Image courtesy of Fine Art America
It has been four years since I wrote a personal essay about whether the hijab really was empowering for women if it was enforced, especially in a conflict zone. Since then I have seen Western Social Justice Warriors normalising the hijab by draping the American flag over themselves in solidarity with the Muslim women feeling insecure in Trump’s America, Nike putting its swoosh on hijabi sports gear, a delegation of Western women politicians visiting Tehran and Riyadh wearing headscarves, the advent of the burkini, fashion events and beauty contests featuring hijab-wearing women, Halima Aden becoming Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue's first hijab-wearing model, hijab clad ballerinas, and pole dancers and so on and so forth.
What infuriated me further was the poster of Hindu women in chador – Iranian style, with bindis on the forehead symbolizing the solidarity of Hindu women with the Muslim protestors resisting the governments Citizenship Amendment Act at Shaheen Bagh. I thought the backlash among liberal Hindus, and Leftists would be enough for the creative minds of the protests to rethink and pause. But then the Indian Tricolor draped as a hijab on a poster finally crossed the line. Not even commenting on the disrespect over the flipping of the flag with the green showed resting over the forehead; a subtle message by the Islamists in midst of the movement which the useful idiots of Indian Liberals never seem to get.
In the 1990s when Kashmir erupted in an insurgency, fuelled by the Pakistan-ISI waging a proxy war on India through our disillusioned and disgruntled youth, the hijab was enforced through threats of acid attacks and knee capping incidents of women wearing jeans. Not only were wine shops, beauty parlours, cinema halls asked to shut down but the Kashmiri Pandits were ethnically cleansed by a pogrom of terror and forced to migrate to mainland India and other parts of the world.
As described in my hijab article, I recall trying out the various burqas, surrounded by my mother, aunts and cousins and finally giving up in frustration. It would take me more than a decade to realize my dusky skin provided me safety enough not to be touched before the Islamised ones made up their minds about my ethnicity. So the fear that my family had when I refused to bow down to the diktats of the militant organizations was unfounded. Over the course of my adult life as I started chronicling the history of my land and the experiences of its people, I would hear numerous similar stories of young women forced into the hijab. But what actually came out was the effect of the enforcement of the hijab not only on women but men too. Suddenly when their sisters, cousins, mothers, aunts started veiling, the men went through all sorts of weirdness, confusion, perversion and trauma – a side we never get to hear.
But first how did we get to that? How did the Iranians, the Afghanis, the Kashmiris, the Egyptians get to this? Seeing pre-1979 photos and video clips of all these places and the women dressed normally in the fashion of those times, one can’t help mulling over what happened. There is a video of Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser explaining to his people that the Muslim Brotherhood in 1958 wanted their women to cover their hair. One never gets tired of re-watching the laughter of the people. A beautiful voice shouts out, “Let him wear it!” and there are more sniggers from the crowd. They couldn’t help mocking the Muslim Brotherhood for suggesting that women should be required to wear the hijab and that Islamic law should be enforced across the country. I still shake my head whenever I re-watch it. Of course, the answers have come steadily and surely but it still boggles the mind when in 2020 one sees the appropriation of a head gear for protest movements, something which was once laughed at, cursed and dismissed as fanatic thinking be it Kashmir or Egypt.
The word hijab literally means “curtain” in Arabic. It has also been stretched to mean “hiding”, “obstructing” and “isolating” someone or something. The hijab or headscarf, according to the teachings of Islam is a symbol of modesty and dignity. When Muslim women wear headscarves, they are readily identified as followers of Islam. It is, first and foremost, an act of worship among Muslim women. However, hijab clothing has also become a potent indicator of identity. Two nations (Saudi Arabia and Iran) require women to wear hijab coverings. Most Muslim dominated nations do not have either restrictions or requirements concerning hijab clothing.
The veil is a vehicle for distinguishing between women and men and a means of controlling male sexual desire, at least that is what was explained to us the very first time. Muslim men are also urged to be modest and to cover themselves between the waist and the knees, but over the years I have found this instruction for males as mere tokenism and often brought up in debates between reformers and Islamists, or believers defending the hijab. This philosophy of modesty or modesty culture that these instructions cultivate have resulted in those who do not cover to be slut-shamed, ostracized, and character-assassinated as well as labelled immodest women bringing dishonour not only on themselves but also on their male family members.
