Hijab Is Not Just For Muslims

Fridays in 2006When I first wrote this article in 2006, women around the world were in the middle of a sort of quiet revolution. Western countries had begun to extend their “war on terrorism” to policing how much flesh a woman had to show in order to prove that she was not a terrorist. This policing has been around since the 1950’s but in the mid 2000’s it became a matter of law. Girls were suspended from school over it. Government workers and teachers were fired. Bigoted police and even civilians were emboldened to rip women’s clothes off their bodies. It was bad.

This was also a time when people were being kicked out of school and fired from their jobs for having cornrows, dreadlocks, and sometimes just not straightening their hair.

So many women in various religious and spiritual communities decided enough was enough. Some organised, but even more took it upon themselves to wear their traditional headwraps, scarves, hats, veils, and other head coverings on Fridays even if they weren’t particularly religious. This was a time when you could see a woman in a slinky sun dress wearing a shayla, or someone who would any other day of the week wear a bikini, wear a “burkini” because it’s a Friday.

We all knew what it would mean if men were allowed to successfully police our modesty because we already have the experience of modesty being enforced. We still get blamed for rapes because our ankles were showing or our lipstick was too cute, and men are supposedly uncontrollable beasts if a square centimeter of our skin is visible.

In some places, hijab bans still stand, at least on the books, but it became clear to those attempting to enforce the visible flesh laws that we would find a way to subvert them. These laws were obviously targeting Muslim women, but they could just as easily be used against Jewish women, Amish women, nuns, chemotherapy patients, and Pagans who veil. Yes, there are adherents of various deities who veil because that is the tradition or personal call of their path.

Hijab is the word used to describe the Muslim style of modesty, though it has become a common term for many styles of veiling where at least the head, ears, and neck are covered.  It is sometimes used as a term for the veil or scarf itself, though the scarf is actually called a khimar.  What hijab is, in practice, depends on one’s marital status, and the requirements of the family, regional culture, or sect.

In most rural areas, for instance, a woman will not be expected to wear physically limiting clothing while she is working.  She will likely wear a long wrapper or sleeveless dress, and a scarf.  In some remote areas where women have both to work and tend to infants, she may even go topless because she would only be around relatives (mahram), and they don’t see this as particularly remarkable.

On the other hand, a wealthy woman from a good family in a metropolitan area may wear the full niqaab, which cloaks everything from head to toe, and even gloves, whenever she is outdoors or outside her family’s compound.  Most modern Muslim women, when not engaged in physical labor, will cover all except their hands and faces.  Some will wear skirts to the mid calf or just below the knee.  Some wear pants, and some don’t.  It depends on the individual, but generally Muslims women tend to dress modestly.

In some west Asian and African countries that have a Muslim majority, or a culturally strong Muslim population, almost all religious women will dress hijab to some degree.  Sometimes it works the other way, and Muslim women who may not be all that “orthodox”, who live in areas with a different religious majority, may decide to wear hijab as a matter of cultural identity, and to indicate to other Christian, Jewish, or Hindu women (and men) that they are also at least somewhat religious.  Sometimes non religious women will wear hijab, though, because in many situations, it just makes sense.

We know that Muslim women wear hijab, in part, because it is supported, though not actually commanded with the wording such as “thou shalt not bare thy shoulders”, in the Quran and Hadiths.  It, most likely, wasn’t a hard and fast commandment, because even in the prophet Muhammad’s time, most women didn’t have the luxury of an isolated, sedentary life.  I am sure that he knew the situational nature of modesty, and so things were kept in the context of public display.  The idea was that your body’s intimate details were not public domain, and were therefore, not the public’s business.

So what was specific is that only a woman’s hands and face should be visible to men who aren’t close blood relatives.  Whether it means the head and arms or just the hands and face has been debated for centuries and probably will be centuries from now.

In Islamic cultures, non Muslim women often dress hijab out of respect for the majority, and sometimes legal restrictions.

So why would a non Muslim woman want to dress hijab if she doesn’t really have to?

