The hijab: A thorny issue in a changing world
By Abdul Jalil Mustafa. Middle East, 08:30 AM IST
Middle East Thursday, July 10, 2008
For some people, the Muslim women's headscarf, or hijab, is the most burning issue at stake in the religious and secular debate between the Islamic and Arab worlds and the West. In much of Europe, the hijab is seen as a tool of repression, forcing women to cover themselves whether they want to or not.
But moves taken by some European countries to prevent Muslim women from wearing the hijab in schools or offices have sparked fierce reactions from the Islamic and Arab worlds, where - paradoxically - the veil is often seen as a tool of liberation and personal choice.
Prominent Muslim academics and feminist leaders insist that Muslim women wear the hijab in compliance with divine instructions as enshrined in unequivocal Koranic verses.
An authentic English translation of a verse from the Muslims holy book reads: 'And tell the believing women to turn away their eyes (from temptation) and preserve their chastity, and they should not display their ornaments except what is apparent, and they should draw their veils to their bosoms.'
Against this backdrop, the Dean of the Faculty of Sharia (Islamic Law) at the University of Jordan, Mohammed Majali, believes that a Muslim woman 'has no choice but to wear the hijab if she wants to toe God's line'.
'Islam does not deny the sexual emotions of men and women, but seeks to organise them by directing their behaviour, including the wearing of a veil by women,' Majali told DPA.
He argued that for Muslim women, the veil has become one of the vested personal freedoms, which were supposed to be protected by Western democracies and their constitutions.
'Therefore, we are surprised to see that women in European and other Western countries are allowed to wear any type of clothes they want but when it comes to the Muslim women's hijab some governments intervene to prevent it. Double standards are at work here,' he said.
He said he regretted that in an Islamic country like Turkey, liberal forces were trying to renew a ban on wearing the hijab in universities 'at a time when 90 percent of Turkish women do put on a headscarf'.
Majali and the president of the Jordan Women's Union, Amena al-Zoabi, considered the attempts by Western countries such as France to ban the hijab from schools as acts of 'Islamophobia'.
The moves were justified in France by the need to preserve the secular nature of the state and also applied to Christian and Jewish symbols, but they were widely perceived to be aimed at the country's large Muslim minority in particular.
'I believe attempts by European countries to prohibit the hijab have turned out to be counterproductive, because they forced Muslim women to stick to the veil as an Islamic symbol,' al-Zoabi said.
'We are astonished to see that the Western media, which support democracy and human rights, have failed to defend the hijab as an issue of personal freedom that should be safeguarded,' she said.
In Europe, the hijab is overwhelmingly seen as a breach of personal freedom, which is forced upon a woman by her male relatives, rather than something, which she feels, as a right.
Although the majority of women in Jordan and other Arab male-oriented societies do wear the hijab, a significant segment of the feminist community refuses to put on veils.
'I believe some women consider the hijab as a matter related to backwardness and, by taking off their veils, they want to appear as liberal and civilised persons,' said Salim Amin, a researcher at the Jordanian Centre for Social Researches.
Salim contended that the habit of wearing the hijab was gaining further ground due to the fact that recruitment policies adopted by public and private establishments do not discriminate against veiled women, as had been believed in some circles.
'Also, men are increasingly showing an inclination to marry veiled women,' he said.
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