By  Dr Moin Qazi

One of the Islamic symbols that has 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, has lately ruled 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 burka 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 a 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 socila dsruptr 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.

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 practised 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 range 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, the 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 emphasising that dressing modestly and covering their hair minimises sexual harassment in the workplace.  It is a path that aids in self-purification and coming nearer to their Creator.    

To be continued

The writer holds PhD degrees in economics and English.



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