The Hijab Story | Sarah Stook

A furore was created after Boris Johnson’s weekly Telegraph column described the women who wear burkas as ‘letter boxes’ and looking like ‘bank robbers.’ Though the rest of the article pushed to defend the right to wear the face veil against the increase of bans in mainland Europe, the particularly colourful phrasing from the always controversial former Foreign Secretary brought controversy. A variety of suggestions came from all corners of the political globe: apologise, don’t apologise, he should be suspended, kicked out of the party, the works. What he also let out of Pandora’s Box was a debate. Whether that debate was on Islamaphobia in the Conservative Party, if the burka should be banned or if it had any place in modern society, Johnson’s words have ignited a strong reaction across the board.

This debate is one that seems easy on the outside but the history and culture around Islamic veiling is one that is central to it. So what is the hijab story?

The term hijab, historically and through the Quran, means the general modesty of women through clothing and through gender segregation. In times of old, women were separated from the main part of the home through a curtain and this still occurs in some places, such as in the tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Another term for hijab, usually outside of the Middle East, is ‘purdah,’ though this generally refers to the physical act of segregation as opposed to the veil. There are several types of veils and the general terms for the most common are as follows:

  • Hijab- Often called the headscarf; it is an item of clothing which covers the hair. Most common in more liberal Muslim societies such as Lebanon and in Muslim communities in the West, it is item that covers the least. The hijab is mandatory in Saudi Arabia for Muslim women and in Iran, though women in Saudi Arabia will often wear the niqab or abaya with it. The younger generation in Iran wear it, though that is discouraged. It is often colourful or patterned as the wearer chooses.
  • Turbans– More common among Sikh women, but many Muslim women are starting to choose it. It is questioned by many, as the turban still shows the woman’s neck, which most Muslims believe should be covered by hijab. One such wearer is Ilhan Omar, a member of the Minnesota House of Representatives and (at the time of writing) Congressional candidate.
  • Abaya- A long dress which covers everything but the head, hands and feet. It can be worn with or without a hijab. It is worn often in Saudi Arabia, as required by law- Saudi women wear it with the hijab whilst non-Muslim visitors wear it without (though some choose to in order to avoid trouble)
  • Chador-Common in the Shia and Persian tradition, the chador is a full length cloak that also covers the hair like a hijab. It is the garment of choice for more conservative Iranian women and is encouraged by the regime- they even hand out flowers to women who choose to wear it. The chador is also worn in Afghanistan, Iraq and other non-Arabic countries in that region. Most often it is a black garment, but lighter colours are worn inside the home. It is the traditional Iranian dress from pre-revolutionary times.
  • Niqab– A black two piece, with the abaya as the base outfit. The veil completely covers the face, head and upper region, with only a small slit for the wearer to see out of. It is Arabic in tradition, from the most fundamentalist interpretation of religious teachings and is very controversial, even in Muslim countries. A majority of women in Saudi Arabia wear it in order to avoid issues with the religious police or even by their own choice, and it is also worn in other Arabic places though is sometimes found outside of the region. A very small number of women in the UK wear it. This is what Johnson meant with the bank robber and letterbox comments. A version where there is no slit at all but the garment is essentially the same is called the bushiyya.
  • Burka– Central Asian in origin, it is one long garment that covers the entire body with a mesh over the eyes in order to allow the wearer to see. It is often more colourful than the niqab, usually a soft blue. Forcibly worn by women under the Taliban rule, it is worn by women from conservative parts of the religion. It is very rare in the UK, even rarer than the niqab that it is often mistaken for.

What constitutes as the hijab in modesty terms is up to interpretation by scholars and Muslins in general. As a rule, a woman can show her face and hands, and sometimes her feet though that is rarer. Others argue that her face and hands should be covered in prayer and in public, especially as they will be near non-mahram men. There is also controversy as to whether it is actually mandated by the Quran, as some believe that the idea of hijab only applied to Muhammad’s wives. The verse itself discusses only the physical partition, not the dress. Puberty is often indicated as the start of veiling, though that can vary hugely between girls, so most will probably be veiled by the age of 13. Many do not like the idea of young girls wearing the hijab, as it is believed that it is something that supposedly prevents a woman being sexualised, leading critics to claim little ones are sexualised by being forced to wear it.

The practice depends country to country, with the Arabic nations genuinely being more conservative and strict on what women wear. Covering is mandatory in Saudi Arabia, Iran and some parts of other countries, though non-Muslims do not have to cover their hair in SA. In many other Muslim countries, the hijab is not mandatory but society essentially forces women to be modest. Some, however, oppose veiling entirely. Muslim majority countries Kosovo and Tunisia (a product of the Arabic Spring) banned the hijab, whilst it is partially banned in Azerbaijan and Turkey. Several Muslim countries have banned the face veil, including Tajikistan, Morocco and Chad, along with non-Islamic countries such as France and recently Denmark.

