On Headscarfs and Hijabs

A child of the 70s, the idea of women covering their heads, now heavily associated with Islam, doesn’t seem that alien to me.  When I was a child, most older women wore headscarfs.  Little girls didn’t – except in dressup – and young women would usually have their hair flowing freely, but the majority of women going about their daily life on the street would wear a headscarf.  As a child I never associated this with religion, although I would probably imagine that it had some kind of religious root, what I associated it with more was a desire not to have an expensive hair do ruined by the Scottish weather, a quick way of looking presentable before going out in public at a time when hair fashions were labour intensive and to cover up any rollers or pinnings that might be setting the hair in anticipation of a night out.

Most women would have a small collection of these headsquares, as they were known, to match their coats.  Most usually in a silky or chiffon fabric, they would be folded in half to form a triangle, and then tied under the chin.  Married women who didn’t wear headscarfs were seen as a little bit odd – sluts in the old fashioned sense of the word, women who didn’t keep good house, wore trousers and went to pubs.  Although it wasn’t associated with “modesty” in the sexual sense, it had modest connotations in the broader sense, of a woman who was quieter and more demure than the pub-going, trouser wearing slatterns.

Times change, fashions change, and by the mid-80s, headscarf wearing had become passe.  The one area where headscarf wearing was still expected, and indeed which continues until now, is women who are ungoing chemotherapy as part of cancer treatment.  Chemotherapy frequently causes hair loss, and women who suffer from thinning or balding as a result will generally wear a headscarf rather than sport a bald or wispy head.   Bald is quite an acceptable fashion statement for men, but a bald woman is quite shocking and associated with insanity and  asylums, and again we see female modesty in a wider context, a bald headed woman is immodest and shocking.  For modesty has two aspects – both to hide one’s assets, and to avoid offense.  A modest women is one who neither flaunts her beauty, nor offends by her ugliness.

In the past decade or so the routine wearing of headscarfs has become heavily associated with Islam, but this is a relatively recent phenomenon, even in the Arab world.   Even as recently as thirty years ago, muslim women did not routinely cover their heads in much of the world where Islam is the dominant religion. The full hijab was traditionally worn only by aristocratic women, as a mark of status. During the Algerian War, as the French were seeking to undermine domestic anti-colonial resistance by appealing to women, they paid rural working class women – who did not routinely cover their heads – to participate in “unveiling ceremonies” where they would don a hijab and have it ceremoniously removed.  By the 1950s and 1960s, hijab wearing in the middle east was rare,  outwith a few small pockets.  But as the sexual revolution swept the West and the New Left reached its climax in 1967, the third Arab-Israeli War saw the end of secular pan-Arabism and  a new Islamism was being born in the Middle East: as young women started to wear mini-skirts on the streets of London, their counterparts in Cairo donned hijabs.

The woman of the Third World must be one who selects, who makes a choice. She is the woman who neither accepts the inherited mould nor the imported novelty. She recognizes both of them. She knows and is aware of both of them. The one which is imposed upon her, in the name of tradition which she inherits, is not related to Islam at all but is related to the ethnic customs of the period of paternalism and even slavery. And the one which is imported from the West is not science, not humanity, not freedom and not liberty. It is not based on sanctity and respect for women at all. Rather it is based on the low tricks of the bourgeoisie, stupefying consumerism and mindless self-indulgence. She wants to select, to choose, but what role-model should she choose? She wants neither the model of the traditional, strict woman, nor the model of the modern degraded woman.

Ali Shariati, Our Expectations of Muslim Women

In the past 50 years, the practice of wearing headscarfs has diverged.   A woman wearing a headscarf in a public area in a Western country can reasonably safely be assumed to be Muslim, while a woman in the Arab world going bareheaded is likely to be secular, Jewish or Christian.  Younger muslim women in Glasgow, are far more likely to wear hijab, and stricter hijab, than their mothers and grandmothers, who more frequently wear loose headcoverings, if at all.

No woman exists in a bubble away from societal pressures and the male gaze is internalised to create a feeling of shame in breaching social norms of acceptable female dress.  Female modesty is a doctrine which varies across time and cultures. Bare breasts are common in some African cultures which consider the display of thighs deeply shocking; in Victorian Britain, showing ankles was scandalous. But it is always predicated on the male gaze, that women are sexually objectified in a manner which men are not. The rise of Islam as a reaction to Gharbzadegi (Westoxification) in the Arab World and Islamophobia in the West has seen the hijab take on a number of different meanings.

 Firstly as a reaction to the hypersexualisation of women through “Raunch Culture” and the rise of the Ladette in the 90s and early 2000s, the wearing of the hijab and a distinct choice of modest dress sets women in opposition to the demand to “be sexy”, to be pleasing for the male eye and indicate sexual availability. Secondly it affirms Islamic identity in a world where muslim is increasingly seen as the “Brown Other” – among us but not part of us.  Increasingly states have sought to dictate to the women living in them what they may and may not wear on their heads.  Turkey and France both legally ban the hijab in schools, government buildings and healthcare facilities, while conversly the wearing of the hijab in such institutions is legally compulsory both Iran and Gaza.

One of the advantages of headscarf wearing, as the older generation knew well, is the need not to consider hairstyles and fashion.  A quick flick of a scarf and a hasty knot covers up tangles, roots, split ends and frizz, saving time, money and above all attention to looking presentable in a world where women are expected to be well groomed at all times, but the rise of “Hijabi Chic”, with its colourful and fashionable ways of headscarf wearing shows a new manner of female assertiveness.  An affirmation of modesty without the nullification of traditional practices which seek to reduce women to an invisible and interchangeable unit in public places, to become an individual only in the domestic setting.

The women of the Arab World have a long history of resistance, from the first wave feminist Huda Sha’rawi, who shocked nations by throwing her hijab into the sea; the second wave feminist, Nawal El-Saadawi, who has spoke at length against the hijab, yet who called cosmetics “the post-modern veil”,  and now on into the third wave, which recognises that we are all multiply veiled: by gender, sex and sexuality; by race, culture, ethnicity; by social position and national identity. Layers and layers of veils are put upon us to obscure our affinities and common strivings.  As we peer through them, gazing in wonder at the veils of the other, it is always worth examining our own.

First published on The Multicultural Politic,  10th April 2013

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