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THE QUESTION OF HIJAB AND CHOICE
By Sound Vision Staff Writer
The discussion at the Islam Awareness Week exhibition started out nicely
enough. We talked about women's rights, domestic violence, sexual abuse,
heavy, heavy issues. It was interesting, she was a feminist, and I, a
Muslim woman. But we connected.
Then, as always, the topic turned to Hijab. She started out politely enough,
complimenting me on mine and the way I wore it. She asked why I wore it.
Faith and personal choice, I replied, the words practically a mantra now
after speaking to several women about it in the past. But I began to feel
that familiar knot in my stomach. I knew what the next question would
As a feminist, I support your right to wear Hijab because it's a
choice. But if you really believe in choice, don't you support the right
of women NOT to wear Hijab in Iran, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, where
Hijab is forced on women?
I gulped. What could I say? I looked at my feet, and then looked up. She
had me cornered.
I just find it incredibly difficult to negotiate this question,
says Kathy Bullock, a Hijabi who completed a PhD. thesis on The Politics
of the Veil from the University of Toronto's Political Science Department
Muslims and Liberals, especially those who are feminists, occasionally
butt heads over this issue.
For liberals, Bullock explains, their views on Hijab are clear. For
them, even the mere fact that it's a thorny question for us it's a problem
because for them the issue is clear: the individual has the right to dress
as they choose.
She notes that Muslims, on the other hand, do favor kind of state enforcement
of Shariah, and by extension, Hijab.
The three countries most usually cited for Hijab enforcement are Afghanistan,
Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Hijab, more specifically the Burqa, has been enforced in Afghanistan since
the Taliban took over major parts of the country in 1996 following years
of civil war. The Burqa covers the entire body, head and face.
In Iran, Bullock says Hijab has been enforced since 1981, two years after
the Islamic Revolution took over the country's leadership, with the support
of most Iranians.
In Saudi Arabia, Bullock says she knows of no exact law making Hijab mandatory
in the state, but it seems custom, social and family pressure play a role
in ensuring Hijab, as well as the Niqab or face covering, is worn.
In all three cases, some form of violence has been associated with not
complying to Hijab in these countries, including beating and whipping.
The perception of many liberals is that Islam is violent, misogynist,
and anti-personal choice, with an Islamic state ideally interfering in
every aspect of its citizens' lives.
A RESPONSE TO THE QUESTION-SOME POINTS
Jamal Badawi is part of the North American Fiqh Council. He notes that
there is no precedent in Islamic teaching for state enforcement of HIjab.
However, there is evidence of positive pressure and encouragement to wearing
Badawi offers a few ways the liberal question can be answered:
1. WE DO NOT SUPPORT WHAT CONTRADICTS ISLAM
This point has to be mentioned at the outset, in order to set the guidelines
for the response to this question.
One cannot say I support the right' to disregard the teaching
of Islam, says Badawi in an interview with Sound Vision from his
home in Halifax, Nova Scotia. That's the trick in this question.
This is also important to remember because liberals do not view not wearing
Hijab as a wrong.
2. WE SUPPORT THE RIGHT METHOD THOUGH
What one can say safely is that we support the Prophetic approach
in bringing about change as it was done in the matter of Hijab without
resort to compulsion or force, explains Badawi.
Bullock agrees that it's important to separate the obligation of Hijab
from the violence that is often associated with its enforcement in some
Muslim societies. She notes a Muslim should condemn violence, for example,
but that it can be separated from the issue of Hijab enforcement by the
3. NO SOCIETY HAS ABSOLUTE FREEDOM
In response to the enforcement of Hijab in some Muslim countries, Badawi
When we say choice, there is no even liberal democracy in our century
that allows free choice in the absolute sense. For instance, even in the
Western world if a woman or man wants to make a choice' of walking
naked in a public place, we know that this is not regarded as an acceptable
That shows that societies have the right to set reasonable limits
on choices so as not to harm society at large or its moral values'.
It is in the same vain that it would not be inappropriate for an Islamic
state to set those reasonable limits.
