As women are encouraged to wear a head covering for 24 hours on World Hijab Day, we should find ourselves asking, what is the true significance of the hijab to Muslim women?
February 1st, the world’s biggest cover up.
Nothing to do with September 11th, nothing to do with GM crops, nothing to do with Diana. Nope. February 1st is World Hijab Day!
Hijab is possibly one of the most perplexing topics on the face of the earth, up there with jihad, who killed JFK, and how George W Bush was elected President twice. World Hijab Day attempts to demystify the issue of hijab: to promote better awareness and a greater understanding, according to the website. Rather than marches, scholarly articles and campaigns, World Hijab Day is taking a novel approach and has issued an invitation to women across the world to don a head covering for a day, under the tag-line: ‘Before you judge, cover up… for a day.’
I’m excited about this, and I salute any woman taking up the challenge. Stepping into a covering Muslim woman’s shoes for 24 hours, I’m predicting, will be an eye opener for many. I sincerely hope it will help clarify the reasons behind the hijab, for it seems that an aura of confusion exists around this particular mode of dress.
Ask about the reasons for wearing hijab and you’ll probably hear something to do with modesty. There are indeed verses in the Qur’an regarding this, and it is an intrinsic part of the Islamic faith for both men and women. But modesty as an Islamic concept does not refer only to a way of dressing. Modesty involves attitude, behaviour and speech, and whilst it is enhanced, and some might add completed, by modest attire, clothing alone is not enough.
Modesty might be an answer, but since it’s not confined to dress, for me it’s not the answer.
Another common response is that the hijab is worn so as not to attract attention to one’s self. I argue that I’m probably the first person people notice when they walk into a room, sat there in hijab, particularly if I’m the only person in a head-covering.
I came across a refreshing take on the idea of ‘attracting attention’ in the work of Yasmina Mogahed recently. The hijab is meant to conceal what could be seen as the (sexually) ‘attractive’ features of a woman, for indeed the hijab does not refer only to a head covering, but garments which do not reveal the figure (which, by the way, men are instructed to adopt also). This is not because a woman is not worthy of being noticed, or is only ever a seen as a sexual object. Rather she wears the hijab so as to ‘draw attention to what is important’. In a world saturated with images of the ‘perfect’ female body, in which women’s faces and figures are used to sell even airline tickets (tell me that’s not what Virgin is doing in its most recent adverts) it’s refreshing to divert attention to what’s more important, that is, what women have to say.
So, perhaps diverting attention would be more apt a reason? I’d go for useful side-effect instead. It would be naïve to say that only covered women are heard in society, and that the reason Muslim women choose to cover is only to prevent unwanted looks and leers.
So what is the reason for hijab then?
I believe the answer lies in one of the main verses in the Qur’an pertaining to this topic is found in Chapter 33, verse 59, where believing women are instructed to cover: ‘O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful.’
‘That they will be known.’ Not inconspicuous, not hidden, certainly not silent. Known. Hijab, to me, is a uniform. Perhaps not in the school-uniform sense (shudder), but in the professional sense: an outfit or style of dress worn to identify members according to their role. My role on this earth is as a servant of God. And my hijab should tell you that. It should also tell me that. When I put it on, it’s a statement, and a reminder of who I am and what I stand for and what I’m here to do. It’s a reminder to smile. It’s a reminder to hold my tongue, or my hand from the horn. That doesn’t mean when I’m at home and not wearing it (because yes, we can take it off at home, and in the shower) that I forget, or that I don’t do these things. Just like a policeman would still endeavour to uphold the law even when they’re out of uniform. It just means when I’m out and about, it puts my actions into context. It dresses the words I say and the way I act in the uniform of my faith (so they better fit the bill!)
Sadly, this is not the picture of hijab that is painted around the world. Hijab is abused. The concept has been twisted, and manipulated, and it makes me angry that it has been presented as a way to isolate women from society and to exhibit man’s control over his female counterparts. This is wrong and neither the Qur’an, nor the life and actions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) support this. In fact, when the verses regarding the hijab were revealed, women immediately adopted it of their own free will.
I do not, and I repeat this strongly, do not wear my hijab for men or because of men. I chose to wear my hijab, and would wear it even if there were no men on the face of the earth. Because it would still be my uniform, the context in which I live my life, a reminder of who I am, what I stand for and what I’m here to do. And it would still tell society that too.
Seen in this light, hijab is not a covering. It is the uncovering of a woman’s beliefs. It’s a big thing to do, making that statement. Living and dressing up to your ideals. And I salute any woman who unfurls the colours of her head-covering, and any who wears it for a day, standing in solidarity with women who, in a world that is fast turning against faith, are telling the world it still matters to them.
Image credits: http://sphotos-b.xx.fbcdn.net/hphotos-prn1/522043_478245778865836_692088536_n.jpg
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