By Dr Moin Qazi
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 are 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 hayaa. 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.
Recognising 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 recognise 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 stipulate 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.
The writer holds PhD degrees in economics and English.