So, is there a case for banning it?

For those who want to ban face veils in the UK, these are the arguments:

  • Security- In Chad and Cameroon, the full face veil was banned due to them being used by terrorists in suicide attacks. Though no case of this has occurred within the UK, there have been cases were criminals have used them in robberies and other cases. Some argue that they pose a risk to security, as their faces are obscured and therefore cannot be detected. Bike helmets etc must be taken off in certain buildings but the niqab and burka can remain on. It hides the entire body, making the gender difficult to determine unless one sees the shoes of the wearer, which makes it very hard to identify them. It also draws less attention as most will simply assume it’s a Muslim woman.
  • Place in Society- The veil is a symbol of more conservative Islam, worn in more strict Islamic countries and by those who are pious. For some, it is a symbol of oppression due to it being forced upon women by IS and the Taliban. As it represents more fundamentalist Islam, people question its place in a secular leaning democracy. England itself has the Church of England as its state religion, so why should the veil be allowed? In a country where female equality has been achieved, it is thought that the veil represents female oppression and therefore has no place in progressive society.
  • No Place in Islam?– As discussed previously, there is no certifiable evidence that the full face veil is sanctioned by the Quran and the vast majority of Islamic scholars do not believe the face is included in hijab. Even the main religious council in Saudi Arabia does not believe face coverings are essential, though it is more of a cultural choice in a land where many women cover their faces. If it is not sanctioned by the religion and is a cultural thing, can British Muslims justify it? There is no percentage on choosing the veil, but opponents argue that women are either forced to wear them or feel pressured by society to wear it.
  • Promotes Segregation- When David Cameron announced plans for more English lessons, he said that his target was Muslim women who were less likely to know the language. Several communities have been criticised for being inclusive, living together in tight groups and not socialising outside their own people. The full face veil hides the wearer, keeping them away from the average person as they are not revealing themselves. It also hides bruises and abuse- in many Muslim countries (and non-Muslim countries too) abuse is very common (around 90% of Pakistani and Afghan women experience it) and is hidden by forced modesty. That is not to say the Muslim community is more likely to physically abuse its women, but it makes it harder to hide.

For those who dislike the idea of the ban, here are their reasons:

  • Civil Liberties- Opponents argue that Saudi Arabia and Iran force coverings, so we’re ok for banning coverings. Those who dislike the ban reply that it is not better than those countries and that women should be free to wear what they want- niqab or bikini. Even Boris Johnson, after his comments, said that there should be no ban. Some believe there are better ways of discouraging wearing, such as more integration and use of moderate Muslims, and that a ban is unfair.
  • A Choice- As said before, there are no statistics on how many women choose the veil of their own volition. That being said, there will always be some who wear it out of choice. Less than 500 people in the UK wear the face veil and whilst there are definitely some who are forced to wear it, there are definitely some who want to wear it. Several surveys in the UK have indicated that younger Muslims are becoming much more traditional than their grandparents and older relatives, hence why some surprise them by taking up the veil. A woman’s reason can vary, from wanting to feel closer to God or that they feel safer with it on.
  • Promotes Segregation- This argument can be for both sides. Before the revolution in Iran, the first Shah banned ALL veils, including the hijab. For the most pious women, they refused to leave the house as not to be covered by unrelated males but some even killed themselves out of upset. The ban was half lifted under his son, but these still occurred. For those who wear the veil, they may choose to stay in the house out of that same fear and even worse, could be forced to stay inside by husbands, fathers and other dominant males. Staying in the house can lead to segregation, mental health issues (in Afghanistan, when forced to stay inside, depression and suicide jump) and other problems.
  • Anti-Women Liberation- It seems a bit of a conundrum- being against the oppressive face veil is also against women, but the argument has presented itself. Feminism is about giving women a choice and allowing them to do what they wish. Some women do choose a face veil as a way of expression, so it is the government’s business to tell them what they are doing is wrong? It may be somewhat oppressive in origin, but some argue that it is no one’s choice to make but that of the Muslim woman.

Though this article, the veiling has been talked about in terms of Islam, but there are some cases of it being worn by Hindus and Christians- though not in the UK and is comparatively much, much rarer.

The whole story behind hijab is a complex one, as well as the argument.  As European countries begin to ban veiling, the question remains: should the UK follow suit?

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