Yesterday evening I responded to a tweet on my timeline showing a young girl celebrating St Patrick’s day by wearing a green hijab.
Almost as soon as I posted the tweet, I felt a twinge of regret – not for what I had said, which I stand by – but because I knew that such a tweet would inevitably invite attention, some negative; the Twitter mob can often be rather cruel. As it happens, the mob was not quite a mob, but nevertheless, there was enough criticism there for me to want to write this clarification.
First of all, I should perhaps have made it clear that I myself am a Muslim, and thus the tweet was not in any way an anti-Muslim rant. I am, however, increasingly concerned about the direction mainstream Islam is taking at the moment and in particular with its increasingly patriarchal and misogynistic tendencies, most notably demonstrated in the increasing “hijabification” of Muslim women and girls.
Second disclosure: I am a Muslim who does not wear a head covering, nor do I believe in it. That of course influences my perspective on this issue, but let me get some clear facts into the ring before my opinion is dismissed out of hand. Firstly, wearing the hijab is not a pillar of Islam. You do not have to wear the hijab in order to be a Muslim and there is no injunction anywhere in the Qur’an that says a woman must wear a hijab. There is a verse, widely cited, which asks women to cover their bosoms with their “khimar” but that verse can be interpreted in many ways. Some see this as a clear instruction for women to cover their hair while others interpret it as meaning a woman should cover her cleavage and not “flaunt her assets” – i.e. dress modestly in a way that will not invite undue sexual attention.
The verse asks women “not to show their adornments except that of it which normally shows. They shall cover their cleavage with their ‘khimar’.”
The word “khimar” has been taken to mean a hijab (or head cover) by some, but the etymological meaning is simply that of a cover, such as a curtain or a dress.
Now, I don’t mean to meander into a theological discussion here but the point I want to make is this: the issue of women’s dress in Islam is open to interpretation; it is not set in stone. The Qur’an is meticulously detailed in some parts, but when it comes to women’s dress, it is not so. The spirit of the message is very much one of modesty but the degree of that modesty is left to our own personal interpretation. Unfortunately, the manifestation of Islam today, in large communities and in the mosques led by their imams, gives the impression that there is just the one interpretation. Women must wear a hijab, no ifs, no buts, case closed.
The imams in the mosques do not represent all Muslims, neither does their message represent the one truthful prism through which Islam must be interpreted. There are many thousands of Muslims like me, who no longer feel comfortable going to mosques because the message being preached there does not chime with our beliefs. There are a small minority of “progressive” mosques out there that preach a much more inclusive and tolerant message, but they are few and far between, and don’t get heard very much by non-Muslims. The net result is that the overwhelming impression non-Muslims have of the faith is that it requires women to wear a headscarf.
There is another factor to bear in mind here: the relatively recent spread of the “hijabist” ideology. If you go to any Muslim country today, or visit a strongly Muslim-populated area, you will see the majority of women wearing a headscarf. Scroll back forty years or so, and the opposite would have been true. Watch an Egyptian movie from the 1950s or 1960s and you will be hard pressed to find a single woman wearing a veil.
If I go back in time to my own childhood in the 1970s, I cannot recall any member of my family wearing the hijab. My family hails from Medina, in Saudi Arabia, the city that welcomed the prophet Muhammad and where he is buried. My grandfather was a very pious man who spent a lot of his time praying and reciting the Qur’an. And yet, I have photos from the mid 1970s of my grandparents and aunts visiting us in Geneva (where we were living at the time) and not a single headscarf in sight. Visit my family in Medina today and everyone of them is in a hijab. What has happened in the meantime?
I don’t have definitive answers to this question but I have already attempted an explanation here. It is perhaps no coincidence that the rise of “hijabification” has come at the same time as the rise of Islamism. The two are connected somehow – they are on the same continuum. It is in this context that I find the celebration of a picture showing a young girl wearing a hijab slightly troubling. The spread of the hijab has become insidious. First, it was a handful of women here and there, then it slowly but surely spread to whole communities. Next, it spread to girls, getting younger and younger as time has gone on. My son is in year 3 and there is a girl in his class who has worn the hijab since the beginning of the school year – from the age of 7. Where do we draw the line?
At this point, I may hear people say, so what? What’s wrong with girls wearing a headscarf if that is what they believe in? Shouldn’t we have religious freedom and tolerance? After all, it’s just a scarf, no need to get into a lather about that. But let’s go back and remember what that headscarf represents, what the Qur’anic verse quoted above is taken to mean. A woman must cover her bosom and her adornments with a “khimar” which some take to also include covering her hair. This is all about a woman covering her sexual attractiveness so as not to tempt a man into sin. The headscarf is not just an item of clothing, comparable to a suit or a tie. The hijab has sexual connotations and it is used, like it or not, to subjugate women. It is women who are made to wear it, not men. In the sweltering heat of last summer, I saw Muslim couples stroll in the park, the men wearing comfortable Bermudas and T-shirts, the women swaddled from head to toe. It is women who have to endure this discomfort, not men.
Now, if a grown woman decides of her free will to dress in this way, then that is her choice and must be respected. Can we say the same of young girls though? In his responding tweet, Dr. Umar AlQadri said that it had been his daughter’s choice to wear the headscarf. I think he was being slightly disingenuous here. It may be true that the young girl was not forced to wear a hijab but equally it is clear that at some point, she would be expected to do so. The fact that she chose to do so sooner rather than later doesn’t take away from the fact that in reality, she has very little choice in the matter. Girls in certain Muslim communities are expected to wear a hijab or face opprobrium. They are not invited to view the evidence, explore interpretations and then reach their own conclusions. There is only the one acceptable interpretation.
So yes, I am deeply uncomfortable at the sight of young girls wearing a hijab. The indoctrination starts from an early age. I am not sure I would go as far as to say that I would ban it in primary schools, but I am certainly troubled by it and don’t think I should apologise for questioning the practice. The problem is, that in these febrile times of Trump and Marine Le-Pen, people are wary of criticising because they don’t want to be seen as intolerant. There needs to be room for a conversation about this issue without it being tainted by accusations of Islamophobia.