In the Middle East there are many differing cultural and religious traditions. One such tradition of Muslim women is the wearing of the headscarf – hijab. To many westerners the headscarf is seen as a statement of extreme religious modesty and that women are subjected to the mandatory wearing of the hijab. Yet this generalisation does not encompass all of the countries and their views on the matter. There are a number of reasons as to why Muslim women wear a hijab and these reasons range from: rebelling against bans placed on hijaban; oppression; a symbol of Muslim Feminist movements; or as a ruse.
There is no mention of a ‘religious’ wearing of a hijab in the Quran, or even mention of having to wear a burqa. The dress code for women is mentioned in the Quran yet it only stipulates that women should cover their chests (24:31); lengthen their garments (33:59); and that for both members of sex the best garment should be worn for righteousness and modest conduct (7:26).
Before the 1970’s a hijab was not as religious as it is seen in modern settings. During the mid-1970’s Muslim men and women started a movement called Sahwah, which caused a heightened religiosity on cultural issues such as how one was supposed to dress. The movement spread throughout the Middle East and has influenced Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan (under the Taliban) to enforce the wearing of the hijab. Other countries in the Middle East view the wearing of a hijab as ‘optional’. In Turkey and Tunisia the hijab has been banned from government buildings, schools and universities, though the hijab itself is not mandatory.
While countries may have their differing stances on the hijab, women themselves have expressed their thoughts on this issue. Researcher Shereen El Feki, discovered that some young Muslin women wear the hijab as a ruse. These young women use the hijab as a cover, and say that by wearing the hijab their parents see them as ‘good’ Muslim women and they (the parents) exercise less vigilance. Other Muslim women view the hijab as liberating and it has become a symbol of the Muslim feminist movement. This movement views the hijab as a part of their identity and a reclamation of equality. In the ‘oppressor’ countries, women can be subjected to fine, beatings, or worse if they are found to have their hair visible.
Muslim women claim that they enjoy the safety of the hijab as it keeps them from becoming appealing to the eyes of men. Women who do not wear the hijab are seen as sexually enticing and as seducing the eyes of men. Yet the hijab does not seem to be stopping Muslim women from being sexually harassed. A UN survey reported that 99% of Egyptian women were subjected to some form of sexual harassment despite most of the women having worn a hijab.
In Iran a movement against women’s oppression and the mandatory wearing of the hijab has taken place via a Facebook ‘revolution’. According the Iranian law a woman can receive up to 70 lashings and 60 days in prison for not wearing a hijab, yet some Iranian women are posting selfies without their headscarves. One women states that it’s a relief to be able to take it off as it was never her choice to put it on.
Though the reason for wearing the hijab varies from country to country and from women to women, the hijab is symbolic in various ways. Gathering credible information regarding the hijab and women’s opinions have proven difficult as some women are shy about their reasons and others are forced (by the male members of their family) to express a certain opinion.