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Why Hijab Controversy?

21 May, 2007

By Faiz-ur-Rahman


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Hijab tradition among the Muslim women, which has been accepted by Islam, has again become a subject of controversy these days. The hijab controversy that came out from the statement of former foreign minister of Britain, Jack Straw, hasn't yet lost the ground when the government of Netherlands decided to make a law that bans the hijab tradition there. It is not important what is on a woman's head – a scarf, a hijab, hat, burqah, veil, purdah, or simply hair; the most important point is what is in her mind while following this type of practice. Millions of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, and Christian women of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and some other countries cover their heads. Therefore it should not be criticized when Muslim women wear hijab or in other words scarves.

In every thought and expression, culture cannot be split off from religion. Even in many European countries like France, Britain and Germany, people might say that they are living in a secular society and only culture matters, but they live in the shadow of a Christian-culture. The connection is always there. You only have to look at the wearing of scarfs at funerals to see the connection between the religion and cultural upbringing and the awareness that modesty is a respectful norm. The practice of hijab or head scarf among Muslim women is one based on religious doctrine, although the Qur'an does not make it mandatory. Instead, it comes from the Hadith of Sahih Bukhari. The version of this text is generally regarded as the standard one, although numerous versions exist. A variety of head dresses worn by Muslim women in accordance with hijab are sometimes referred to as headscarves. Many of these garments cover the hair, ears and throat. It is asserted that the wearing of a headscarf is purely cultural with no basis in religion. However, the covering of the head is being made obligatory in the Old Testament and was practiced by pious Jewish women. It is also being made mandatory for Christian women in the New Testament and there are traditional Christian women who continue to practice this belief as a part of their spiritual obligation, not because of their culture like Amish, Mennonite, Mormon and Orthodox, etc. Muslims believe that the covering of a woman’s head is indeed based on religious values and morals first and foremost.  The proponents of wearing hijab point out that it is very sad that in the modern world, most Christian and Jewish women have decided that the obligation to dress modestly and to cover their heads is no longer necessary. In some cultures, and in the older generations, such modesty is still present as an expectation or at least a norm which they continue to accept and therefore many Christian women in Eastern Europe continue to cover their heads “culturally”. This is also why one can still find many old women in Spain and Latin America who cover their heads as a habit from a different time period and culture that they have retained. In many cases, the original religious or spiritual requirement of that dress code has been forgotten and it is only being practiced as a part of the culture. But this does not negate the fact that it originated in religious traditions.

Supporters of hijab believe that the head scarf is a way to secure personal liberty in a world that devastates the image of women. Several women who have advocated hijab have argued that hijab allows them freedom of movement and control of their bodies. Understood in such terms, hijab protects women from the male gaze and allows them to become autonomous subjects. On the other hand, opponents have argued that the hijab only provides the illusion of protection and serves to absolve men of the responsibility for controlling their behavior. In the Christian tradition, St Paul ordered women to cover their heads and, until the nineteen sixties, no woman would be seen in an English church without a hat and gloves. Many English women wore hats out in the street or headscarves tied under their chin. Hindu and Sikh women are still expected to cover their heads loosely for their honour and Orthodox Jewish women have traditionally worn wigs over their real hair to conceal it from men who are not their husbands. Yet, among all these cultural groups, only Muslim women seem to have been described as weak or oppressed on account of their hijab and head covering.

Critics of hijab might argue that a Muslim woman covers herself because she is a private possession of her husband. In fact, she preserves her dignity and refuses to be possessed by strangers. Perhaps hijab is so misunderstood because it is prescribed by a religion that makes it very clear that women are precious creatures who have the right to be valued for who they are, and not for what they can juggle. Islam tells us that every woman is a jewel and she has the right to respects herself enough to preserve her beauty for herself and her loved ones. Muslims are accused of being over-sensitive about the human body, but the degree of sexual harassment which occurs these days justifies wearing a modest dress. Just as a short skirt can send the signal that the wearer is available to men, so the hijab signals, loud and clear: I am forbidden to you.

Hijab is not about militancy or oppression as it has been argued in the western world. Rather it is about love for God, personal piety and a focus on spiritual self-development. In addition, while the hijab is often coupled with a life that is more sheltered, it should be remembered that today’s women who are using head scarves are not the only women who choose this. In Catholicism, a number of nuns continue to live a confined lifestyle in order to better devote themselves to God. Islamic dress is one of many rights granted to Muslim women. Modest clothing is worn in obedience to God and has nothing to do with submissiveness to men. Muslim men and women have similar rights and obligations and both submit to God.

