The Globe and Mail
Originally a source of modesty, the
hijab, or Muslim head scarf, has become a political tool. Its latest
manifestation came this week with the sight of 10-year old Muslim girls
refusing to give up their hijab in a Quebec tae kwon do tournament, when
the helmets would have served the same purpose of modesty and much more.
All Canadian women have, at some time in their lives, chosen to wear a
head cover. In blinding snow storms or freezing rain, the covering of
the head, irrespective of what religion one practises, is crucial to
one's survival. Halfway across the world, in the deserts of Arabia,
whether one was a Muslim or a pagan, the covering of one's head and face
was an absolute necessity -- not just when facing a blistering
sandstorm, but any time one stepped out of the home in the searing sun.
What was essentially attire for a particular climate and weather has
been turned into a modern symbol of defiance and, at best, a show of
piety by Islamists and orthodox Muslims.
There is not a single reference in the Koran that obliges Muslim women
to cover their hair or their face. The only verse that comes close to
such a dress code (Sura 24, "The Light," verse 31) directs believing
women to let their head coverings obscure their bosoms.
Yet, in the past few decades, Islamists and orthodox Muslims have made
the covering of a woman's head the cornerstone of Muslim identity. The
head cover been pushed as a symbol of piety and only the Egyptian and
Saudi version of the head cover -- the hijab -- is considered worthy of
respect. Coverings that originate in South Asia, the sari or the
dupatta, have been relegated as less authentic under Islam.
It is true that through history, Muslim women have chosen to wear the
hijab for reasons of modesty. Today, however, some wear it for the
opposite reason. "Young women put on a hijab and go dancing, wearing
high heels and lipstick. They wear tight jeans that show their bellies,"
75-year old Nawal Al-Saadawi, Egypt's leading feminist, noted recently.
She is bitter at how the covering of a women's head has been
misrepresented as an act of piety and the most defining symbol of Islam.
Beyond fashion, however, this supposed symbol of modesty has assumed a
decidedly political and religious tenor, dominating the debate on civil
liberties and religious freedoms in the West. Any opposition to the
hijab is viewed as a manifestation of Islamophobia.
This was the argument when young Asmahan Mansour was barred from a
soccer league in Quebec, as she refused to remove her hijab while
playing the sport. Quebec's electoral officer recently moved to disallow
fully veiled Muslim women from voting, as they would not be able to
identify themselves adequately.
The piece of cloth becomes a subject of controversy also because those
who favour its use claim it is religiously mandated and regard its use
as their Charter-protected right. To dispense with the garment while
playing a sport would amount to committing a sacrilege.
An inquiry into historical precedent, however, suggests the Koran does
not mandate the hijab at all.
It should be noted that the khimar,
a head scarf that predated
the hijab, was worn by Arab women before the Koran's stipulations on
modesty of dress and demeanour. Verse 24:31 did not introduce the
garment, but modified its use when it said that Muslim women should
"wear their head-coverings over their bosoms" -- previously, they were
left bare, although decked with jewellery and ornaments.
The intent of the verse was to exhort believing women to
cover their nakedness rather than their hair, which was
left partially uncovered even though the khimar
was a head dress. Moreover, the khimar
rooted in religious precept -- it was rooted in custom.
Modifications for its use were introduced into Islamic
practice when the religion spread into Byzantine and
Persian territories, where once again the head dress was
prevalent as a social custom.
The khimar was
also a symbol of class and distinction rather than of
religion precept in pre-Islamic and early Islamic
history. Indeed, there existed a hierarchy of sorts
where slave women were actually barred from veiling.
Omar bin Khattab, Islam's second caliph, for example,
ordered harsh treatment to slave women who donned the
veil. Surely, if the veil was based on religious
precept, its use would not be enforced so selectively.
Therefore, to turn the hijab or khimar into a
religious and political issue belies its original
intent. Muslim women who so vociferously defend its
religious use should consider its history before
determining whether they must wear it.
Islamists have turned the hijab into the
central pillar of Islam. They consider Muslim women who
do not cover their heads -- the vast majority -- as
sinners or lesser Muslims. They should come out and
debate the issue rather than using young Muslim girls as
shields to pursue a political agenda.
Farzana Hassan, president of the Muslim Canadian
Congress, is author of Islam, Women and the Challenges
Tarek Fatah, a founder of the Muslim Canadian
Congress, is author of Chasing a Mirage: An Islamic
State or a State of Islam, to be published next year.