Many women believed that the hijab was a symbol of religious piety. However, it has been made a political symbol.
The hijab, a headscarf worn by many Muslim females, has become more visible in major cities worldwide. It is also becoming more politicized. It is surprising to many that the Qur’an does not mention the hijab as a head covering. Instead, it is used to “curtain” visitors and separate the wives of Prophet Muhammad. Hijab can also be used to describe modest behavior. The Qur’an prescribes modesty for men and women. 24:30-31) The so-called hijab verses use the Arabic words “khimar,” which can be translated as “covering” or a “headscarf, and “outer garment” (or “cloak”) respectively. There are many ways to understand the importance of head-covering. Some say it’s mandatory, while others consider it optional.
The headscarf is primarily associated with Islam. However, it has been worn in many parts of the globe for various cultural, religious, and pragmatic purposes. Although head coverings have been practiced in Jewish, Christian, and Hindu communities for centuries, they are not as common as in Muslim societies. The veil became a symbol of Muslim societies in 19th-century Middle East colonial rulers.
Historically, those who imposed partial or complete prohibitions on it were doing so to indicate their “modern” secular orientation. For example, Reza Shah Pahlavi was a 1936 Iranian president, while Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was a Turkish president a decade before. In Afghanistan, King Amanullah strongly opposed its use in the 1920s & 1930s. However, the Islamic Republic of Iran has made its use a symbol of its fundamentalist approach since 1979 and a reproach of the Shah’s permissiveness.
The hijab was controversial in Egypt during British colonial times. Lord Cromer, the British consul in the second half of the 19th century, advocated Muslim women being unveiled as a way to improve their lives while fiercely opposing suffrage. Leila Ahmed’s Women and Gender in Islam explains that Egyptian women held various views about the hijab. While some, such as Huda Sharawi, who founded the Egyptian Feminist Union, rejected it and staged public unveilings, others like Malak Hifni Nasif took a more moderate position and believed that women should have the freedom to choose whether or not to cover their heads. Zainab Al-Ghazali, their contemporary, was one of the leaders of the Islamist movement in Egypt. He believed the hijab should become mandatory.
“Veiling” is a lived experience that has many meanings and contradictions.
Although the Pahlavi dynasty of Iran survived to the 1970s, the shahs’ rule over Iran was widely opposed. The Pahlavis were corrupt and politically repressive. They also lived a lavish lifestyle and spent a lot. Iranian women adopted the hijab as a symbol of civil protest. This is just one of many instances in history where the hijab has been used to symbolize resistance. Homa Hoodfar says that veiling is a lived experience with multiple meanings and contradictions. In her classic feminist title, The Veil and the Male Elite, Fatima Mernissi claims that the 1980s hijab obsession was sparked by conservative Muslim scholars and leaders from Arab countries who advocated restricting women’s mobility and visibility. Mernissi concluded that the presence and freedom of women were a threat to powerful male elites. Fadwa El Guiindi, another scholar, stated that the adoption of the hijab at that time helped Egyptian women safeguard modernization opportunities, including access to education and the ability to work from home. However, these opportunities were limited by stereotypes that modernized women were socially irresponsible and even sexually promiscuous.
However, the hijab and other modest traditional garments such as the abaya or jilbab–cloaks that enclose the body from the neck down–and the face-covering Niqab–played a more complex role than helping women gain social approval. Many women considered the hijab a sign of their religious faith.
As the Islamic Revolution unfolded in Iran in 1979, the hijab became a lens through which external observers interpreted–or misapprehended–developments there. The Western media saw the head-covering, or “tent,” in Farsi as proof of Iran’s inferiority toward women. However, the women had first worn them as protest clothing the year before. Ayatollah Khani decreed that women should wear the chador. Those who opposed it were portrayed as Iranian-style second-wave feminists who have similar demands to Western feminists. Their protests were characterized by an anti-colonial element, including criticisms of the involvement of Western powers in Iran’s oil sector. This was Sylvia Chan Malik’s inception of a new binary, “Islam” versus feminism. It also signaled that feminism began to collaborate with the state. Thus, future justifications for war to liberate women from oppression by men were possible. Gender equality was set to become an “American” value and had to be implemented militarily.