Some people, especially in the west, would tend to ridicule the whole argument of modesty for protection. Their argument is that the best protection is the spread of education, civilized behavior, and self restraint. I would say, fine, but not enough because if 'civilization' is enough protection, then why is it that women in North America dare not to walk alone in a dark street or even across an empty parking lot? If education is the solution, then why is it that a respected university has a 'walk home service' for female students on campus? If self restraint is the answer, then why are cases of sexual harassment in the workplace in the news media every day?

While the hijab has become a symbol of Muslim women’s subordination in the eyes of the western people, Muslim women see it as something that shields them from being just considered as sexual object, and it is considered to be a symbol of femininity. Women who wear the hijab in America face discrimination nearly everywhere, from markets to workplaces, because Americans see the hijab as a symbol of inferiority. It is one of the great ironies of our world today that the very same headscarf revered as a sign of 'holiness' when worn by Catholic Nuns, is loathed as a sign of 'oppression' when worn for the purpose of protection by Muslim women.

Something is fundamentally wrong in the society we live in. A culture of modesty is badly needed; modesty in dress, in speech, and in the manners of both men and women. Otherwise, the grim statistics will grow even worse day after day and unfortunately, women alone will be paying the price. I respect Muslim women with head scarves and I support those who want to wear it. This is their choice, which is a part of their civil right. In fact, I would prefer the image of women with head scarves piloting NASA's satellite into the space, working as Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) of multinational companies, reporting on Cable News Network (CNN) from the White House and Pentagon, and developing a new medicine for AIDS control. We should inspire our daughters and women to be heroes and not the examples of victims. When Islam is presented with the example of excellence, it is the best and the most suitable presentation of our faith and issues.

References

Ahmed, A. S. (2003). Islam under siege: Living dangerously in a post-honor world.  Cambridge: Blackwell.

Ali, A. Y. (1989). The meaning of the Holy Qur’an. (new ed.). Beltsville, MD: Amana Publications.

Guindi, F. E. (1999). Veil: Modesty, privacy and resistance. Oxford: Berg

Reader Comments:

the Hjab and the bikini

Interesting article.

It is a shame, but here in the States, sometimes seing a woman in full veil with only eyes showing makes us think of explosions and bombs. However, most of us quickly adjust and realize bombs are only associated with a very few.

I have been to the beach here in my little town in the U.S. with two and three year old boys. I only thank God that they are not big enough to notice all the women in bikinis floating around. They seem to be hardly dressed at all.

It makes me think - don't those of us who choose to dress modestly at the beach have rights too? Do we not have a right to choose what we want our children to see? The answer is no. If we don't like it, we can refrain from going to the beach.

So, we must accept what is for us unacceptable. The majority rules. Perhaps when these women get beyond the bikini stage, they will rise up and demand that our beaches be cleaned up.

Stranger things have happened...



Ayasha, United Kingdom - 21 May, 2007

Wow talk about double standard

The arab states require even non-muslims to wear veils. These arab/Taliban states imposition of veil on the women populus has made it a contraversial concept and antifeminist. The hindu sign swastika is a sign of good luck. But would u go around with cloth of that sign in Europe or America? The liberty and freedom given to immigrants in the west far outweigh the small infractions. Furthermore, would u say the arab countries give freedom and liberty anywhere near the level of the west?
Be realistic, muslims sometimes push their luck and ideals on others insensibily.

B4 coming to the west did u not research about the culture of the west? If u did then u should know very well that u r bound to c bikinis in a beach and that's the norm of this country. U accepted to immigrate to this state knowing that. If u didn't; it means u came in here begging for refuge, because your own country tried to kill u. Be gratefull to the people that gave u a new life.

Ganenthiran, Canada - 22 May, 2007

I so much agree

To: Ganenthiran,

I expect you were addressing Ayasha in your comment as having the "double standard." It's the name Ayasha isn't it?

Ayasha is also an American Indian name, meaning "little one" and since I am one-quarter Cherokee Indian, I took the name as part of my Email address. I am actually a born and bred American. But I do understand why you saw things written in my comment as an apparent double standard.


I so much agree with some of your points.

Americans, Canadians, etc. are very good at accepting people of all races, cultures and creeds. But when our new Muslim citizens start demanding foot baths at airports, special foods at school, as well as prayer times, some of us get a little annoyed. Especially if they need a taxi and the Muslim driver refuses to give them a ride if they are carrying wine for a Thanksgiving dinner, or something. I hasten to add that I don't drink, but if I did and this happened to me, I would be a little annoyed. Especially if it was raining.

When the things I mentioned above are presented to us as demands, I'm afraid some Americans would be especially annoyed.

Foot baths at airports? Wouldn't God understand that you cannot always do this before every prayer - if your reasons were good enough?

Special food at schools? Couldn't that food be brought from home? Feeding hoardes of hungry children looks to be challenge enough without cooking small amounts of special foods. Plus, what if every group started asking for for this amenity? I think there would soon be chaos.