Today, let us consider the other effect of making women wear the hijab. In all of this uproar whether the hijab is empowering for women or another patriarchal tool; a debate which should have been put to rest because of Masih Alnejad’s relentless campaigning of My Stealthy Freedom – a movement to protest laws requiring women to wear hijabs that Iran’s theocracy put in place after it won control in 1979). The other grass root movement of Iranian women’s White Wednesdays drives home the injustice of modesty clothing and how the regime enforces this on the great Persian culture. Finally in December 2017, the world got to see the brave women of Iran defying the regime by untying their scarves and waving them from poles while facing imprisonment. If this wasn’t enough for the Western liberals who enable this regressive practice due to postmodernist interpretations and their stubbornness about cultural relativism, I do not know what will open their eyes to such regressiveness.
We don’t always focus on the other side of this religious injunction - what the enforcement of the hijab does to men / boys when their sisters, cousins, female classmates suddenly start wearing the veil. The basic message is that women are a sexual distraction to men, especially the ones who are weak and must not be tempted by the sight of hair or skin. There is the notion that “the woman is awrah,” or forbidden, an idea that leads to the confinement, subordination, silencing and subjugation of women’s voices and presence in public society. Not only is the onus of responsibility for good behaviour shifted on the women but it also warps the sense of sexuality of the men who are boys, just beginning to explore theirs.
Imagine a young boy seeing this practice of the veil starting among his sisters, neighbourhood girls and connecting the message behind the enforcement. Wouldn’t it develop a perverted sense of sexuality in his mind, and also a disgust of women if he is a person of faith? Isn’t it a short step from that to start seeing all women as the temptresses or she-devils they are made out to be especially in patriarchal societies? Is it any wonder then that Muslim societies have very high cases of domestic violence, physical abuse, marital rape and molestation, incest? Apologists of repressed sexuality and its problems in Muslim society will always tell you that no data exists for these problems. But over the years many gynaecologists, NGOs, activists, lawyers, counsellors, psychiatrists, and police officers have testified that even though under reported, repressed sexuality is the leading cause of crimes against women in Muslim societies.
The Rotherham grooming scandal in the UK and others like it across Europe are proof of how much twisted the minds of Muslim men are regarding consent, sex, age of a child, culture, laws and human dignity of women. Testimony after testimony of Pakistani men (South Asia leads in misogyny and rape culture) indicates that religious teachings which eventually formed the culture of the region have contributed greatly in their perception of women, girls, the white race, sexual slavery and sexuality. All of this can’t directly be linked to the enforcement of the hijab or veil but one can’t help wondering and making connections as to what could enable men to start treating girls/women like objects of pleasure, or temptation and not as human beings with feelings, rights and minds.
In conversations with freethinking adult men, school going or college boys, my late husband and growing son over the years, it was interesting to learn what they started thinking of their sisters, cousins, batch mates, and neighbours differently once it was made clear that they were haram to male gaze. They couldn’t view them further as persons with hopes, dreams, feelings, or sense of humour. It was always about the show of skin, or whether any male friend, neighbour of theirs, or a stranger saw them as potential pleasure objects. Of course, the male instinct of protecting was appealed to but many of the speakers couldn’t help wondering how their relationships would have turned out normally had the religious injunction of the veil not propped up at the onset of puberty. There is a possibility that the three countries in South Asia with a sizeable Muslim population, perception of women and their relation with the community, family and country is all honour based; which is where things become volatile, restricted, confined, stunted and dangerous.
Today being the No Hijab Day -- a counter to the silly World Hijab Day, it is impertinent that societies become aware of what the hijab actually is and what its practice actually entails. As Asra Nomani and Hala Arfa in their December 2015 article (roundabout the same date as my The Nation, Pakistan one) in The Washington Post write:
Please do this instead: Do not wear a headscarf in “solidarity” with the ideology that most silences us, equating our bodies with “honour.” Stand with us instead with moral courage against the ideology of Islamism that demands we cover our hair.