The ban on Hijab has stirred a great deal of discussion that has gone far deeper than simply the issue of wearing the Hijab. The intellectuals and the analysts of the world are discussing the issues involved in depth, leaving their audience with a variety of opinions and questions to contemplate. Perhaps no other issue has stirred as much controversy as the recent decisions to impose the ban on the veil in many European public places and schools.
In the heat of the passions that have raged across the Muslim and the Western World, this issue has again ignited, and reinforced the view about the conflict between Islam and the West and the question of Western racism against Arabs and Muslims. The furor over Hijab opened the gateway to a host of other issues. The first incident over Hijab that was debated hotly took place in France in 1989. The modernists attempted to link it to the global winds of change that were taking place during the period 1989 - 1992. Before then, Muslims had been present in France for years, and the people of France had accepted the Hijab donned by the Muslim women as a part of their religion and culture, and there was not a single problem among the tolerant people of France about the right of Muslim women wearing the Hijab in public places, schools, and colleges.
It is extremely distressing for the Muslim world to observe that some people in the West simply like to attribute the problems faced by the Muslims of Europe to Islam. Then they link it to the problems of Muslim women in an Islamic society, and finally they deduce from their observations that it is all because of the issue of Hijab, which stops the Muslims and their women from getting integrated with the Western society. The larger questions relating to the problems of Muslims in Europe, like racism, unemployment, discrimination, and being treated as second class citizens even those Muslims who are born and brought up over there and acquired the citizenship of the Western countries, are simply brushed aside. If the Western politicians address these problems taking the bull by its horns, then they will emerge out among the guilty people who are responsible for the present plight of Muslims in the Western world - a responsibility they do not want to shoulder - for that will not be in their political interests to do so.
We would like to dwell on the subject and its diverse dimensions and answer to the most frequently asked questions and misunderstandings regarding Hijab. Let us first shed some light on what is considered in the West as the greatest symbol of women’s oppression and servitude in the Islamic world - the Hijab - the veil or the head cover worn by a Muslim woman to fulfill her obligatory duty enjoined upon her by the Islamic Shariah. A believing Muslim woman does not follow the rite of veiling herself as an act of compulsion imposed upon her by the males in an Islamic society, but to fulfill her sacred duty that has been enjoined upon her by the teachings of the Religion of Islam.
Lexically, Hijab is derived from the Arabic word “hajaba”, which means “to conceal something” or “to prevent from being seen or noticed by others”. The Islamic code of dress requires that a Muslim woman wears clothing that is loose and opaque. Whenever a Muslim woman leaves the house, or whenever the males in her house receive male visitors not belonging to the immediate family members, she is required to don on the Hijab, until the guests leave the house.
Now, let us examine whether the Hijab is mandatory on women of other religions. Rabbi Dr. Menachem M. Brayer (Professor of Biblical Literature at Yeshiva University) comments in his book “The Jewish woman in Rabbinic literature”: It was the custom of Jewish women to go out in public with a head covering which, sometimes, even covered the whole face leaving one eye free. He quotes some famous ancient Rabbis saying, “It is not like the daughters of Israel to walk out with heads uncovered” and “Cursed be the man who lets the hair of his wife be seen…. a woman who exposes her hair for self-adornment brings poverty.” It is clear from the words of the learned Professor that the Rabbinic Law clearly forbids the recitation of blessings or prayers in the presence of a bareheaded, married woman since uncovering the woman’s hair was considered equivalent to “nudity”.
Dr. Brayer also mentions in his book: “During the Tannaitic period the Jewish woman’s failure to cover her head was considered an affront to her modesty. When her head was uncovered she might be fined four hundred zuzim for this offense.” Dr. Brayer also explains that veil of the Jewish woman was not always considered a sign of modesty. Sometimes, the veil symbolized a state of distinction and luxury rather than modesty. The veil personified the dignity and superiority of noble women. It also represented a woman’s inaccessibility to others and signified that she was a sacred possession of her husband.
