Heads on Hijab

By Benlafquih, Christine Amina | Islamic Horizons, July/August 2007 | Go to article overview

Heads on Hijab


Benlafquih, Christine Amina, Islamic Horizons


Under the impression that hijab is all about wearing a scarf on the head? Think again.

Some years ago while shopping in a grocery store in Northern Virginia, I was surprised when two elderly women approached me and complimented me on navy blue over-garment and matching hijab. "That's a lovely scarf," one said. "Yes," the other added. "I just love all the different ways you Muslim ladies dress." I followed her gaze to the other end of the aisle, where a woman in a bright yellow Sudanese thobe was pushing a cart.

As I finished my shopping, I encountered a number of other Muslim women whose clothing preferences ranged from long skirts and blouses to tailored Jordanian jilbabs and Pakistani salwar kameez. On other outings, I might also see a hooded Moroccan djellaba, Indian sari, or black Saudi afaaya and face veil which leaves only the eyes visible. Muslims are a minority throughout America, but in Northern Virginia they are a sizable presence. I consider myself fortunate to be living in metropolitan Washington, DC, where this diversity is embraced rather than eschewed.

While the elderly women's focus on my dress was not unusual, their favorable reaction was. Perhaps nothing about Islam commands more attention in the West than the attire of Muslim women. In particular, the hijab comes under repeated scrutiny. Although women who wear it insist that they do so out of a desire to be modest and submit to God, much of the West is fixated on the notion that the hijab is a medieval icon of oppression and subjugation. Advocacy groups like the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) have helped ensure a woman's right to wear it in this country. However, Muslim women face a greater struggle in some parts of Europe. France has banned the hijab from state schools, and Germany has announced its intention to ban it for teachers because of its potential influence on children.

And it is not just the West that has an issue with the hijab. Turkey banned it in government buildings, schools, and universities in 1997 and, in 2006, Tunisia began re-enforcing a decades-old ban on it in state-run bodies. In Morocco, an education minister ordered that Qur'anic verses related to the hijab and a picture of a woman and girl wearing it be removed from a textbook. More recendy, security officers in Somalia have been forcing women to remove their hijabs in public. The incidents are all the more noteworthy, given that each of these countries boasts a population that is 98 to 99 percent Muslim.

If the hijab alone can create a stir in so many countries and the reason for wearing it remains distorted even among Muslims, then it is easy to understand the West's intense reaction to the niqab (face veil). After British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his former defense minister Jack Straw spoke out against this particular piece of clothing late last year, a global debate erupted over whether or not covering the face prevents a woman's full integration in society. About the same time, the Netherlands made headlines by indicating that it will likely become the first European Union member to ban it altogether. Then, dûs past March, the British Education Ministry decided that individual schools have the right to ban students from wearing the niqab if administrators and teachers believe tiiat it hinders safety, security, or learning issues. Interestingly, however, Muslim women will be allowed to wear a veil in British courts under new guidelines issued following a dispute last November after Shabnam Mughal, a legal advisor who refused to remove her veil. The British Judicial Studies Board's Equal Treatment Advisory Committee chair Justice Laura Cox - only the seventh female British High Court judge - said: "We respect the right for Muslim women to choose to wear the niqab as part of their religious beliefs, although the interests of justice remain paramount."

With so much negative attention given to Islamic dress, one might expect it to be nearly nonexistent in countries like America. …

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