Prayer time at public schools? May I respectfully ask if Muslim students couldn't go off quietly and pray? Who would care? Still, Christians, etc. are not allowed to pray at public schools, except mentally. They could all do that, couldn't they?

In consideration of the Muslim students, I again, respectfully ask if they might just mentally pray while standing, as the other students do and just turn toward Mecca? This is just a question, not a demand.

I understand that some airlines do offer prayer space and prayer mats and I'm sure that there are other areas where our Muslim citizens are accomadated. After all, Muslims are customers too.

I suppose some Americans get annoyed because they feel that some of this is special treatment and they also wonder why it is given.

Small things, I agree. It's just that having things presented as demands are irritating. Why start out a new life in a new country this way? However, I am aware that I am writing about the minority of Muslim Americans and not the majority.

Isn't it God who made us all different? How then can our differences be wrong?



Ayasha, United Kingdom - 24 May, 2007


Hijab is a good thing. We muslims love it. You talk about the swastika ? It is the sign of Hitler. All hindus are fascist like hitler.

tariq riaz, Pakistan - 24 May, 2007

great article

Assalamu alaykum
such a grat article mashAllah...i am a muslim living in UK and i was born here and thanx to Almighty Allah i wear the hijab...and i only wear it for His sake..what can be better than listening to the Lord of the Aalameen!
But......nowadays when i watch pakistani tv i see women with no hijab...they have their dupattas on their shoulders and nowadays young pakistani girls wear jeans and ankle-revealing trousers.....all i can say is by seeing all this is that pakistani women dont know anything about the hijab..they call themseles muslim bt one of the basic things that Allah has asked us muslim women to do (and that of which for their own g00d) is to wear the hijab and ress modestly bt that they dont do...i know that all pakistani women aren't all like this.....about 80-75% of pakistani women may cover but what is shown on tv nowadays will influence so many young girls...where will modesty come from in the future..will the next generation even know what modesty is?.....when u ask women to wear hijab they say its our choice or 'im not ready for it yet' bt if these women loved Allah so much then they would never think to say these things ever.....and also people say being modern is all that matters and wearing hijab is not modern etc etc... why does being modern to these people even matter?....Islam is itself a modern religion....muslim women living in the modern countries of US or UK wear hijab and are they part of non-modern?....my arguments may be confusing but i hope u do understnad what i am trying to say
i pray to Allah that may He give all muslim women and the women of pakistan, including the next generation, the hiah and iman to wear hijab only for His sake..Aameen!

Annisa, United Arab Emirates - 24 May, 2007

Islam says they are jewels?

Author has put us educated non muslims in a delimma. We are no longer sure what to believe, does Islam say women are jewels? or does Quran, or does Mohammed? Please be clear, if its the latter two, then author is lying.

realitycheck, Pakistan - 24 May, 2007

Hijab an honorable observance

Hijab is an observance more than a piece of cloth while most people assume that it is mandated for women only, however, hijab is an observance that men should also comply with if steadfast about the faith of Islam.
The hijab has become a traditon more than a faith based observance and quite a few people impose it on their girls and ladies while they themselves know it superficially a piece of fabric to cover women's hair.
It goes beyond that and imposing it on anyone does not serve the purpose if one merely don's a scarf on their head because the feel pressured to.
The spirit of hijab goes beyond the covering itself when observed properly and with sincere understanding.
A man's hijab is for his gaze to be lowered while a woman's hijab is by covering her hair which happens to appeal and attract men resulting in gazing.
If one owns diamonds and jewelry it is a common practice to protect such items of wealth and people go to great extents to protect such valuables like placing those under lock & key, using a safe vault or a bank locker, similarly women are our honor and wealth and in practicing appropriate protection it is recommended that they cover their heads to avoid un-necessary gazing by men to whom their hairdo may appeal.
If this is practiced in a sincere manner with understanding it upholds one's honor and dignity while such practice without a sincere belief in it's spirit does not assure the same results.
It is also a matter of common knowledge that some who don their heads with a piece of cloth due to being pursuaded by someone close to them have been found to be involved in acts that are not the appropriate characterstics of those who observe hijab in it's appropriate spiritual sense as a faith based practice.
May Allah SWT show all of us the right path, ameen.
Wasalam

Matloob Zaman, Pakistan - 25 May, 2007

Reality Check

surat An-Nur in verses 30 and 31 exactly how to act in the presence of the opposite sex: (Tell the believing men to LOWER THEIR GAZE…) And then (Tell the believing women to LOWER THEIR GAZE…)Comparing women to jewels and pearls doesn't mean that women are mere objects or worldly possessions. The intended item or object here is what the woman possesses, as mentioned by Allah in His Book. Allah is ordering us to tell the believing woman to lower her gaze and to protect her, guard her private parts and protect her chastity. She is being well advised by her father, brother, husband, son and all of us, to cover herself.
someone may say, 'Why do we compare women to jewels and pearls? Doesn't this sound as describing women as objects or mere possessions in this world?'
Jewels Are Precious – So Protect Them

When someone has a jewel or any precious item one always treats it with great respect and protects it against any loss. One may even build a special place to keep it or place it in a vault for security. Perhaps one may even hire a guard to insure that it will not be stolen. These things are most obvious to all of us and nothing here seems strange at all.


