Habits and Hijabs

by Alistair David Blair Cook

The 11th September 2001 brought scorn, suspicion and near segregation to Muslims the world over, where nation-states rallied around the flag against this “extremist” and “virulent” religion. However, little was really understood about it and there was not any interest in finding out. The period of blame was upon us with governments introducing oppressive laws on a whim, without debate and certainly without the consensus of the people they affected to counter these threats. We have seen the detention of ‘enemy combatants’ in Guantanamo bay and the much-discredited anti-terrorist laws in the UK, encapsulating the current oppressive mood of governments.

These reactions were to counter the ‘threat’ of an extremist religion: Islam. The most defining feature of Islamic female dress is the Hijab or headscarf. People rarely think of the Hijab as a garment of choice because we read about it mainly in the context of compulsion. Some Muslim ladies do wear the Hijab out of choice but are thought of as extreme; however, I have yet to hear people draw the comparison between the Hijab and Western headscarves. Both symbolise a dedication to religion, culture or fashion and yet parallels are not made. On the one hand, we have people referring to the Hijab as oppressive and extremist but rarely do we hear the same about the Nun’s habit or a Western lady wearing a headscarf being either. People associate the Nun’s habit with charity, faith and trust. If only people realised the similarities between the two then we would have a more tolerant approach to Islam.

The evolution of the headscarf, whether Christian or Muslim, both originate in the Middle East where they were a cultural necessity of the region. More recently, as the religions spread, the headscarves became symbolic: Christian ladies wear a veil when they get married (although less so now) symbolising their faith; Christian ladies wear a black veil (although less so now) to mourn. Even up until the 1980s, it was not uncommon to see Christian ladies wearing a headscarf outside of Church in one form or another, albeit then more a fashion statement than a direct link to their faith. Muslim ladies are not different in this respect. They too have varying degrees of head cover from the Burqa to a simple headscarf. They too wear headscarves to demonstrate piety or fashion.

These similarities show the connections we have to the headscarf in the West and rather than it being a symbol of extremism or oppression, it is one the West accepts as a norm if westerners do it. We have become less aware of our own\ncultural and religious heritage in a time of fear against Islam coupled with the terrorism threat. We push our memories to the back of our minds and out of sight. If we are the ones erasing and distancing ourselves from such memories, it is us who are extremist and oppressed not these Muslim ladies.



Filed under Islam, vox populi

5 responses to “Habits and Hijabs

  1. I strongly agree with one of the author’s point: the association of headscarves with Islamic integrism forgets a whole cultural heritage and history.

    I live in Spain where, as in most European countries, there is a, usually quite heated, debate on whether headscarves should be forbidden in certain circusntances. Part of the argument for the prohibition is that headscarves have been imported with the recent arrival of Muslim immigration (mostly from North-Africa).

    A couple of years ago, as part of a beauty pageant show, participants had to parade in traditional dresses from the different regions where they came from. Almost all the traditional attires for women included some form of headscarf, some of them very similar to the different types of headscarves wore by Mulsim women.

    There are lots of different meanings attached to dress styles, including the use of headscarves; some of them may become more relevant in certain moments, due to specific circumstances and events.

  2. Nasima

    Interesting comment. I am a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf and studying in Spain. Many think I´m Moroccan and comments about my apparent oppression and lack of choice in the matter are more the exception than the rule. I was reading an article recently by a Moroccan writer- i can´t remember the name now- who quoted more than sixty reasons he found for wearing the muslim hijab based on surveys he did in Morocco alone. Yet, when Westerners see us, they homogenise us all and immediately resort to comments about lack of choice, barbarity, pity for these poor women etc. In fact, during the French occupation in Algeria, the women wore the hijab as much as a sign of resistance against the French who forced them to remove it, as a symbol of their Islamic faith. In Morocco, for many girls, as the author noted, the scarf is as much a fashion statement as it is a cultural attachment. Living here in Spain, when someone tells me i should remove my hijab, show my beauty etc. and in a forceful, persuasive manner sometimes, it is as violent as when someone forces you to wear it. We have extremes in every culture but it is erroneous to limit ourselves to generalisations without concrete evidence. I wear the hijab both as a sign of resistance to streotypes about oppression and lack of freedom as well as to show my adherence to certain values which i believe transcend the Islamic faith. As Amin Maalouf rightly notes, our identity consists of multiple belongings and limiting a woman´s identity only to her hijab is simply myopic and unfair. In short, yes, some women wear the hijab out of force, but many others wear it out of choice. Interesting article.

  3. Abu Muhammad

    Salaam, very nice article. Except that a Muslim lady is not forced to wear hijab. she wears it by choice. If you want to be a Muslim lady you know that you must observe hijab. Being a Muslim means to obey the injunctions of the Holy Quran and Sunah of the Prophet(SAWS). If you dion’t want to wear it, you don’t want to obey Allah and His Prophet(SAWS) therefore you may wear it and don’t want to which means that simply are not Muslim because you don’t want to obey Allah and His Prophet(SAWS).

  4. zoi

    Everybody has right to dress the way they want so if a Muslim woman wants to wear the hijab she has a right to do so without any problems

  5. saif

    The habit comes from society where you leave.If maximum people wearing hijab it is easy to adopt. but if nobody are wearing hijab in your society,then it is very difficult to be accustom of it.then it is totally depend upon a person that how much he love ALLAH and his Prophet.and wants to hide his or her modesty.

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