Hijab: Break the Social Stigma
By Raihana Shams Islam Hijab, which is usually referred to as the head and chest covering worn by Muslim women, happens to be a very topical issue. Hijab and the whole concept of the prescribed modesty
By Raihana Shams Islam
Hijab, which is usually referred to as the head and chest covering worn by Muslim women, happens to be a very topical issue. Hijab and the whole concept of the prescribed modesty in Muslim women’s attire (rather the excess of it!) are the subjects of interest all around the world. I, too, have chosen to write on this as it is very close to my heart (and my head).
Ideally, the sole reason for a Muslimah to wear hijab is to please Allah. We believe it to be a divine order. But the fact that hijab is a religious obligation on Muslim women seems to bother many people across the globe. Had it not been an obligatory rite in Islam, the Western world would not be so obscenely preoccupied with it.
The fact of the matter is that all Muslim men and women are required to dress up modestly. The level of clothing that would suffice as being modest, in Islamic sense, is different for men and women because of their sheer physical and mental dissimilarities. This is the simple explanation as to why women should cover some additional body parts which men do not have to. But this natural reasoning seems incompatible with the politically correct “modern” view, a view which sees gender differences and gender discriminations as synonymous! In today’s world, the rightful concept of equality of the genders is often confused with the unnatural idea that the two sexes have to be the ditto replica of each other in every respect. As a consequence, women’s hijab is often deemed as a form of oppression against women. It remains one of the focal points of an unhealthy obsession of the West towards Islam. So donning of hijab in this critical world can be a daunting task.
I was brought up in a family where hijab had not been very prevalent. I have seen my great grandmother and my paternal grandmother wearing head-covers with jilbab when outdoors. But the buck stopped there. The next generation failed to follow suit. Hijab was well-respected, but not practised. Modesty in clothing was always maintained. But we all know that modesty is a very subjective concept, it differs widely depending upon individuals, families and societies. My father was a deeply religious man and I had been greatly influenced by him in that respect. But I did not wear hijab. I did believe that it was the divine preference and I knew that I should choose this path. Yet I could not. Something in me held me back. I knew deep down that one day I would surely be donning one. But I kept putting it off. I needed, but could not gather, that extra bit of strength to go one step further. Two things were keeping me from making that final decision — apprehension of social ridicule and hesitation in making an ultimate commitment. Maybe these two things were intertwined, only showing the lack of deep imaan in me. I believe my situation was not unique and many girls find themselves in the same shoes.
Almost three decades of my life had passed. Then something happened. I could feel myself getting ready for that moment. That one final step to get me on the right track did not seem so daunting anymore. Allah had blessed me with the courage and confidence to reassert my faith in Him. Donning of hijab came naturally to me. And I must say, wearing this so-called “symbol of oppression” has been a liberating experience for me. This sense of submission to Allah, the Almighty, is purely therapeutic to the soul.
What made this happen? The insecurities and apprehension that one has in early years tend to wither away with age, experience and personal achievements. The maturity empowers you to make the right choice. This is true for every aspect of life and it worked for me, too. On top of this, living abroad at the time helped, I think. I was fortunate enough to see many of the minority Muslims of the West. Their commitment to Islam in a society adverse to it impressed me to the core. The way they carry themselves socially is, in itself, a beautiful da’waah to Islam. This must have contributed to my personal decision making. Also the bond between the fellow Muslimahs, especially in a society where Muslims are a minority, is immensely strong. You could be in Rome, being stared at in the streets and feeling alone and awkward. But when a stranger in hijab comes up to greet you, you will feel an instant bonding of sisterhood, no matter which part of the world she is from. This sense of ummah inspired me.
Besides, in this age of confusion and confrontation, blind stereotyping and blatant Islamophobia could prove to be catalysts to an increased awareness of one’s identity as a Muslim. The more your belief is ostracized, the more you will do soul-searching. And chances are there that you will come out as a stronger believer. No wonder, more and more Muslim women, all over the world, are choosing to cover themselves to affirm their religious identity.
The after-effects of this huge change in life are many-folds. One fine morning you put on hijab for the very first time. You almost feel a spiritual serenity. This is the calm after the storm of so many years of tug-of-war with your own-self. You are happy to start your journey afresh on the right path. But in no time you will realize that this journey is not meant to be easy. Facing the people you know, with hijab on you for the very first time, can be quite disconcerting. You have to be strong to take the stares and the remarks which will come in many shapes and forms. Some will be encouraging, some patronizing, others belittling and almost condemning. And these are only from the people who know you. Then there are people in the streets, at bus-stops and train stations, in the shops and everywhere who do not know you, but make it a point to stare at you and judge you on the basis of what you are wearing. And rest assured that this is the baggage you will have to carry and endure for the rest of your new journey.
Some people will look down upon you because, in their view, you have chosen to be “enslaved” by a religious scripture. It is no use arguing with them that, in our minds, there is not even a comparison between being the slave of our Creator and being a “fashion slave” or an “individualist” humbug. There are others who will feel pity for you because when they look at your hijabi face, they see the sure sign of an oppressed soul. In their minds, the only scenario they can come up with is that your parents, your husband or your in-laws must have “made” you wear this piece of cloth against your will. As if a woman with a hijab (or a niqab, for that matter) is some sort of a subhuman who cannot think and act for herself! This is simply dehumanizing beyond measure. Many parents who are practising Muslims try their best to instill Islamic sense of modesty in their children. If this is oppression, then parental guidance or discipline regarding regular schooling, homework or character building would also have to be so! Thus, what we have to face with regard to hijab (or niqab) is nothing but stereotypical branding stemming from sheer ignorance and prejudice. We know that there are some who do not know any better than to just impose it on women. But coercion into wearing hijab without instilling Islamic values cannot be an effective way. Sometimes it backfires. The best way would be to infuse, in childhood, the love for Allah and the desire to please Him. The rest will follow in due time.
I have met people who like to remain politically correct and therefore abstain from criticizing hijab. But many of them cannot hide their condescending tones when they remark, “you must be feeling very hot in that” or “that (hijab) must be very uncomfortable in this climate”. They do not seem bothered about any other kind of attire or accessories that might be uncomfortable because of their shapes, materials, tightness or designs, like pointed stiletto heels or body-hugging blouses or jeans. All their concerns are concentrated on Islamic clothing! For these “well-meaning” gentlemen and ladies, my answer is straightforward.
Yes, we do feel hot in hot weather with those extra pieces of cloth over our bodies. But we could do without your pities, because we have chosen this for ourselves for the sake of Allah. Physical comfort is not the priority here, mental comfort is. Hijab makes us feel pure, protected and dignified. By sacrificing many earthly attractions in order to please Allah, we feel a certain sort of contentment that adds to our confidence and empowers us to face the hostile world boldly. Hijab is not a tool for dominance of men over women, it is an embodiment of modesty borne out of religious conviction.
Dr. Raihana Shams Islam
Department of Physics
University of Rajshahi