Who knew a wee piece of fabric could be the subject of a ruling in the highest court in Europe? Just last week the European Court of Justice ruled that employers could ban the wearing of the hijab and other religious symbols if the job in question required the employee to appear religiously neutral.
The court said employers had to show a “genuine need” such as the “legitimate wishes” of customers, for the ban. Fiercely criticised, demonised and misunderstood, the hijab has become one of the most hotly debated topics in Europe. Simultaneously seen by some as a symbol of female oppression and by others as a symbol of religious freedom to wear what one wants, one thing is for sure: worldwide more women are choosing to wear the simple scarf that covers the hair than ever before.
In the 1970s when I used to visit cities in Pakistan as a child, I don’t remember anyone wearing a hijab. Instead my aunties and cousins would wear a long, brightly coloured sheer scarf around their necks called a dupatta which they would pull over their heads for a few minutes when the call to prayer rang out.
At university in Glasgow in the late 1980s there was a large group of Muslim students and I remember only one wearing the hijab. In those days we didn’t even call ourselves Muslim students but Asian students – so far back in the identity mix did our religion come.
So, there is an interesting question about why more Muslim women are wearing the hijab now. The argument by many that they are being told they must do so by male relatives simply does not stand up. Where were these same relatives in the 70s and 80s? Were women more feisty back then that they would say no? I think not.
It’s actually the opposite. In the last 20 years or so Muslim women themselves are finding out more about Islam and embracing it. When I ask my friends who do wear the hijab now, why they do so, to a woman they say because they feel it brings them closer to their faith and therefore to God.
For them it’s a personal matter. It is something that is asked of them in the scripture – to dress modestly in public, which means covering their hair, neck, arms and legs. Men are asked to dress modestly too, with some choosing to do so and others not. Many women are genuinely bemused that some people have such an issue with the whole modesty thing, and one pointed to the Norwegian Beach Handball team who recently faced disqualification when they objected to the bikini bottoms they were required to wear, instead deciding to wear shorts. Modesty, it seems, is still something to aspire to.
Some hijab-wearing, professional women see it as their societal duty to wear the hijab in their workplaces to smash stereotypes that portray Muslim women as weak and under-achieving. Paradoxically attempts to ban hijab-wearing by these ambitious, smart women mean these stereotypes will prevail, if these women decide their faith is more important than their work.
And whilst these women are proactively making a Statement, for others it’s more of a habit (no pun intended). Their mothers did it, those in the community do, so they wear it as a form of religious identity, much as many Sikh men wear turbans and Jewish men the kippah.
These rules, it seems, are aimed very much at Muslim women though, and a fear of so-called political Islam. They play into the hands of far-right extremists who seek to ‘other’ and demonise Islam. But we shouldn’t forget that Muslims, like other religious groups, come in a wide spectrum of belief: of 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide there is the full gamut, from the extreme to the almost agnostic.
This is often conveniently overlooked as a way of painting all Muslims with the terrorist brush, and when this happens it is Muslim women who more often than not, face the Islamophobic consequences. If we want to challenge the extremism, banning the hijab is not the answer but instead through education, dialogue and thought, challenge extremist doctrines. And we really shouldn’t be trying to silence these women. They are the ones who are also quietly challenging the more patriarchal members of their own communities whose role in life seems to be “suggesting” what’s best for women.
If anything, I say “chapeau” (again no pun intended) to my friends who wear the hijab. Going out with them, I can see the the sideways glances. Many have been sworn at in the street because they are visibly Muslim, and a Syrian refugee friend asked me pointedly if her neighbour hated her “because of this”, touching her hijab. Even if I did feel the need to feel closer to God, I can safely say that I lack that strength of character to walk through the estate where she lives with a hijab on.
Not only are these women asserting themselves and single-handedly trashing Islamophobic stereotypes, but they are also courageous. They shun the temptation to be culturally homogenous which the more chameleon-like of us slip into for an easier life. They are navigating two cultures, and the headscarf they wear is sometimes portrayed as the symbol of the clash of those two worlds. It’s a heavy burden and by no means the easy route to take.
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