My position on the hijab, or head covering, for what it’s worth, is that it is unnecessary. Surat Nur of the Quran, verse 31, says: “…tell the believing women….not to display their charms (in public) beyond what may (decently) be apparent thereof; hence, let them draw their headcoverings over their bosoms.” Given that the Arab women and men of the prophet’s time all wore a head covering (as men in the Gulf still do – it’s an obvious clothing choice for desert dwellers), but the women often left their breasts bare, it seems obvious here that the injunction is not to cover hair, which was covered anyway by prevailing social custom, but to cover breasts. The more general directive is for both men (who are addressed in the previous verse) and women to dress modestly according to the standards of their time and place.
Many Muslims would point to the ahadith, the records of the prophet’s words and actions, instead of to the Quran for guidance on this point. The problem with the ahadith is that they are sometimes contradictory. Sunni and Shia Muslims claim different ahadith collections as authoritative. Although an elaborate medieval science was developed to establish the reliability of ahadith, its methods do not meet the rigorous standards of modern textual criticism, and we cannot be nearly as certain of the origin of ahadith as we can of the Quran. In any case, I’m the kind of Muslim who thinks we can appreciate the spiritual and social treasures of Islam without imitating the social habits of the first Muslims. The prophet never claimed to be anything more than a man. He and his companions were the products of a particular cultural context. When we learn from their example, we need to do so with our historical senses switched on, looking for general principles which we can apply to our own context rather than for abstract and timeless rules.
So the hijab is primarily a cultural issue. There are always ‘decency-boundary’ differences between and within cultures (for instance, it’s acceptable for women to go topless in a Paris park on a warm summer’s day, but not in Britain), and these are differences that a tolerant society should accommodate. It’s certainly not the business of the state to worry about what a woman wears, and in this respect I think the governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran (which insist on hijab for women) and the governments of France, Tunisia and Turkey (which forbid the hijab in schools or government offices) are equally wrong.
I still have my personal dislike of the hijab, however. What I dislike about it is the way it seems to symbolise the weight of honour and tradition, and this falling on the woman’s head, not the man’s. I remember seeing a couple in Pakistan, the wife in full chador stepping a few paces behind her husband, who wore baggy jeans, T-shirt, and back-to-front baseball cap. Dress differences point to double standards for the sexes in a range of situations. According to Islam, casual sex is equally wrong for both sexes, yet a blind eye is often turned to the sexual activity of promiscuous males, if they are not actively encouraged and admired, but a woman behaving in the same way will immediately be written off as a whore, a disgrace to herself and her family. And once you start focussing on pieces of cloth instead of on moral principles, where do you stop? I knew a Syrian doctor in Saudi Arabia whose wife actually wore a niqab to cover her face and a full length black abaya. She and her husband were walking one afternoon in a conservative town south of Riyadh when a mutawa (religious policeman) approached her with his stick raised, ready to strike. The husband stopped him, and asked what he thought he was doing. The mutawa explained that he wished to discipline this loose whore for wearing her abaya on her shoulders, showing her shape, rather than hanging it tentlike from her head. Which begs the question, was the niqab-clad Syrian betraying Islam while the mutawa, about to beat a strange woman in the street, was upholding the faith?
Some of the same Muslim men who expect their sisters to wear hijab think nothing of sexually harrassing women on the street. The principle behind the hijab has been jetisoned, but the piece of cloth remains. The sad fact is, despite all the Muslim talk about Western decadence, there is more harrassment of women on the streets of Arab cities than on the streets of London. (We have to admit here that Hindus and Mediterranean Christians can be as bad. Again, it’s a question of culture, not religion).