Well, for starters, historically, married, sequestered, or otherwise “off limits” women of all faiths, save for local belief systems in very tropical areas, have had at least one sect or time period in which they covered the hair.  The hair is considered to be a sort of beauty/health marker, and in societies where the hair itself wasn’t so important, the shape of the head and neck is.  So it is the practice of not wearing a veil or scarf that is actually stranger, and in the U.S. very likely a political manipulation of the public, to keep people divided.  If all women of faith or practical modesty were veiled, it would be difficult to visibly tell which was which, and which of them were Muslim.

Even for men, hair, wearing of hats, headgear, and style of the hair, has always been culturally important.  Kings around the world have worn crowns and headdress, to indicate their status.  In most of the armed services, rank symbols are not only worn on the shoulders, but the hat as well.  At times, the prophet Muhammad’s hair style was mentioned.  Sometimes it was short, and sometimes long and neatly braided.  He was also said to have taken special care not to mess up his turban unless it was necessary.

The second good reason is that if you’ve looked around lately, revealing clothes aren’t just worn on the runway anymore.  It seems that the obsession with thinness, which sprang from obsession with the body, is getting worse every year.  Despite the growing number of activists who are rejecting the “Barbie” body standard being attached to self worth, more older women, not just teenagers, are getting eating disorders.  The focus has moved from health to looks. Even the supposed “body positive” movement was hijacked by the new Brazilian butt lift Barbie ideal.

It is very easy to say, “Treat me as an equal,” but it is quite another thing to practice, and to demand justice.  Regardless of what ought to be, we live in a world where far too many people believe that what is open to their eyes is open to their hands.  I’m not talking about just imposing come-ons and touching.  I write also of the way that other women demean and degrade each other over physicality.

Hijab takes the body away from the eyes of those one does not choose to reveal it to, and thus, sends a message that, “This is my and/or my God’s domain.”

So, to all you non Muslim women out there, if you’re tired of being seen as your body, the next time you see a cute caftan, thobe or jilbab in a catalogue, don’t worry that you’re not Muslim.  Order it.  You will not only be helping yourself, but helping others to break the stereotypes about Muslims, and about women of other faiths and belief systems.

You’ll also be alot cooler in the summer, and warmer in the winter, and more comfortable year round.  No more chafing from tight clothes, and no more dependence on the details of your body shape for determining how people will perceive you.  You get to be just you, and not just your “sexual market value”.  In fact, it may open up totally new markets.

If you’re trying to attract or keep a good partner who values you for your personality, then it helps to present your personality before your body. However, it shouldn’t matter how you are dressed. In that awareness though, it’s good to have a variety in the wardrobe to show that it is your choice, not someone else’s, and not style “rules” that dictate how much or how little you will show. You should exercise your options.  Honestly, some folks just aren’t that concerned about modesty, and that’s their choice which should be respected.  However, if you’re not one of those people, and if you prefer not to expose your physique for the sake of trends, or you want to break out of the body obsessed mentality, then why not just do it?  Below are some links to get you started.

Veiling and Headcovering Information

The big three religions already have well known resources and standards. So this set of links is for those who may be secular or pantheistic/polytheistic/polyentheistic. Because we are aware of energy centers in the body, the effects of certain styles or types are relevant for us.

What is the significance of headwraps in Vodun/African spirituality? – A brief explanation of why head covering is common for practitioners of African and diaspora spiritual systems.

Veiling and the Chakras | Eclectic Witch – Notes on how veiling can affect the chakras and how to care for one’s head covering for optimal flow.

Hi, I’m a Head Covering Heathen – Lea Svendsen explains why she veils and how it has aided her spiritual growth and social awareness.

Shops

Lisa Aigbe Handmade – Stunning African headwrap designs as well as other accessories and clothing. Bespoke and custom ordering means each item is made specifically to your size and needs.

Turbante-se – Beautiful headbands, turbans, wraps, and “mascarf” (a face mask that drapes like a scarf) in many styles and patterns.

Al Hannah – Beautiful modest clothing for the whole family. If you live in a hot, humid climate, their cotton salwar kameez sets will be very useful.

Wrapunzel – Jewish women’s head coverings, scarves, and automatic turbans. They have some gorgeous styles.

About Sis. Nicole Lasher

Webmatron of ModernTraditional.com

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