Stewardesses on Air France planes have recently been threatening possible mutiny on their flights to Tehran. The Iranian authorities have asked the women to wear trousers during the flights and to wear scarves and loose jackets while in the Iranian capital. The women are furious, threatening to refuse to travel on these flights as they see the rules as an affront to their dignity. As this story broke in the media, out crawled from the woodwork the usual army of hacks and know-it-alls. Not only did these self-declared experts tell Muslims how wrong and despicable their faith was, some even ventured to tell Muslims that their Scripture did not in fact mandate the ‘hijab’. For some reason, I have a strong dislike of journalists with no training in Islam telling me how to interpret my faith. Call me strange, but there we are.
So the current fashionable thesis is that the ‘hijab’ literally means ‘curtain’, and nowhere does the Quran mandate women covering themselves with curtains. Yes, valid point so far. I can imagine how impractical and un-productive would be the lives of women if they had to wander the streets wrapped in their lounge curtains. But then we come to the difficult bit. What the pseudo-academics fail to comprehend is that the khimar (headscarf) and jilbab (loose outer clothing) are clearly mentioned in the Quran as an obligation for believing women. There is no dispute on this issue whatsoever. As language evolved and the Muslim community spread, more words were added to the vocabulary. Niqab, chador, abaya, purdah, burqa, and so forth. Over the passage of time, ‘Hijab’ became a general word to describe modest clothing. This may not have been its initial meaning, but language evolves and usage changes.
In fact, head coverings and modest clothing play a significant role in many religious traditions, including Orthodox Judaism, Catholicism, Greek Orthodox Church, Hinduism and Sikhism. Sikh men are exempt from wearing crash helmets under English law if they are wearing turbans. Catholic nuns wear a headscarf. Mary, mother of Jesus, is portrayed in all Christian iconography wearing a headscarf and a long, modest dress. Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine invented the fashion of wearing a barbette, which was a strap under the chin to hold the veil in place. Grieving widows in many Christian communities still wear face veils. Sherlock Holmes aficionados like me will remember that his stories often contain references to upper class women wearing veils, sometimes so thick that the age and face of the wearer is completely obscured.
So what on earth is the problem, I hear you ask. In a nutshell, dislike of the hijab has been part of the western narrative for hundreds of years. English and French colonisers went to great lengths to discourage Muslim women from wearing the hijab in the North African colonies. To please his foreign masters, Reza Shah of Iran banned the veil in 1936. Government employees were forbidden from entering a cinema if their wives wore long shawls (chador) and taxi drivers were fined if they allowed veiled women to travel in their cars. Police were given powers to remove the head scarves of women forcibly and to shred them with scissors. In 1958, French soldiers brought a hundred Algerian women into a public square and threw off their scarves, shouting ‘Vive L’Algerie francaise!’ It was reported that these women were either from the servant classes who had been threatened with losing their jobs if they did not participate, or they were prostitutes. Kamal Ataturk in Turkey banned citizens from wearing traditional Turkish clothes such as the Fez, baggy colourful trousers and headscarves. He set up an inquisitional committee to travel to villages and punish people who did not conform to his new dress codes. Given this history of interference in the way women dress, it is not surprising that the hijab became a symbol of national identity and opposition to western imperialism during independence in many Muslim countries.
Eurpoe remains obsessed with Muslim women, their clothing and their supposed emancipation. The French tried to destroy the concept of hijab in Algeria, but it backfired on them badly. More and more women took to wearing it, especially from the educated urban classes. The fight has now come to Europe. Recently, the British clothing store Marks and Spencers launched the burkini. This, for the uninitiated, is a two-piece swimsuit which is rather like a loose T shirt with hood and leggings. In fact, the burkini is not new; I purchased mine seven years ago. But the launch by a British High street store has sent the afore-mentioned experts into confusion and mental anguish yet again. France’s Women’s rights Minister, Laurence Rossignol, compared women who dared to buy such items of clothing to “negroes who support slavery”. What is laughable is that the burkini is very similar to a wetsuit used for surfing all over the western world, but nobody bats an eyelid when surfers wear it.
Pierre Berge, co-founder of Yves Saint Laurent, screeched loudly,
“Designers are there to make women more beautiful, to give them their freedom, not to collaborate with this dictatorship which hides women.”
Mr Berge later explained he was not Islamophobic and that he lived in Morocco most of the time. Perhaps he still thinks of it as a French colony!
I wonder whether French nuns will come in for the same vitriol that is currently being thrown exclusively at Muslims.
But let us examine Mr Berge’s description of the fashion industry. I wonder whether fashion houses do indeed make women more beautiful, or just simply more naked. When anorexic, openly starving models criss-cross along the catwalk, why do their physical assets project into our faces at every turn? And if equality is such a sacred cow, why don’t male models tear off their trousers and pants at every opportunity? Why don’t men’s shirts and trousers contain umpteen slits and gaps to show more flesh? Why do female stars at the Oscars wear just enough dazzling fabric to cover a smallish cushion, while their male counterparts are fully clothed in evening suits? Why do female stars parade their nudity while male stars cover it? Where is the equality?
May I clarify that the hijab is not about controlling female sexuality, it is not a statement about the inability of men to control themselves if they see a bit of female skin, and it is not about oppressing women. What is truly oppressive is the fashion industry and the music industry that have turned ordinary teenage girls into food neurotics because they wish to emulate their size zero icons.
Wearing clothes is a basic urge inherent in human beings. Unlike animals, we seek dignity and nobility by wearing clothes. We wear clothes to keep us warm, to make a fashion statement, to look our best; but at the end of the day, we wear clothes because we are civilised. And the hijab is simply part of Islamic dress. In western culture, people do not turn up at the office, at the railway station, the library or a dinner party attired in just their underwear. It is simply not considered to be the done thing. For Muslims, modesty is more than a whim of the moment. As worshippers of an ever Merciful God, we wish to be modest whether at the office or at the beach.
by Ustadah Khola Hasan.