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Wednesday, May 09, 2007


Hijab (حجاب) is a term that means "to veil" refers to a garment used by many Muslim woman around the world, which comes with different types, forms and colors following each cultural background. Fundamentally, hijab covers woman's hair and neck though in some other places, it also covers the face as well. Some people believe that hijab has some foundation in Islamic religion and some see it is local tradition which is not from Islamic teaching. Some Ulama (Arabic for Religious Leaders and prominence or Islamic scholars) say that hijab is an obligation for muslim woman. But some other Ulama consider it only as a symbol of modesty in which Islamic teaching proposes modesty as God's favor.

The history of hijab itself is not unique belongs to muslim societies, in fact it is almost in every culture even in Europe and pre-Islamic Middle Easterners. In Europe society such as Ancient Greek, it is used as garment wore by women from prominent families to show their status, and in Middle East including Israelis, it is woman's daily wear to protect them from the sun heat. Today, many muslim women wear hijab to show their style and preference of modesty and religious belief rather than just a traditional garment.

Typical hijab wear


Hijab comes in different types and names in different culture. In Indonesia it is known as Jilbab and Malaysians call it Tudung and it usually consists of headscarf to cover their hair, neck and chess usually equipped with Maleyan (Melayu) people dress called kebaya (in Indonesia) or baju kurung (in Malaysia). In other places there are also Burq in Afghanistan, Abaya in Arab countries, chador in Iran, and purdeh along with chader in Pakistan. As an effect of cultural differences amongst muslim people, besides as observance to religious belief, some women also wear hijab as a nationality, race and cultural distinction, especially in multicultural mixed-up group of people. Many Iranian and Pakistani women wear hijab with not fully covered hair, to show their distinction with their Arab Muslim woman who cover their hair fully. In some more conservative society such as people in Riyadh region in Saudi Arabia, Hadramaut region in Yemen and in villages in Africa, their hijab is not only to veil their hair and neck, but their full long loose dark colored garment called Abaya along with niqab covering also their full body and face, showing only their dark eyes. For those who's never get used to see them before, they may look so frightening and threatening. In Afghanistan esspecially during Taliban regime, women also cover their face with burq, with nothing even eyes to show to the outside world.

Besides its function as traditional dress or religious observance, hijab also serves as aesthetics wear out for woman. In Tunisia, amongst Bedouin tribes in Kuwait, Southern Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and other Central Asian Muslim countries, its people own bright and colorful hijab, with very beautiful and exotic pattern. Bedouin people in Kuwait, a nomadic Arab tribes reside most in Arabian peninsula, is known for their beautiful colorful dress and garment, tapestried by their own hands which they use to sell these beautiful garments to nearby cities. In Egypt, many women in cities wear simple and practical headscarf with beautiful colors and patterns along with ordinary casual dress.

Hijab wear in Egypt. It's usually simple head scarf with beautiful motifs and patterns.


Controversy and Problems

Many western feminists claim hijab as a symbol of oppression by men against women in Islamic societies, but many muslim women, especially who live in western countries, explain they choose to wear their hijab by themselves without persuasion or oppression, where most of them say it is more comforting and protecting. But the claim about oppression somehow is true in some cases, such as what happened with women in Afghanistan during Taliban regime, until now even burq is still obligatory outside Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan. In some places such as Saudi Arabia (especially in Riyadh), Iran and Southern Yemen, the wear of hijab is enforced by government law or society punishment. In Aceh, a distinct part of Indonesia where Islamic sharia law is implemented, women must wear hijab as a requirement for modesty and whosoever doesn't follow will accept punishment for tazir crime.

Despite there are muslim countries enforcing hijab wear, some muslim countries also known to ban hijab or discourage women to wear it. In Tunisia, authorities encourage women to wear modest dress inlines with Tunisian tradition rather than hijab, the govenrment also prohibits the wear of hijab in government buildings. In Algeria, most people claim themselves as Berber rather than Arabs and discourage hijab to eliminate Arabic culture and propose more Berberic culture. After the collapse of Ottoman Empire, Kemal Attaturk the founder of Turkey Republic banned hijab and disallow women with hijab from attending school. After Iran revolution in 1978, Soeharto regime in Indonesia stopped books, literatures, musics and entertainment from Egypt, disallowed Arab weddings and banned hijab and enforced hijab women to take off their hijab in academic requirements, in response to prevent the influence of Islamic revolution in Iran.