But having expressed my personal feelings, I must now dispel some non-Muslim stereotypes of the hijab, starting with the idea that all muhajiba women are oppressed, voiceless souls who are forced to wear the hijab. I’m sure there must be women who are ordered to wear the hijab, and many more who are not aware of the possibility of not wearing it - in the same way that English women wouldn’t consider going to work in only their underwear. But the usual situation in many countries is that individuals have made a (sometimes brave) personal decision to wear the hijab. My sisters, for instance, outraged my upwardly mobile father when they decided to put it on. My father had spent his life becoming bourgeois and couldn’t understand why his daughters would want to make themselves look ‘common.’ I admit to being disturbed when my wife, four years into our marriage, decided to wear hijab. And nothing infuriates me more than English people asking how I’d feel if my wife took it off, as if I’m the tyrant who told her to put it on in the first place.
The argument has been made that the revival of hijab has empowered a class of women to work who in previous generations would not have left their houses. At the same time, it has become less urgent for the bourgeoisie of an Arab world still riddled by class sentiment to show their distance from their poorer sisters.
In a world of globalised identities the return to hijab is predominantly political. It declares the wearer is Muslim and proud of it. When people have recently lost their organic connection to their village or neighbourhood, when hostile and artificial states ineptly claim their loyalty instead, and when they see Muslims being attacked whenever they switch on the TV, the declaration becomes more urgent.
As for the niqab, or face covering, it gives me the creeps. And if it gives me the creeps, it must absolutely terrify a lot of white Britons. In this respect, I agree with Jack Straw: the niqab keeps communities separated. It is both a symbol of alienation and an alienating device. It definitely alienates me. But then, I feel alienated from just about everyone for the first days of a visit to Britain, because nobody will establish eye contact. White men with military haircuts and tatoos give me the creeps. And don’t get me started on the types of people who I just don’t like the look of.
Outside the Gulf and Afghanistan, niqab-wearers are a tiny minority of Muslims. Yet some young British Muslims whose mothers wore a loose dupatta are taking to the niqab. I think this phenomenon is similar to that of Blacks who should know better following Louis Farrakhan or the five percenters, not because they really believe that the white man is the devil, but because they’ve found a sexy way to assert themselves and to reject the establishment. White youths used to stick safety pins through their noses back in the days when it was still possible to shock with body decoration.
While Jack Straw of course has the right to express his dislike of the niqab, I must say the timing looks suspicious. Britain is deeply implicated in a series of wars against Muslim countries: Palestine, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq, wars fought not for freedom and democracy but for capital and imperial control. In order to justify this latest bout of Western violence it has been necessary to exploit the September 11th attacks, to convince Western people that Muslims didn’t attack America because of American bases in the Gulf, or support for Israel, but because Muslims hate ‘our values’ and ‘our freedom.’
The first wave of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia developed in concert with the European land grab in the Middle East known as the Crusades. The traditional European anti-black racisms were constructed as a necessary accompaniment to the rise of European Empires in Africa and Asia. When Hitler’s plan to colonise Europe itself was defeated, racism was given a bad name for half a century. But now, Islamophobia is day by day becoming more accepted throughout Europe. It looks legitimate because Islamophobes have convinced themselves they’re battling for liberal values. The Nazis also thought they were fighting to keep Europe’s soul pure of Gypsy and Jewish contamination.
The attacks on Muslims come every single day. From Foreign Secretary Straw who helped destroy Iraq, from ‘liberal’ novelists, from the Pope, from Italian journalists, from Danish cartoonists and Dutch populists, from French philosophers and American tele-evangelists. Some criticisms are reasoned and seek dialogue, many others demonise, generalise, simplify, reduce. Most attackers are blind to the shortcomings and crimes of Christian or secular Western society, even as it drenches the Muslims in Depleted Uranium. An increasing number of Islamophobes have the wild glint of certainty in their eyes. Suggest that the Zionist lobby has undue influence on American foreign policy and you are ostracised. Blab about the Muslim invasion of Europe and you are taken increasingly seriously. I, for one, am very scared. The creeps I get from the niqab are nothing in comparison.
A couple of good articles on the niqab furore: