By Ghazala Hayat
April 26, 2012
Recently a Muslim woman taken to a jail for nonpayment of a traffic ticket had her head scarf (hijab) forcibly removed for security clearance. The woman tried to explain that the hijab was part of her dress and she could not take it off due to religious reasons.
The staff at the jail did not comply with her requests. Members of Council on American-Islamic Relations met with the administrative staff to voice their concern and alluded to the law RLUIPA (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act) which bars state and local governments from enforcing “a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined in an institution.”
Thankfully the Director of St. Louis county Justice services Herb Barnes announced that he will “try to work out a solution that would satisfy both the security needs and individual religious concerns.”
Hijab literally means a curtain or cover. Most Muslims think of it as a three-dimensional curtain that offers privacy. Though it is used mostly as a head scarf, hijab refers to the modesty and morality in our daily garb and also interactions with opposite gender. The word for the coverings used in Quran is Khimar (cloak) and Jilbaab (loose robe). The Quran says:
And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their khimar over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband's fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. (Quran 24:31)
Hijab equally applies to men and they are commanded to lower their gaze and dress modestly. Their interaction with women should be with respect.
The hijab is seen in different ways in different parts of the world, the most visible or recognizable are the ones with a head scarf and long dress, seen mostly in Arab countries, A "burqa” (which covers the whole body including face) is commonly seen in South Asia and Afghanistan. “Chaddar” (a large shawl covering the head) is mostly worn in Iran, south Asia and southeast Asia.
Over the years I have seen a lot of misunderstanding about the hijab among non Muslims. Mostly it is thought to be sign of oppression. the abuse of the rights of Muslim women in different parts of the world - in Muslim and non Muslim countries - has nothing to do with Islam.
Subjugation of women, mistreatment verbally and physically is a predicament for the whole human race, no matter what the faith or ethnic origin is. Denying a Muslim woman education or working outside the home is not dictated by Islam but a cultural practice albeit wrong one. This should not automatically label the dress of those women or their interaction with the society as being “oppressed”.
Modesty and covering the head is not exclusive to Islam. This tradition of modesty was and is being practiced by Christian women (nuns) and many Jewish women. The illustration of Mary is always with head cover, and is a sign of her purity and holiness. Nuns cover their heads as a symbol of modesty and submission to their God. Orthodox married Jewish women usually cover their heads (tallit) following their faith.
The paternalistic view of western societies and misunderstanding by many organizations unfortunately leads to wasted efforts in “helping women to get rid of this garb,” rather than improving the quality of their lives.
We need to spend our efforts in improving the education of women in societies where there is subjugation of women due to lack of education and cultural practices. Choosing what to wear is a person’s right and we should leave that to the norms of society. Assigning a meaning of suppression to what is supposed to be sign of modesty does not lead to a meeting of the minds, and can lead to hindrance to the well-intended efforts to help women in different parts of the world.
For Muslim women wearing the Hijab is part of their clothing; Transportation Security Administration members do “pat down” in selected cases. Why can’t the same rule applied to head scarves? If there is still security concern, the woman can be searched in a separate area by a female TSA member.
In many countries there are two separate sections at the airports and women are searched in privacy. I cannot tell you how many times it crosses my mind when I see people being searched at the airports that we should also have private sections. It is stated at the airports “if you prefer to be searched in private please ask.” But we are typically in a hurry in the airport, and dread being taken to a different area and risk being delayed more.
In our diverse society we have to be very sensitive to people’s religious observances and cultural practices. Respecting someone’s beliefs is the cornerstone of civil society. We can work together to find a way where we do not offend anyone’s sensibilities and have a secure borders.