By Moin Qazi, New Age Islam
25 March 2017
One of the Islamic symbols that have been engaging great attention of the western world is the veil –the Hijab (Muslim tradition of veiling-a scarf wrapped tightly around the heads to conceal every wisp of hair).
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Luxembourg), the European Union's top law court, ruled last week that employers are entitled to ban staff from wearing visible religious symbols.
To the great distress and chagrin of Muslim women, it has allowed employers to stipulate banning the wearing of "any political, philosophical or religious sign”. The wearing of religious symbols, especially the Hijab, is already a hot button issue .Some countries such as Austria are mulling a complete ban on the full-face veil in public, while in France women are barred from wearing the Burkini, a type of swimsuit for women. The long-awaited legal judgment has ricocheted into the French and Dutch election campaigns.
However judicial wisdom has not been influenced by any ideology as the ban applies to all faiths and political views equally. It talks of attire in the workplace, and has no bearing on attires in public. The judicial opinion, which is not in the form of a decree, is actually about employment rights and not religious freedom.
Most people in France know Article 141-5-1 simply as the veil law—la loi contre le voile—or as the head-scarf law, or the chador or Burqa or Hijab or Jalabib or Abaya or Niqab or even bandanna. (” Veil,” in France, is the catchall word.) And never mind that, as of the latest hermeneutical negotiations, the veil law also applies to the Jewish skullcap, the Sikh turban, and to any cross that looks like a religious symbol
The court’s opinion does provide a window into the way judicial mind is shaping up to the Hijab. For Muslim women, the Hijab is not a symbol but a required part of their faith. Hence a curtailment on its use is an intrusion into religious privacy.
Fortunately the intellectual sentiments in France are much different. Jean-Marie Salamito, professor of the history of ancient Christianity at Université Paris-Sorbonne, feels that, “French university professors are generally very open-minded and tolerant, and France is the country of freedoms. Calling the Islamic headscarf a thing can be considered a sign of disrespect to the student and to Islam.” ”Headdress should not be a measure of integration, but burqas may be problematic, said Salamito, because “a professor isn’t able to see the face of the person they’re talking to. It’s a matter of normal communication.” he avers.
Veiling has become, perhaps , a magnet for trouble for Muslim women ; “a clichéd symbol for what the West perceives as Muslim oppression, tyranny, and zealotry – all of which have little to do with the real reasons why Muslim women veil,” says Jennifer Heath, editor of the 2008 book The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics.
It is being maliciously labelled as a social disrupter which precludes integration of Muslim women into secular society. In fact, the Hijab expresses a translational form of Islamic feminism that has got nuanced by the entry of Muslim women into all public spheres including formal religious learning. It is a vehicle for distinguishing between women and men and a means of controlling male sexual desire. .
Yet many well-educated women working in hospitals and libraries, for example, wear it. It was one of the local forms of covering that traditional women wore when they went out, which was seen as liberating as women could move out of segregated living spaces with modesty and protection from harassment by strangers. It is also now seen as a part of a new Islamic modernity.\With the western world fixated so prejudicially on the Hijab, it is imperative that the use gets a more nuanced examination than the simple white and lack logic being applied to the issue, ignoring its discursive frames. The veil itself predated Islam and was practiced by women of several religions. It also was largely linked to class position: Wealthy women could afford to veil their bodies completely, whereas poor women who had to work [in the field] either modified their veils or did not wear them at all.
The area women must cover depends on the source and ranges from “the bosom” to the whole body except the face and hands. According to Sharia, or traditional Islamic law, Muslim women are required to, or at least should, cover their hair. Hence the head scarf, or some type of head covering, is widely viewed as mandatory in Islam.
The Hijab is not, as many believe, a symbol of oppression, subjugation or repression .it is unfortunately associated with negative connotations in some societies. Women share instances where travellers stiffen and start twitching around when they take a seat next to them .The Hijab is so loaded with negative connotations that it inspires immediate distrust.
It would be pertinent to quote Naomi Wolf, one of the most celebrated authors of the century and a staunch proponent of ethical values. In her 2008 essay she writes: “The West interprets veiling as repression of women and suppression of their sexuality. But when I travelled in Muslim countries and was invited to join a discussion in women-only settings within Muslim homes, I learned that Muslim attitudes toward women’s appearance and sexuality are not rooted in repression, but in a strong sense of public versus private, of what is due to God and what is due to one’s husband. It is not that Islam suppresses sexuality, but that it embodies a strongly developed sense of its appropriate channelling - toward marriage, the bonds that sustain family life, and the attachment that secures a home.”
Contrary to western notions, Muslim women choose to wear the Hijab not out of subjugation but as a way of showing self-control, agency and power. This is an especially strong sentiment in Muslim countries where people feel their Islamic identity is threatened by the global spread of Western culture.
Hijab’s purpose is simply modesty: modesty of clothing, modesty of thoughts and modesty of actions. It was once an armoury of the poorer classes. Today it is the mascot of the most enlightened Muslim girls. Hijab has now emerged as a sign of Islamic consciousness and has been embraced by Muslim women of all stripes. They see wearing the Hijab as emblematic of their desire to be part of an Islamic revival, especially in countries where the Islamic values are who observe Hijab being denuded. They often describe how it liberates them from the toxic consumerist culture, from men’s predatory gaze, from sexism, from impure moral thoughts. Women wearing Hijab have been very candidly and publicly emphasizing that dressing modestly and covering their hair minimizes sexual harassment in the workplace. It is a path that aids in self-purification and coming nearer to their Creator.