Critics of hijab at most point out at some cases that the wear of hijab are enforced, and most societies that enforce hijab are usually the societies that oppress and tend to discriminate women. They point out some cases of honor killing, a tradition that lives amongst Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries especially amongst people in villages that the male member of a family of a woman must kill her if she disobeys or violates moral codes with focused on woman's sexuality including adultery, disgrace for virginity honor (even when she is a victim of a rape) and the way of how woman should dress. In big cities, a woman who is not virgin can never get married and those who have money to afford plastic surgery usually will have to secretly surgically re-"virginize".

But those laws don't apply to men of which men just simply can do anything they want. These moral codes which is so sensitive for Muslims and considered being the main reason of the oppression toward women are mostly around women's sexuality. Even now some scholars believe that the one and only reason why many Muslims especially in Central Asia and Middle East hate the west is that people in the west are premarital sexual tolerance. They believe Muslims are sexually repressed society.

And all those oppressions and unfairness to women started from hijab. In this point of view, Hijab becomes the symbol of oppression toward women by men as an attempt to repress their sexual urge. Hijab becomes obligatory for women, rather than men to control themselves.

Other critic on hijab is more centered on the disintegration of people. Hijab women are viewed to refuse the integration with mainstream culture, getting along with native people and view them as the inside danger. Despite the fact many hijab women comes from different cultural background, ethnicity and race, and even many native white women embracing hijab, people tend to see all hijab women as Arabs from the dessert who live in tent, riding on camels, dusty, dirty, uneducated and love hijacking planes and killing innocent people, even when most Arabs don't live that way. This stereotype is growing wide, one of my friend who happens to wear hijab was taught how to use electric switch to turn on/off the lamp by her American acquittance when she was in Texas.

The supporters of hijab usually see these acts and judgments by westerners as "Islamic Phobia" and "Cultural Imperialism". They see western people as those who are never far from imperialism and to grind other culture. The act to ban hijab in public schools in French for example, is seen as the act to eliminate other cultures and a new form of imperialism. Other hijab supporters use democracy value that guarantees the freedom of people to think, to speak and to choose, including to choose about the way they dress. Believing in democracy is also believing in their right to wear dress the way they want including hijab.

Another problem arises later then is many westerners converting to Islam and wearing hijab, such as Sultaana Freeman, also embrace radicalism and refuse to just even unveil their face for ID-Card. This may sharpen the image of stubbornness, inflexibility and stupidity of Muslim society in whole.

But problems faced by hijab women are not only coming from in western society, but also from their own society, where most muslim countries even of which people are proposing hijab, is hardly allowing hijab women in entering some job fields which can be entered by non-hijab woman. It includes appears on TV, like being News Presenter for example. Rania al Baz who's perhaps one of the first hijab woman appears on screen as news presenter on world class TV station Al Jazeera, must face long and hard way to become hijab woman on screen and surprisingly she was a Saudi woman. (But sadly her personal life wasn't too good. She was beaten by her husband to near death----unsolved problem that seem to be very common in Muslim countries).

Rania Albaz. A hijab woman presenter from Jeddah, KSA.

Another problem is that, hijab can not guarantee that they will be completely safe from sexual harassment. The fact is that more than 60% of hijab woman living in Muslim countries must deal with sexual harassment almost everyday in public places such as in Taxi, airport, gatherings, etc, even in Muslim's most holiest place like Mecca. Many of my women friends experienced bad sexual molestation in Mecca even when they've been covered and it was not in some place like bars or cafe, it was in holly religious place where people should behave. In many cases of my friends, their fears and disgusts and disappointment in the meaning of hijab are expressed in the taking off their hijab and abandon it forever.

Today, many fashion designers embrace cultural fashion especially from eastern countries including Muslims. Hijab now has become not only a religious dress, but is also a modern Cultural Fashion Style. Many designers design these kind of garment for the sake of woman's beauty along with bikinis, tank top, underwears and all accessories for woman's beauty. Hijab now may mave become one of so many commodities to satisfy consumerism behavior.

It seems like hijab itself has so much meanings. The interpretation depends on each person as individual, and the real problem on hijab is not on hijab or religion or culture, but it lies on the paradoxical nature of human being. Once again, it's all about us.




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