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 be.
“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 in January.
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 Islamic dress.
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 state.
3. No society has absolute freedom
In response to the enforcement of Hijab in some Muslim countries, Badawi says:
”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 ‘choice'.”
“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 of Ontario).
4. In an Islamic state there should be choice in the 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,” he notes.
“Like the issue of Iman [Faith] and only after that is attained, detailed issues like this [Hijab] would fall in place without much pressure.”