“When are you going to get rid of that babushka?” a non-Muslim relative asks me.
Putting aside the fact that a babushka is the anglicised term for triangular headscarf tied below the chin and traditionally worn by elderly Russian woman, I reply “never”, calmly and with a smile. In one respect a hijab is just a thin piece of cloth, but in reality it is so much more. To many of my non-Muslim relatives, it is a choice – a stupid choice – I have made, alienating me from mainstream society and identifying me with a disliked and mistrusted minority.
To others it is a symbol, representing purity, piety and protection, but to many others it represents oppression, backwardness, ignorance and violence. Indeed, the hijab has moved way beyond symbolism to a tangible threat. How do we know this? Quite simply – there are laws banning wearing it.
When you think about it, the whole idea of banning someone from wearing a thin piece of cloth on her head is utterly absurd. This is especially true when asking someone why she wears it, which undoubtedly in most instances, relates to obedience to the Divine command. Yet, when you do a simple Google search, “laws banning hijab” there are hundreds of thousands of hits. If you look more closely at some of those hits, many of the articles discuss the bans on veils which cover the woman’s face leaving the eyes exposed. So, for example, European countries such as Belgium, France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland or localities in those countries ban the wearing of a veil in all or some public places. Russia’s Stavropol region has recently banned the hijab in schools. Other countries have banned the hijab in certain circumstances. For example, Turkey’s constitution used to ban women from wearing hijabs at its universities, but in 2008, its constitution was amended to allow loosely tied headscarves under the chin (sounds like a babushka to me!), but the ban on headscarves covering the neck and veils is still in effect. In 2013, Turkey also lifted its ban on headscarves in state institutions, except for the judiciary, police and military. Turkey is an odd case in this respect in that the President’s wife wears a hijab, along with two-thirds of the Muslim women. In Tunisia, veils and hijabs are prohibited in public buildings and schools. Judges in Denmark cannot wear a hijab, nor any other religious or political symbols including crucifixes, turbans and Jewish skullcaps. Similarly, France bans headscarves, as well as other religious symbols, from public schools. In at least half of the German states, teachers are prohibited from wearing headscarves, and in one state the ban applies to all civil servants. Individual states in the United States have also issued bans in some circumstances, such as teachers wearing headscarves in school.*
Laws are enacted for many purposes. In very basic terms, laws are meant to uphold justice, promote benefit and prevent harm. They strike a balance between competing interests in a society. They provide rules to follow, creating stability, expectations and accountability. But, of course, the ideal is never achieved, and the legislative process is often abused to meet less-than-noble objectives and/or to advance personal interests. No matter what pretence is given for these hijab laws – advancement of women, many of whom are supposedly brainwashed into liking to cover; protection of girls’ rights, security concerns – in reality they are a thinly-veiled attempt (no pun intended) at forced assimilation and outright prejudice. Indeed, if legislators are so concerned with deprogramming brainwashed women, they might first consider legislation that prohibits freakishly large breast implants and lips so swollen with collagen that some women no longer look human. Legislation such as this sets a dangerous precedent. Once the public adapts to one infringement, greater infringements tend to be more easily accepted.
Imagine the uproar if French lawmakers were debating whether to ban women from going topless on the Riviera. The cries of injustice would be heard across the Atlantic. One needs to just walk down the mall in the United States to see how upside-down our values have become. It is not uncommon to see a tween or teenage girl walking with her family, father included, with her shorts so short that her derriere is actually hanging out, naked, for all to see. What is that father thinking! I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that this father isn’t Muslim, and he has not heard about this hadith:
The Messenger of Allah (SAW) said, “All of you are shepherds and each of you is responsible for his flock. An Imam (ruler) is a shepherd and he is responsible for those in his care. A man is a shepherd in his family and is responsible for those in his care. The woman is a shepherd in her husband’s house and children and is responsible for them. A man’s slave is a shepherd over his master’s property and is responsible for it. All of you are shepherds and each of you is responsible for his flock.” (Al-Bukhari)
The other side of hijab laws is laws that require women to cover in a particular way, i.e., forced public modesty, such as in Saudi Arabia or Iran. Finding fault with those laws becomes trickier as each society has its own standard of public indecency, which varies with culture and accepted norms. Thus, for example, you will not find topless women walking around on US beaches. Having never lived in a society that required me to cover in a particular way, I am less than qualified to comment. I do, however, know women who were born in those societies or who have lived in those societies and by and large they have not complained about those laws. Of course, the women I know are not a representative sample, and therefore this superficial anecdotal evidence is of limited value. But there is a fundamental difference, I believe, between what a society considers public indecency and prohibiting women from choosing to dress more modestly than their mainstream counterparts. Indeed, it is hypocritical, to say the least, to be a society that congratulates itself for protecting individual rights, freedom of religion and expression and tolerance while prohibiting a woman from covering her body as she deems fit.
I end with the words of a Noble Laureate from Yemen, Tawakul Karman, responding to journalists who remarked that her wearing a hijab did not correspond with her level of intellect and education:
Man in the early times was almost naked, and as his intellect evolved he started wearing clothes. What I am today and what I’m wearing represents the highest level of thought and civilization that man has achieved, and is not regressive. It’s the removal of clothes again that is regressive back to ancient times.
Her succinct, articulate, on-the-spot analysis is brilliantly simple, intellectual gold, while the question itself demonstrates our decline.
J. Samia Mair is the author of five children’s books, the most recent Zak and His Good Intentions (2014) and The Great Race to Sycamore Street (2013), and is currently working on several sequels. She is a Staff Writer for SISTERS Magazine and Discover, The magazine for curious Muslim kids and has published in magazines, books, anthologies, scientific journals and elsewhere.
* Information on laws found primarily at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-13038095