It is clear in the Old Testament that uncovering a woman’s head was a great disgrace and that’s why the priest had to uncover the suspected adulteress in her trial by ordeal (Numbers 5:16-18). The next question that immediately comes to our mind is: What does the Christian tradition say about Hijab? It is well known that the Catholic Nuns have been covering their heads for hundreds of years, but that is not all the tradition that is found in the New Testament. St. Paul in the New Testament has made some very interesting statements about the veil: “Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head. And every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head - it is just as though her head were shaved. If a woman does not cover her head, she should have her hair cut off; and if it is a disgrace for a woman to have her hair cut off or shaved off, she should cover her head. A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man, neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.” (I Corinthians 11:3-10).
St. Tertullian in his famous treatise ‘On The Veiling Of Virgins’ wrote, “Young women, you wear your veils out on the streets, so you should wear them in the church, you wear them when you are among strangers, then wear them among your brothers…” Among the Canonical laws of the Catholic Church today, there is a law that requires women to cover their heads in church. Some Christian denominations, such as the Amish and the Mennonites for example, keep their women veiled to this present day. And, the reasons for the veil, as offered by their Church leaders of those particular denominations are: “The head covering is a symbol of woman’s subjugation to the man and to God.”
From all the above evidence, it is obvious that Islam did not invent the head covering for a woman or ordered the veiling of her face, but Islam reinforced the teachings of all the Prophets of Allah who came before Prophet Muhammad (saws). The Holy Qur’an urges the believing men and women to lower their gaze and guard their modesty, and then urges the believing women to extend their head covers to cover the neck and the bosom: “Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty… 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 ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms….” (24:30,31). The Holy Qur’an is quite clear that the veil is essential for a woman to maintain her modesty, but why is modesty so important in the Religion of Islam? The Holy Qur’an further elaborates this fact in some of the other verses found in the Book of Allah: “O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the believing women that they should cast their outer garments over their bodies (when abroad) so that they should be known and not molested” (33:59). And, this is the sole reason why modesty is prescribed to protect women from molestation, in other words, modesty is protection. Thus, the only purpose of the veil in Islam is protection. The Islamic veil, unlike the veil of the Christian tradition, is not a sign of man’s authority over woman nor is it a sign of woman’s subjugation to man. The Islamic veil, unlike the veil in the Jewish tradition, is not a sign of luxury and distinction of some noble married women. The Islamic veil is only a sign of modesty with the sole purpose of protecting women, all the women who live within the boundaries set by the Religion of Islam. The Islamic philosophy is that it is always better to be safe, rather than being sorry at a later date.
In fact, the Holy Qur’an is so concerned with protecting women’s bodies and women’s reputation that a man who dares to falsely accuse a woman as being unchaste without producing adequate proof to this effect will be severely punished. It is stated in the Holy Qur’an: “And those who launch a charge against chaste women, and produce not four witnesses (to support their allegations)- Flog them with eighty stripes; and reject their evidence ever after: for such men are wicked transgressors.” (24:4). If we compare this strict Qur’anic Law and attitude with the extremely lax punishment for rape in the Bible then we learn that: “If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the girl, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives.” (Deuteronomy, 22:28-30)
If ‘civilization ‘ offers enough protection to women of the Western world, then we should learn the answers about why is it considered unsafe for women in North America, who dare not walk alone in a dark street - or even across an empty parking lot? If education is the solution, then why is it that respected universities like University of Essex have a ‘walk home service’ for female students on its campus? If self-restraint is the answer, then why do the newspapers and the television channels of the world report cases of sexual harassment in the workplace on the news media on a daily basis?
According to reports: In Canada, a woman is sexually assaulted every 6 minutes”, 1 in 3 women in Canada will be sexually assaulted at some time in their lives”, 1 in 4 women are at the risk of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime”, 1 in 8 women will be sexually assaulted while attending college or university. A study has found 60% of Canadian university-aged males said they would commit sexual assault if they were certain they would not get caught.”