Bullock suggests making parallels between dress cods in Muslim countries
and Western countries. For instance, in most of the West, women cannot
go topless on the streets (although it is legal in the Canadian province
4. IN AN ISLAMIC STATE THERE SHOULD BE CHOICE
IN TYPE OF HIJAB
Badawi points out that Muslim states should allow for differences in interpretation
of the Hijab, most notably, whether the face of a Muslim woman can remain
uncovered or not.
I must say that the reasonableness of those limits [on dress] should
imply that no one particular interpretation should be forced on all so
long as there is another legitimate interpretation, he says.
If there are these two Fiqh positions, nobody has the right to enforce
stricter limits if there is another legitimate interpretation which excludes
the covering of the face.
5. NO VIGILANTE GROUPS TO ENFORCE HIJAB
It must be emphasized that the concept of vigilante is unacceptable
in certain kinds of enforcement of the law, says Badawi. So
long as there is a state in place, an Islamic state, it would be the duty
of the state to enforce it on other levels.
It is not the right of individuals or groups to enforce criminal
law, for example, otherwise it would be a total chaos, because these are
matters that require due process of law in front of competent judges
One cannot refer to the broad Quranic injunction to enjoin the good
and forbid the evil to justify enforcement of criminal law. Organizations
however, may within the boundaries of the law advise and encourage the
enjoining the good and forbidding the evil just as individuals do.
6. HIJAB: GET OVER IT
The over obsession with Hijab also needs to be addressed when
such a question is brought up, says Badawi.
Given the nature of what's happening in Muslim societies today there
are lots of other wrongs on a more basic level that need to be corrected,
Like the issue of Iman [Faith] and only after that is attained,
detailed issues like this [Hijab] would fall in place without much pressure.
Salma Yaqoob, England -
wrote on 7/25/2004 8:23:41 AM
Comment: I thought the article was interesting - especially because the writer confessed her discomfort with handling some 'thorny' questions. As a hijab wearing Muslim woman I have also been asked these questions. Having thought about the issue of countries like Afganistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia in effect forcing women to wear the hijab, I think it is quite clear that they are going against a fundamental tenet of Islam 'there is no compulsion in religion.'
By forcing women to wear the hijab they are taking away the dignity and choice of women - and rather than adding to a harmonious and respectful society are contributing to one of fear and hypocrisy (for example as evidenced by the large number of Arab women who remove their hijabs on the aeroplanes out of their countries). I think the steps countries like France are taking to ban the hijab are a gross violation, but just as we cherish our right to wear the hijab and rightly expect others to defend us (whether they are Muslim or not), we have to defend the right of women to not wear one. Ultimately even in Muslim countries if we desire a society in which the hijab is the norm this can only come about in its fullest and most meaningful way if men and women willingly choose to practise its outer and inner aspects. There are no shortcuts.
Rather than being uncomfortable with confronting the actions of certain Muslim countries, we should clearly condemn them in their oppressive actions. Condemning a country for forcing hijab does not mean that you do not support the practice of hijab. It is important to condemn the coercion - and to understand that this takes nothing away from our respect for and belief in the hijab. Indeed removing oppression in all its forms is an Islamic duty - and if a state is oppressive -even (or especially) - if it does so in the name of Islam we must stand against it.
The truth is I see my wearing of hijab in England as part of my jihad, and I embrace the challenge of asserting my Muslim identity. The feeling of liberation comes from my personal submission to Allah - not to some man-made expectations - whether it is Western fashion or Asian culture. If I try to imagine living in Afghanistan, Iran or Saudi however, I think I would find it difficult to taste the sweetness of that liberation - having the choice taken away takes my own intention and ownership of my action away. Indeed I shudder to think how stifling it would be to not be allowed to come to my own decision- just as praying to Allah would make no sense to me if someone had to force me to do it.
Iram Y, Toronto -
wrote on 4/18/2004 6:26:45 AM
Comment: Assalamu Alaikum WRWB,
I thought your article was very informative and was very glad that it touched upon the issue of niqab even though it was brief. On a whole, the website is very informative as well. Just one suggestion: please include a section on the status of niqab or face veil in Islam. My parents forced me to wear one without really explaining the status of it in Islam (fard/waajib/sunnah/mustahab/haraam) and I can't find info on the topic from all of my searches. Thanks. Jazakallah.
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