Matloob Zaman, Pakistan - 25 May, 2007

corrupt to the core

The fact that u think that a women need to be protected, treasured, put in a vault, etc..etc.. shows the old age addage. That is if a crime is committed again and again and again, it ceases to be a crime. Such is your argument.
A woman is not a property; SHE is not YOUR property. She can decide on what she can or can't do. No father, brother, husband, son etc.. need to tell her what she can or can't do.

Ganenthiran, Canada - 25 May, 2007

Hijab?

There is a saying that at one
gathering Prophet Mohammad PBUH noticed a young woman trying to attract attention of a young man, by playing with her hair.Also known as preening.He gave his shawl to
a swabi asking him to give it
to the girl's mother to cover
the daughter's head.Now if a
woman or women learn not to preen in public and refrain to attract attention! They do
have to make into a fad.

Khalid Rahim, Canada - 25 May, 2007

hijab gives respect to the muslim women



Hijab is good because it gives respect to the muslim women. All those loafer men who tease women, never tease a woman with hijab. I wear hijab and I never had any problem from men. Furthermore, when I go to the shops to buy things, the shop owners give me priority sometimes and serve me before the others. When I go to the butchers, I get served with a good quality meat and I attribute all this good treatment to my hijab. I love hijab.

Samina,
Lahore


Samina, Pakistan - 26 May, 2007

Keep talking....

Keep talking about hijaab and you never find the most cover and the longest for a muslim woman, but no matter what a Muslim woman do, is not enought of a hijaab. You who fight for hijaab will go to Hell with your hiding agenda fighign with Ben Laden for the interests of Zionism.

AKB, Pakistan - 28 May, 2007

While in Rome do as Romans do

If you try to follow medieval middle-east barbarism (Islam) in civilized world, people will get annoyed. When you leave your parent country and settle for a civilized world, leave all the baggage.

Nikus, Hungary - 28 May, 2007

Allah SWT states in Al-Quran hakeem

Al-Quran hakeem:24:31
And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and to be mindful of their chastity, and not to display their charms [in public] beyond what may [decently] be apparent thereof;hence, let them draw their head-coverings over their bosoms. And let them not display [more of] their charms to any but their husbands, or their fathers, or their husbands’ fathers, or their sons, or their husbands’ Sons, or their brothers, or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their womenfolk, or those whom they rightfully possess, or such male attendants as are beyond all sexual desire, or children that are as yet unaware of women’s nakedness; and let them not swing their legs [in walking] so as to draw attention to their hidden charms And [always], O you believers - all of you - turn unto God in repentance, so that you might attain to a happy state!
24:60 AND [know that] women advanced in years, who no longer feel any sexual desire, incur no sin if they discard their [outer] garments, provided they do not aim at a showy display of [their] charms. But [even so,] it is better for them to abstain [from this]: and God is all-hearing, all-knowing

Matloob Zaman, Pakistan - 06 June, 2007

Hijab, an observance not just a piece of cloth

Hijab is an observance and not just a piece of cloth. The observance which is equally applicable to both women and men for lowering their gaze as well as keeping their mind and thoughts within clean and pure.
Yes, it is a difficult thing to follow through yet those who practically do so earn a higher level of taqwa and a higher level of Jannah in the day of judgement when each soul shall be accounted for their deeds regardless of it's being evident or concealed since Allah The Almighty knoweth all.
Those who pass smart & humiliating comments to such issues on this site shall also be judged for their actions and it will be judged by the Most Supreme, you can run but you cant hide so prepare yourself for the day of judgement and if you strive Allah SWT has promised to make it easier for you, if you bring yourself closer Allah SWT promises to bring HIMSELF closer to you. What else can one seek when the MOST SUPREME is pleased with your actions, the reactions of other humans does'nt count and means nothing more than a pebble on the trail to truth and justice.

Matloob Zaman, Pakistan - 06 June, 2007

Subhan'Allah sister

What you mentioned in your breif comments is an example of how Allah SWT bestows respect and regard for those who regard HIS commandments and directives.
Alhamdulillah.
May Allah SWT bless you with even more respect and regard as you chose to adopt the path that leads to dignity, and I pray that your words encourage others to raise their level of taqwa by following the directives from Allah SWT.
Wasalam

Matloob Zaman, Pakistan - 11 June, 2007

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