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Islamic Headscarf: Choice or Subservience

Halima Zouhar

The wearing of the headscarf and hijab by Muslim women is increasingly becoming a contentious issue in the West. Halima Zouhar provides some historical context to the headscarf and opinions on why young Muslim women are choosing to cover their heads.

One of the most polemical themes associated with Islam is the status of women. Women are regarded as subaltern beings, deprived of rights, and subservient to men. And the symbol of a woman’s submission is the headscarf. But in fact, the headscarf is becoming more visible these days in this part of the world than it is in the Arab world or in the West. And most surprisingly, it has acquired great ‘popularity’ amongst young women, even those educated and in touch with Western civilisation.

What are the reasons driving these women to publicly display their religious affiliation? What does the scarf symbolise? Are these young women searching for an identity? This article analyses these questions. The removal of the traditional headscarf is relatively recent for the Muslim woman, dating back to the colonial and postcolonial eras. The headscarf did not used to carry the religious dimension currently accorded to it. Although introduced by Islam in the 7th century, it was anyway part of a Muslim woman’s traditional dress. Therefore the question of whether or not it symbolised the subordination of woman did not arise.

The scarf began to be defined as a symbol of the submission of Muslim women during the colonial period. Then, the colonial power, considering itself superior and endowed with a civilising mission to bear on a primitive, backward and archaic population, held it up as a symbol of resistance. The unveiling ceremony in Algiers in 1958 is extremely relevant here: '13 May 1958, Algiers, the place du Gouvernement: Muslim women climbed on to a podium to burn their veils. The stakes of this staged gesture were measured: the colonial authorities required that Muslim women broke ranks with the struggles of their own people.'

Unveiling the Muslim woman of her headscarf was one of the coloniser’s great challenges: a means of validating his superiority and civilising mission that consisted of the ‘emancipation’ of the Muslim woman, whilst at the same time elevating the model of the Western lifestyle, which the indigenous population was supposed to assimilate. As Edward Said has pointed out, the colonial education system played a major role in assimilation: 'For Barrès, the essence of France is most visible in French schools; thus he says of a school in Alexandria: "it’s charming to see these little oriental girls welcoming and reproducing so vividly the imagination and the melody of the French Isle".' This influence bore fruit, given that it educated an elite, which knew how to defend, and still defends, the interests of the West in the Arab countries.

That elite has retained the Western model as a reference point well after independence, simultaneously disdaining and disregarding the Arab-Muslim tradition, perceived to be a disruptive and restraining force in the process of social evolution and the emancipation of women. 'Two factors render the triumph of orientalism even more evident. In so far as it is possible to generalise, contemporary culture in the Middle East tends to follow European and American models. When Taha Hussein said in 1936 that modern Arab culture was European and not oriental, he was merely putting on record the identity of the natural Egyptian elite of which he was a distinguished member. Likewise today he belongs to the same Arab cultural elite, even though the powerful current of anti-imperialist ideas from the Third World that gripped the region from the early 1950s has blunted the Western edge of the dominant culture.'

Generally during the post colonial period, Arab and Muslim women witnessed their being torn between two different cultural models: one, which fascinated; the other, the heritage of a strong tradition. In this context, there was little real knowledge about the Muslim religion, nor of the status of the Muslim woman at the centre of this religion. It was not until the next generation of their daughters, that today’s young women, who faced with both the fascination of their parents for Western culture and the scorn attached by the West to Islam, have launched themselves into a quest to understand their religion, and simultaneously their identity, which is a mixture of influences, Eastern nor Western.

From this point on, wearing the Muslim headscarf has proliferated amongst young women: it does not signify the rejection of Western civilisation and a return to tradition, as in many aspects, tradition and religion diverge.

Rather, Islam represents a balanced perspective for young people seeking to affirm their identity. The headscarf may represent a challenge to a society wishing to see in the woman wearing it subservience and regression. But this cliché does not correspond to contemporary reality. For in most cases, it is the woman making her own decision, choosing nevertheless to lead an active and independent life.

In short, these women are adopting the emancipated lifestyle so revered by the West, whilst at the same time living with the precepts of Islam.

Halima Zouhar is a post-graduate student at the University of Granada in Spain. [Pambazuka News]


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