Paradoxically, it is the women who rely on the veil to signal to others that the argument that veil is indicative of oppression has no logic. A woman can wear it as an instrument of modesty, yet still embrace all of the rights and opportunities given to other modern women.
In fact modesty, of which Hijab is an outward expression, is the defining emblem of Islamic values. The Arabic word for modesty is Haya. The interesting thing about this word is that it is linguistically related to the Arabic word for life (Hayat). Modesty is the virtue that gives spiritual life to the soul. This connection between spiritual life and modesty exists because the virtue is not just about outward appearances; rather, it is tolerance first and foremost about the inward state of having modesty before God – meaning an awareness of divine presence everywhere and at all times that leads to propriety within oneself and in one’s most private moments.
Outward modesty means behaving in a way that maintains one’s own self-respect and the respect of others, whether in dress, speech or behaviour. Inward modesty means shying away from any character or quality that is offensive to God. The outward is a reminder of the inward, and the inward is essential to the outward.
Hijab is a way of ensuring that the moral boundaries between unrelated men and women are respected. In this sense, the term Hijab encompasses more than a scarf and more than a dress code. It is an instrument for engendering morality and chasteness. But at the same time, Hijab cannot be used as a marker or benchmark to judge the morality of a Muslim woman and her “Muslimness”. The purity of her spiritualism and chastity of her character is more important than the moral value of her Hijab. For instance, if a Muslim woman was wearing a scarf but at the same time using bad language, she would not be fulfilling the requirements of Hijab.
Recognizing the potentially intrusive and debasing power of the gaze, God instructs men and women alike in the Qur’an to lower their eyes and dress modestly in public. In Islam, men are also urged to be modest and to cover themselves between the waist and the knees
- “Say to the believing men that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Surely, God is well aware of what they do.” (Q24:31)
-“And say to the believing women that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts, and that they disclose not their natural and artificial beauty except that which is apparent thereof, that they draw their head-coverings over their bosoms, and that they disclose not their beauty save to their husbands, or to their fathers … (a list of exceptions).” (Q24:32)
It recorded that the wives of the Prophet went veiled and in this way were able to recognize one another and to be honoured by other women for their distinction
In her book Quiet Revolution (Yale), the Thomas professor of divinity at Cambridge, Leila Ahmed writes: “Unveiling would become ever more clearly the emblem of an era of new hopes and desires, and of aspirations for modernity: the possibility of education and the right to work for both women and men, and of equal opportunity and advancement based on effort and merit.”
Attempts to force Muslim women to stop wearing the veil might, therefore, be counterproductive by depriving them of the choice and opportunity to integrate: if women cannot signal their piety through wearing a veil, they might choose or be forced to stay at home.
Finally, freedom is about having the choice to do and wear what you want and banning an item of clothing would only counter that freedom. It will demonstrate the imposition of unilaterally perceived notions of women’s equality and stipulating of neutral attires would amount to abandoning a multicultural mindset which insists that all competing cultures are equally valid.
By constricting accessibility to markets for ethnic and religious minorities and to women - two socially vulnerable groups - and denying equal opportunities purely on the grounds that they wear the veil is a very retrograde step.
The most sobering words come from Michelle Obama when she addressed Hijab wearing students as the first lady of United States: “Maybe you read the news and hear what folks are saying about your religion, And you wonder if anyone ever sees beyond your headscarf to see who you really are, instead of being blinded by the fears and misperceptions in their own minds. And I know how painful and how frustrating all of that can be. But here’s the thing -- you all have everything, everything, you need to rise above all of the noise and fulfil every last one of your dreams,”
There’s nothing veiled about the Hijab.
Types of Headscarves
-The Hijab is one name for a variety of similar headscarves. It is the most popular veil worn in the West. These veils consist of one or two scarves that cover the head and neck. Outside the West, this traditional veil is worn by many Muslim women in the Arab world and beyond.
-The Niqab covers the entire body, head and face; however, an opening is left for the eyes. The two main styles of Niqab are the half-Niqab that consists of a headscarf and facial veil that leaves the eyes and part of the forehead visible and the full, or Gulf, Niqab that leaves only a narrow slit for the eyes. Although these veils are popular across the Muslim world, they are most common in the Gulf States. The Niqab is responsible for creating much debate within Europe. Some politicians have argued for its ban, while others feel that it interferes with communication or creates security concerns.
-The chador is a full-body-length shawl held closed at the neck by hand or pin. It covers the head and the body but leaves the face completely visible. Chadors are most often black and are most common in the Middle East, specifically in Iran.
-The burqa is a full-body veil. The wearer’s entire face and body are covered, and one sees through a mesh screen over the eyes. It is most commonly worn in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan (1996–2001), its use was mandated by law.
Moin Qazi is the author of the bestselling book, Village Diary of a Heretic Banker .He has worked in the development finance sector for almost four decades.
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