These alarming statistics show that something is fundamentally wrong in the Western Christian society. A radical change in the society’s lifestyle and culture is absolutely necessary. A culture of modesty is badly needed, modesty in dress, in speech, and in manners of both men and women. Otherwise, the grim statistics will grow even worse day after day, and the unfortunate women of the Western world will be paying the heavy price for forsaking modesty. Therefore, countries like Britain, and France, which expel young women from schools because of wearing a modest dress are simply harming themselves.
It is one of the great ironies of our world today that the very same headscarf revered as a sign of ‘holiness’ when worn for the purpose of showing the authority of man by Catholic Nuns, is reviled as a sign of ‘oppression’ when worn for the purpose of protection by Muslim women. The orthodox Muslim woman does not perceive the veil as inhibiting or oppressive. On the contrary, the veil guarantees her the full respect of the surroundings, and is considered by her as a privilege and not as a burden, which runs contrary to the popular belief held by the members of the non-Muslim society. The dignity of the wife or the daughters, or the dignity of any Muslim woman, for that matter, must be respected and protected. The Western world entertains the erroneous notion that the veil represents a compulsion from the husband and the religion. But women wearing veils, on the other hand, normally radiate devotion, and take pride in following their religion. They have chosen the veil as a clear demonstration of their Muslim identity. Of course, there may be families where the woman is forced, for instance to stay at home. But that does not imply that the Religion of Islam endorses this act.
Alain Badiou, one of France ‘s leading philosophers, and head of the Philosophy Department of the Ecole normale supérieure in Paris, once wrote when he saw some feminist ladies demand the President to impose a ban on Hijab: “Strange is the rage reserved by so many feminist ladies for the few girls wearing the Hijab. They have begged the poor president Chirac to crack down on them (Veiled ladies) in the name of the Law. Meanwhile the prostitution of female body is everywhere. The most humiliating pornography - depicting women in the receiving end - is universally sold. Advice on sexually exposing bodies lavishes teen magazines day in and day out. It is said virtually everywhere that the “veil” is an intolerable symbol of control over female sexuality. Do you really believe female sexuality is not to be controlled in our society these days? This naiveté would have made Foucault laugh. Never has so much care been given to female sexuality, so much attention to detail, so much informed advice, so much distinguishing between its good and bad uses. Enjoyment has become a sinister obligation. The universal exposure of supposedly exciting parts is a duty more rigid than Kant’s moral imperative!”
The relation between the Western and Eastern world is very complicated and may include several subjects that can be written down in many volumes. The idea of colonial wars and Western campaigns on the Arab and Islamic world left deep wounds in the latter. The great European countries profited a lot from these campaigns, especially France and Britain. When the Colonial Era ended, the Arabs and Muslims felt annoyed because of Western bias, which tilted towards the Israeli occupation of their lands. Three events that occurred in the past few years deeply affected the relations between the Arab and Islamic world and the West. First, it was the Al Aqsa Intifada, which erupted in the year of September 2000 against Israeli Occupation of the Holy Mosque of Aqsa that is sacred to all the Muslims of the world. The second reason was the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. And, the third was the war on Afghanistan and Iraq. During this period, both sides exchanged hostile feelings encouraged by the radicals of both the societies. At the same time, the Muslims are deeply appreciative of the fact that certain sections of society of the non-Muslim community, where the Age of Reason still exists, have seen the merits of the Religion of Islam. They have fearlessly sided with the Muslims after understanding their viewpoints, their religion and culture. They have debunked the myths of those people who have tried to transform this era into a Clash of Civilizations between Islam and the Western Christian world. They have frustrated the efforts of the Right Wing Christian Missionaries and the Politicians who have pledged allegiance to them for destroying the social fabric of Islam of which the Muslim family is a unit, by targeting the most vulnerable person in the family - the Muslim woman. On the other hand, the Muslim women who are well aware of the Western game plan have chosen not to walk into this trap and have bravely fought back for the right to wear Hijab and follow Islam as the religion of their choice!