The September 11 attacks brought a new era. Nineteen men collectively punished Muslims for terror acts committed in the name of Saudi Arabia, an ally of the United States. In 2001, anti-Muslim hate crimes rose 17 times more than in 2000. The hijab was a prominent target for women. These women were often discriminated against at work and subject to racial profiling at the airport. American propaganda for the “War on Terrorism” blamed Islam for terrorist acts, and American Muslims were forced to choose between Islam and the United States to survive. American Muslim women decided to break out of this artificial binary. Thousands took up the hijab and claimed the right to be Americans. One interview subject stated that Islam is beautiful in her new hijab. It’s okay!
While racial and religious tensions exist between “transnational”/immigrant and African-American Muslim identities, how these groups practice Islam affects each other.
But framing Islam as a universally un-American religion ignores the voices and experiences of African American Muslim women. Their legacy is 400 years ago when enslaved people were brought on ships bound for North America. About 30% of them were Muslim. Their stories show that discrimination was, for them, a combination of racist, sexist, and anti-Muslim prejudice. While racial and religious tensions exist between “transnational”/immigrant and African-American Muslim identities, how these groups practice Islam affects each other. Some African-American Muslim women choose to wear the “Arab-styled” hijab over the turbans popular among this group. Many immigrant Muslim women speak out against gender segregation in mosques in America, as they have seen more gender mixing in African American mosques.
The search for Osama Bin Laden, its architect, and his terrorist networks in Afghanistan was reframed after 9/11 as a noble war to free Afghan women. To survive, they had to wear the burka (all-enveloping, covering even their eyes). The patriarchal Taliban made the burka a symbol of women’s oppression in 2001, echoing the fame accompanying the 1979 chador in the West’s eyes. Both right- and left-leaning political actors on both sides of the Atlantic used it as a cynical excuse for their “War on Terror.” In November 2001, First Lady Laura Bush made it clear in a radio speech. She stated that the “fight against terrorist acts” is also a fight for women’s rights and dignity. However, the West was only aware of the Taliban’s brutal reign after September 11. It was clear that the Taliban had brutalized Afghans for four years by 2001. Activists unsuccessfully tried to lobby for Western support.
The initial burka-wearing women’s portrayals reverberated far beyond the battlefield. The French “hijab ban” in 2004 was the beginning of legislation to target Muslim women who wore the more concealed form of Muslim dress, the Niqab. France followed that ban with a ban on the Niqab across the country. It was supported by politicians who argued that women were forced to wear the Niqab because of male relatives. They compared the Taliban-enforced burka wearing in Afghanistan to Niqab. French Muslim women, who claimed they wore the Niqab because they chose to, made many counterarguments. Although legal challenges to the legislation were unsuccessful in the European Court of Human Rights, the rulings were heavily criticized by legal scholars who saw the Court’s interpretation of “religious practices” as rooted in Christian Theology. They suggested that the Court should accept the position of the women who choose to wear the Niqab. Instead, these laws would criminalize the wearing of the Niqab and eventually lead to the elimination of women who wear the Niqab from public spaces.
Sixteen countries, seven of which are in Europe, have implemented a similar ban on Niqab. The most recent being Switzerland in 2021. Other regions or partial prohibitions may also exist, such as Quebec, which prohibits government employees from wearing religious symbols. The COVID-19 pandemic did not change these bans. When countries implemented mask mandates, it created a paradoxical situation in which a Muslim woman could face a fine of 130 euros (ca. $160 for wearing a niqab and 150 euros (ca. $180 for those who do not want to wear a mask.
Many Muslim women challenge the negative association Islamic dress has with it, despite or perhaps because of these restrictions. It is being promoted as central to “modest Fashion,” a worldwide movement that sees religious women choosing stylish clothes that avoid the sexualized designs of mainstream fashion. Although hijabistas often portray modest fashion and may challenge the stereotype of holy women being dowdy, this space allows women to explore tensions and negotiate personal politics, Islam, and capitalism. They also recommend brands or halal products. Unfortunately, many people view the identities they create as being inconsistent with religious orthodoxy.
Because they were made into political symbols and stripped of religious significance, the hijab or Niqab has been controversial. Geopolitical actors and movements have used their alleged attitude towards Islamic dress to make political posturing. Gholam Khiabany, Millie Williamson, and other scholars assert that it is now impossible to talk about Islam with no reference to women. It has also made it difficult to talk about Muslim women without referring to the veil.