An ordinary, plain strip of fabric has increasingly become the basis for political and social controversy within the last several decades. A gray cotton scarf is pictured above, wrapped around a hollow structure in order to fashion an Islamic headcovering, or a hijab. By leaving the inside hollow, and thus anonymous, the model is intended to highlight the importance of, and agency of, the individual underneath the hijab and the significance assigned to the material object. The fabric is secular, mundane, and insignificant until it is wrapped on an individual’s head, who subsequently endows it with meaning. The individual who wears the hijab, then, is the sole author of its meaning. Once the fabric is placed on a human head and draped in a particular fashion, it adopts meanings and implications, conveys a message, and is even capable of causing controversy (BBC- Religions- Islam: Hijab).
The word ‘hijab’ describes the general act of veiling or covering up, but is frequently used to describe the headscarves worn by Muslim women. The hijab traditionally consists of one or two scarves, commonly made with lightweight and diaphanous fabric, wrapped around one’s head, covering the hair and neck (Wade). Though there are a multitude of ways to wrap a hijab, the majority of methods follow steps similar to these:
- Fold the scarf into a triangle.
- Place scarf on your head with one side longer than the other and one under the chin.
- Take longer side and wrap it behind your head and bring it to the other side.
- Secure the scarf behind your head and at the shoulder. (http://www.wikihow.com/Put-on-a-Hijab)
Muslim women make the decision after puberty to wear headcoverings or not. The reasons behind each woman’s individual choice are as varied as the fabric, colors, and patterns of the veils themselves. ‘Hijab,’ translated directly, means ‘partition,’ ‘separation,’ or ‘curtain.’ Many Muslim women believe that the hijab enables one to be separate and untied to the worldly flesh and body, and thus more connected to and focused on a relationship with God. Muslim feminists praise veiling as a propeller of female liberation from male sexualization (Wade).
Sara Al-Sharif, a Muslim and dual citizen of Egypt and Syria, revealed to the Huffington Post, “Hijab to me reflects personal identity, and not where you stand in your religion… Hijab is never a sign of oppression, ignorance or falling in the shadows of society.”
Others view headcovering as an indicator of pride in one’s culture, community, and/or religion and, thus, use veiling as a social and political statement. American Muslim, Hajar AlTamimi exemplified this perspective stating, “I wear my hijab secured and tucked into my scrubs so it doesn’t unravel when I run in the hospital. I wear it because it tells a story of who I am, where I’m from, and what I believe in before I even speak” (Nouh).
Recently, some Muslim women have chosen to stylize their hijab in order to follow current fashion trends and/or express their individuality. Many of these women have fostered a considerable audience on social media. Similarly, the fashion industry has begun to represent hijab fashion on the catwalk. In September of 2016, Anniesa Hasibuan became the first designer to show a collection at New York Fashion in which every model wore a hijab (Young).
The sacred, foundational text of Islam, the Quran, is believed to be the direct word of God. The Quran instructs both men and women to dress and behave modestly. Muslims contemporarily abide by this instruction through many ways, one of which is the practice of veiling. The origins of modest dress in Islam can be found partially in Chapter 24 of the Quran, in which men and women are instructed to divert their eyes from the opposite sex and guard their private parts.
The Quran also advises women to “…not display their beauty except what is apparent, and they should place their khumur over their bosoms…” and directs men to “Say to your wives, your daughters, and the women of the believers that: they should let down upon themselves their jalabib” (The Qu’ran, An Nur 24:31).
The aforementioned Khumur is essentially a head scarf that women in the ancient Middle East, preluding Islam, would have commonly tucked behind their ears or tied behind their heads and the Jalabib is a long, loose, flowing outer coat worn by women in the Middle East. Most Muslims agree that The Sunna, an important and highly regarded code of the Islamic faith, believed to be the sayings and examples of the Prophet Muhammad, also mandates some degree of head veiling and loose flowing outer clothing, at least for women in public (“A Brief History of the Veil in Islam”).
Scarves and veils of different colors and shapes were customary in countless cultures long before Islam came into being in the seventh century. The first historical reference to veiling practices dates to a 13 B.C. Assyrian text, many centuries before the Islamic faith was founded. According to the text, the practice of veiling in Assyria was reserved for the elite classes, ‘respectable’ women wore head coverings while prostitutes and women of lower-classes were forbidden from doing so. Likewise, elite women in ancient Greco-Roman, pre-Islamic Iranian, and Byzantine societies practiced veiling for various reasons. It was in the 16th century, however, that the veil emerged as a symbol of social status among Muslims in the Ottoman Empire under the reign of the Safavids. Veiling cultural practices are still widely common in the west in the form of bridal veiling and within Orthodox Judaism and Christianity. Since the 19th century, many Muslims have embraced veiling as a religious and cultural practice. While there are a variety of options, the wrapped headscarf pictured in the model is the most common in the West today. The niqab, the chadur, and the birqa are other types of veiling that offer varying degrees of head and/or face coverage (“A Brief History of the Veil in Islam”).
Veiling has faced backlash in the past few decades. Orientalists have tied cultural oppression in the Middle East with that of religious oppression and, furthermore, have used the hijab as a symbol of this oppression. Contemporarily, countries, such as France and China, have outlawed types of headscarves under certain conditions (Day). Muslim feminists and advocates of religious coexistence and cultural diversity have responded with significant backlash. One particular woman, Munira Ahmed, has become the face of America’s resistance to Islamophobia. A photograph of Ahmed wearing an American flag-printed hijab above the description, “We The People Are Greater than Fear,” went viral and received international attention. When asked about the significance of the image, Ahmed told the Guardian, “It’s about saying, ‘I am American just as you are’…I am American and I am Muslim, and I am very proud of both” (Helmore and Flock).
By Caroline Mason, Ashlen Clark, and Kati Kissane
“BBC – Religions – Islam: Hijab.” BBC News. September 3, 2009. http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/beliefs/hijab_1.shtml.
Day, Anzac. “EU employers allowed to ban the hijab, court rules.” ABC News. March 14, 2017. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-15/european-union-companies-can-ban-hijab-court-rules/8354582.
Flock, Elizabeth. “Why Shepard Fairey’s inauguration protest posters won’t have Trump on them.” PBS. January 25, 2017.
Helmore, Edward. “Munira Ahmed: the woman who became the face of the Trump resistance.” The Guardian. January 23, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/jan/23/womens-march-poster-munira-ahmed-shepard-fairey-interview.
Nouh, Yasmin. “The Beautiful Reasons Why These Women Love Wearing A Hijab.” The Huffington Post. May 11, 2016.
“A Brief History of the Veil in Islam.” Facing History and Ourselves. https://www.facinghistory.org/civic-dilemmas/brief-history-veil-islam.
Wade, Lisa. “Defining Women’s Oppression: The Burka vs. the Bikini – Sociological Images.” Sociological Images Defining Womens Oppression The Burka vs the Bikini Comments. https://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2012/02/22/questioning-definitions-of-freedom/.
Young, Sarah. “New York Fashion Week: Hijabs hit the catwalk with immigrant-only show.” The Independent. February 16, 2017. http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/new-york-fashion-week-hijabs-islam-immigrant-fashion-show-anniesa-hasibuan-a7583321.html.