The Hair in the Hijab

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.

Middle Eastern Dress



For many Westerners, Middle Eastern woman are thought of as marginalised, male-dominated, and oppressed, yet this does not seem to be the case in the Kurdish regions of Syria. A Kurdish People’s Defence unit, made up of 35 women, train and live together. These women are taking up arms against the Islamist fighters and Bashar al-Assad. In this unit women are taught military tactic, for example how to ambush an enemy fighter. As ‘ordinary’ girls they would have had no value and would have been subject to their husbands wishes, yet as fighters they are respected. A male member of the Syria army stated that the sex of a soldier doesn’t matter, they would both fight side by side.

A sobering aspect of these women’s choice of becoming a soldier is that they are consciously choosing a life without a husband, children, or family. Once they become a soldier they are a member for life. As a consequence of their family’s death, some women have joined the People’s Defence unit to redress the wrongs done to them.

Yet Kurdish women have long been taking up arms in conflicts in the Middle East, in the 90s women soldiers were known for their zeal in launching suicide bombings. Despite being an integral part of the current rebellion women soldiers are still seen as an anomaly in Syria’s male dominated rebellion.

Of the Kurdish soldiers in the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, 20% of them are women. Kurdish women are breaking from their Arab counterparts in taking prominent roles in security and police task units and in guarding checkpoints and strategic buildings from jihadists and radical Islamists.

An interesting concept of freedom is repeated in some of the articles that I read, as two of the articles quoted women describing the fighting as ‘liberty for women’ and a ‘liberating experience’ yet one can’t help but wonder; is it fighting for a greater good, that is liberating or being treated as an “equal”, just another soldier, in a male dominate rebellion?

Members of the all women Syrian militia


Hocus Pocus in Saudi Arabia

In a country that demands strict adherence to Sharia Law, any unfamiliar religious or folk law customs are seen as acts of sorcery or witchcraft. The severity of this issue is highlighted when in 2009 the Saudi government created a special Anti-Witchcraft Unit, which specifically deals with alleged witches.

One of the difficulties of this issue is the interpretation of ‘witchcraft’ through Sharia law. Wahhabism (a dominant form of Islam in Saudi Arabia) deems witchcraft as a slight to the teachings of the Quran. The Quran itself, touches upon the issue of witches, described as unseen spirits (jinn) and powerful darker forces: “I take refuge in the Lord of the Daybreak, from the evil he has created, from the evil of the darkness as it spreads, from the evil of those who blow on knots, and from the evil of the envious”. Religious clerics preside over trials such as those of witchcraft, and apply the interpretations of the Quran in context to the crime. In the case of accusing one of witchcraft, a witness is needed as well as the ‘magical’ artifact/s within the accused’s possession.

The severity of this issue is further demonstrated through the deaths, usually beheadings as per Sharia law, of numerous foreign domestic workers. Women from countries such as Indonesia, Africa, and Sri Lanka have been convicted of witchcraft and practicing sorcery and await death sentences. Human Rights Watch activists have stated that many women who have been accused of witchcraft are those who have made formal complaints to agencies against their employers; thus the counter-claims of witchcraft. These complaints range from beating to rape and highlight the lack of foreign domestic rights. While a treaty has recently been signed by the Saudi government, the rights of a foreign domestic worker is very basic. For example, under the new law workers are entitled to:

  • An agreed monthly salary (approx. $400)
  • Suitable accommodations
  • 9hrs of rest per day
  • Paid sick leave
  • One month paid vacation after two years of service.

Yet according to Labor Minister Adel Faqih, workers “do not have the right to reject a work, or leave a job, without a valid reason”.  A clear indication that while workers have some rights, they are still only very basic rights.

In addition, the aforementioned comments do nothing to illuminate the sheer scale of such a matter. Organizations such as Amnesty International, the Human Rights Watch and Migrant Care, work tirelessly to prevent such atrocities, however this issue is far reaching, and is not limited to the Muslim world, or even just Saudi Arabia, or for that matter to only women and domestic workers. Cases of those accused of witchcraft have been found all over the world and will most likely continue to be due to various superstitious beliefs.

Woman beheaded for witchcraft