The Many Meanings of Hijab

by Dr. David L. Johnston

First, when it comes to women and clothing, let’s get one misconception out of the way: “Islam oppresses women.” That is the default statement that, even when not stated outright, is assumed by non-Muslim westerners while their minds dance with this image of Muslim women waddling down the road covered in black cloth from head to toe.

Down through the ages and all over the world, women have been made to feel shame for their sexuality and so have been expected to cover in one way or another in public. So they have veiled: lace head coverings for Mass, Indian saris, the black shawls worn by Egyptian peasants, both Muslim and Christian, various nuns’ paraphernalia, and even the headscarves worn by most American women in early twentieth century rural America.

In this area, the Qur’an and the Bible teach the same thing: women should dress modestly. That’s how specific it gets – well, almost. Here is the Qur’an’s only clear statement on the issue of dress:

“And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (ordinarily) appear thereof; and that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands . . .” (Q. 24:31).

Just two verses before “lowering one’s gaze and guarding one’s modesty” had first been enjoined on men in that passage. The rest was specific to women.

The Apostle Peter has similar counsel for members of the early house churches:

“Wives, submit to your husbands . . . Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (I Peter 3:1, 3-4).

The only use for the word “hijab” in the Qur’an is for the curtain that separated the men from the women when people visited the Prophet Muhammad’s house (Q. 33:53). The cloth covering women’s hair, now so very common among Muslim women, is a recent invention. In 1955 the great historian of the Middle East, Albert Hourani, could write that the traditional head coverings for women were “vanishing” in that part of the world. Now, some 56 years later, Harvard Divinity School professor Leila Ahmed just published a book trying to explain the dramatic revival of the female headscarf, now called “hijab.”

What happened after the 1950s? This is what Ahmed explores in her new book, A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence from the Middle East to America (Yale University Press).

Ahmed grew up in 1940s Egypt, where fewer and fewer women were wearing the veil, but for reasons mostly unrelated to religion. Society was changing in a more European direction. After all, the West had produced a scientific revolution and had become the undeniable leaders in political and military innovation.

At the same time, the weight of colonial shaming and derision would not be forgotten. Egypt’s former consul general, Lord Cromer, wrote in his 1908 book, Modern Egypt, that Islam “degraded” women – a clear sign of its inferiority to Christianity. Meanwhile, for all his wholehearted agreement with this general chorus of colonial elites smugly mocking the backwardness of “Arab culture,” he seemed to have missed the irony of his own presidency of the British Men's League for Opposing Women's Suffrage. Jesus did talk about removing the log from one’s own eye first, didn’t he?

Islam-bashing for its treatment of women has certainly made a comeback these days, before and after 9/11. France was the first to ban the wearing of a full-face veil, the niqab or burqa (see my own take on this in Christianity Today), because of “its debasement of women.” As I wrote in a previous blog, there is plenty to criticize in many Muslim contexts on this issue, and no place with more justification than in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Yet we might fault Laura Bush’s radio address shortly after the American invasion of that country in 2001 as politically expedient. Decrying “brutality against women and children by the al-Qaida terrorist network and the regime it supports in Afghanistan” seemed a bit too convenient as a backdrop to a military operation ostensibly designed to punish the terror network behind the 9/11 attacks. This might help us understand why many Muslims feel that US military interventions in Muslim countries are simply new versions of old colonial style imperialism.

(to be continued)

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