Wearing the hijab

John Edmundson JWE21 at SPAMstudent.canterbury.ac.nz
Tue Aug 15 06:08:29 MDT 2000

Concerning the article:


Naheed Mustafa wears the hijab because she:

"believes her body is her own private concern. Young Muslim
women are reclaiming the hijab, reinterpreting it in light of its
original purpose to give back to women ultimate control of their own

I would seriously question both the stated origin and effect of the
hijab in liberating Naheed. The wearing of the veil in the Middle
East predates Islam by a couple of milennia and was quite
specifically used to distinguish between "respectable" and "non-
respectable" women. In ancient Assyria, for the respectable free
woman, the veil was mandatory, for the prostitute it was illegal. So
the primary function of the veil was to demonstrate respectability. If
abuse of women, judgement of women on the basis of appearance,
etc, were noticeably less prevalent in the Muslim world, I could
believe that the hijab might be a force for liberation. Since none of
this appears to be the case I find it hard to accept.

She notes that "Strangers speak to me in loud, slow English and
often appear to be playing charades. They politely inquire how I like
living in Canada and whether or not the cold bothers me. If I'm in
the right mood, it can be very amusing."

I don't find this in the least strange. Women living in North America
do not generally wear hijab. Attempting to communicate clearly in
the likelyhood that the woman's first language is not English is
simply common courtesy, although I'm sure it is funny at times.

"But, why would I, a woman with all the advantages of a North
American upbringing, suddenly, at 21, want to cover myself so that
with the hijab and the other clothes I choose to wear, only my face
and hands show? Because it gives me freedom."

Good question. There is no freedom in feeling comfortable in public
ONLY when covered from head to toe in formless clothing. True
freedom in this sense surely would come from feeling comfortable
in public in a whole range of different dress styles, not going into

"In the Western world, the hijab has come to symbolize either
forced silence or radical, unconscionable militancy. Actually, it's
neither. It is simply a woman's assertion that judgment of her
physical person is to play no role whatsoever in social interaction."

Wearing hijab is in no way "simply a woman's assertion that
judgment of her physical person is to play no role whatsoever in
social interaction." It is an action which, whether Naheed likes to
think so or not, carries with it the baggage of centuries of
socialisation. Naturally, in a society where veiling is normal, and
where a woman being unveiled is "loose", all women who want to
go about unmollested will take whatever (incomplete) protection the
veil affords. In a society where being less completely enshrouded is
not an invitation to unwanted sexual attention, it is relevant only in
the religious context, as an item of "uniform", to identify one with a

"Wearing the hijab has given me freedom from constant attention to
my physical self. Because my appearance is not subjected to
public scrutiny, my beauty, or perhaps lack of it, has been removed
from the realm of what can legitimately be discussed."

Actually, this is not true. At the start of the article she says:

"I get the whole gamut of strange looks, stares, and covert
glances." Probably far more "constant attention" than she would
get if she went unveiled.

"Women are not going to achieve equality with the right to bear their
breasts in public, as some people would like to have you believe.
That would only make us party to our own objectification."

There are many areas of the third world where women still bare
their breasts in public and this is deemed completely socially
acceptable, having no sexual connotation at all. This is
understandably difficult for many Muslims to believe, having been
raised to believe that the sight of too much flesh causes
uncontrolable lust. Muslims who live in such places obviously
adjust, and realise that these responses are socially created, not

"True equality will be had only when women don't need to display
themselves to get attention and won't need to defend their decision
to keep their bodies to themselves."

True enough, I'm sure, but neither will it be achieved by women
wrapping themselves in formless, body concealing clothing. Many
women in the Muslim world struggled at great personal risk to free
themselves and their sisters of the obligation to appear in the veil. If
Naheed wishes to wear hijab, that is her concern, and she can do
it for whatever reason she chooses. But freedom, equality and
liberation ultimately have nothing to do with dress sense.

I am aware that this "reinterpretation" of the veil has been taking
place in the Muslim world for some years now. It is no accident
that when secularism was the mainstream in the Middle East,
radical women struggled against the veil. Yet when Islamist politics
experiences a resurgence, it is towards the veil that 'radical' women
like Naheed are turning.
John Edmundson

More information about the Marxism mailing list