwise. It often puts them in the position of being victims of prejudice, bulling, or harassment by their peers, coworkers, or others. Frequent heartbreaking incidences in Iran of zealous, brainwashed men spraying acid on the faces of innocent women have been reported recently. The ill-informed, naïvebrainwashed perpetrators believe that women who are not complying with the Islamic dress code corrupt society and undermine Islamic decency. Therefore, these women deserve that kind of punishment.

In March 2002, 15 young girls were burned to death in Saudi Arabia as their school became engulfed in fire. They rushed to get out of the burning school but were prevented from doing so by Saudi's religious police who claimed that the girls did not have the proper head covering that would allow them to come out in public. Apparently, the girls could not get to their hijabs as they rushed for safety. The police even prevented rescue workers from entering the burning building because the girls were not wearing correct Islamic dress. These kinds of inhumane travesties are being committed in the name religious modesty and piety. Conversely, many hate crimes have been reported in the U.S. recently against Muslim girls solely because they were wearing hijab. As concerned parents, Muslims living in America should not coerce their children into the position where they are exposed to the risk of being the targets of bullying or hate crimes.

Ed Husain, a Muslim scholar, critic, and the author of a newly published book The House Of Islam, A Global History rightfully believes that hijab is the consequence of the influence of Salafism and Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia on the world of Islam, especially, I may add, on non-Arabic-speaking countries like Iran that follow Islamic rules nominally and essentially with "blind eyes." Many such countries, I believe, act more Catholic than the Pope, or as we say in Farsi, as a "bowl hotter than the soup"! Husain also offers a judicious explanation as to why there is an urge in Muslim societies to control women. Muslims have lost their dignity and their glorious past, he asserts, something that they are still overwhelmingly obsessed with and frustrated about. Unable to tolerate the resulting shame and the grief, they have resorted to extremism, but more importantly, to the blame game. They accuse America and the West for their misfortune and thus feel compelled to resist whatever is Western, especially the liberation of women. Hijab and other forms of censorship are like a regrettable-necessity scheme that keeps Muslim male clerics in power. If their followers are exposed to Western democracy, freedom, and the Western way of life, they will revolt and no longer obey their rules.

I doubt that you can create a safe and healthy environment by forcing women to conceal their bodies as some apologists maintain. The problem is not the choice of attire, but the attitudes of men that need to be changed. The theocratic rulers in Muslim counties must understand that the threat to Muslim society does not come from Western culture, free choice, exposure to online resources like social media, or the way women appear in public. The danger is rooted in the mentality of Muslim men who have been historically preached to undermine the rights of women and treat them as their subordinates and their property. The men's fixation on controlling women's lives is the problem.

Given the disposition of women in the pre-Islamic era, known as the time of Jahiliyyah (ignorance) in the Arabian Peninsula, the prophet of Islam was trying to liberate women from the shackles of unjust treatment. He tried to emancipate them by repudiating the misogynistic tribal norms of his time. He did that for the sake of women and social justice, not in reaction to or the blaming of the West for their problems. If Muhammad, the founder of Islam, is considered a woman liberator, as many Muslim scholars believe, why then are more modern day Islamic rulers so unreceptive, unyielding, when it comes to honoring women's rights and dignity? As a minor case in point, these rulers never care to appear with their own wives, or even utter their names in public.

Opposing whatever Western democratic nations stand for is their popular scapegoat scheme for sustaining the ruling of religion in Muslim countries. It seems there is a competition among Muslim leaders to outdo one another when it comes to opposing the West, and this is nowhere more apparent than in their mistreatment of women. This is especially the case in countries ruled by an Islamic government wherein officials determine the fate of people based on the government's reading and interpretation of the Islamic scriptures. This is indeed a dangerous trajectory.

I am really flabbergasted by the fact that, while many women in Iran and other prominent Muslim countries where hijab is mandatory are struggling to free themselves from the hardships they have to endure stemming from this oppressive imposition, in America, hijab is being advertised by some apologists, so-called Muslim feminists, as a sign of liberation and freedom. Baloney! I was once talking to a female friend who was adamant in her claim that wearing hijab was her own free choice. I asked her if she could remove it in public if she chose to. Her reply was: "No"!

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Reza Varjavand (Ph.D., University of Oklahoma) is associate professor of economics and finance at the Graham School of management, Saint Xavier University, of Chicago. He has been an avid participant in many professional organizations and active in (more...)
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