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Hijab: Religious or Cultural?


By Fatima Mahmoud

Freelance Writer


The primary Islamic objective underpinning hijab is to secure protection for women.

Having lived in Manchester all my life, I have had the privilege of encountering a wide diversity of people of varying cultures and traditions, all coexisting together in this highly cosmopolitan part of the UK. This rainbow city now hosts a population of approximately 100,000 Muslims who, within and among themselves, form a huge melting pot of cultures, traditional practices, and languages.

Many would say, however, that traditional practices are on the decline in the Muslim community here in the West, and that the culture practiced by those Muslims who first immigrated to Western countries no longer assumes the same importance for their children's generation. This, I would say is true to a large extent; much of Eastern culture has been rendered irrelevant for many Muslims born and bred in the West. But, on the flip side of things, this younger generation of Muslims have also not only taken on more fervently, but additionally found new meaning in, some of the cultural practices passed down by their parents.

Degradation of Women

One of these practices is that of dressing modestly, assumed in the form of hijab, by which I mean the covering of the whole body, including the hair and excepting the hands and face. More and more young Muslim women choose to wear hijab, not now as a cultural gesture, but as a marker of their Islamic faith and their conviction that it is through modest dress alone that women are truly freed from exploitation by and enslavement to men.

It is a refusal to be held victim by the claw-like clutches of a fashion industry that preys on millions of emotionally insecure women who succumb to its lures. They enslave themselves to the impossible and ever-changing standards of physical beauty that fashion dictates. This industry is much to blame for the soaring rates of eating disorders among young women such as bulimia and anorexia and not to mention the increasing rates of suicide (Cole).

The enormous pressure placed on women to be as sexually attractive to men as possible starts at an early age, as Naheed Mustafe, a Canadian former feminist who converted to Islam, states: "[Non-Muslim] women are taught from early childhood that their worth is proportional to their attractiveness" (Cole). As a result, women feel the need to dress in a way that is sexually pleasing to as many men as possible — imagine the headache.

But more significantly, think about the social consequences. First, in such a society every attractively dressed woman is a potential rival for another, which makes for a stiflingly over-competitive environment (Emerick). Rather than aiming to improve herself as a person, a woman makes it her main preoccupation to out-compete other women, even if this means having to "win over" another woman's man to prove her "superiority.". All this while the man sits back and files his nails, happy and contented to know there are women out there fighting for him. Second, in societies where women are viewed as sexual objects, the rate of violence towards women is horrendous. In the United States, figures show that one out of every four women will be sexually assaulted at some time of her life (Cole).

Protection for women

Hijab's object is to liberate women by making them true equals with men.

Islam puts a stop to this degradation of women. It teaches women to cover up their beauty and thus, as Mustafe writes, gives "back to women the ultimate control over their bodies" (Cole). It teaches girls from a young age that what is of utmost importance, for both men and women, and what truly makes their worth is their character, their piety, and their dignity; in this way, both men and women are rendered equals. Since the Muslim woman is invisible behind the hijab, those she interacts with are compelled to appreciate her primarily for her intellectual abilities and personality, (Cole) serving to detract attention away from superficialities such as physical appearance and image, and thus making for a more genuine society in which all are judged for whom they are, and not what material things they possess.

The primary Islamic objective underpinning hijab then, is to secure protection for women, as it says in the Qur'an:

[O Prophet! Tell thy wives and thy daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks close round them (when they go abroad). That will be better, so that they may be recognized and not annoyed] (Al-Ahzab 33:59)

The hijab is not — as is purported by many Western feminists, orientalists, and not least by the Western media — prescribed in order to oppress women and to aid men in maintaining control over them. Indeed, as seen above, its objective is quite the opposite: It is to liberate women by making them true equals with men.


Negative Associations

Having said this, however, I would be careful not to blame Western ignorance or prejudice entirely for the boundless, negative associations with oppression the hijab has borne. It is true that in some ,if not most, parts of the Muslim world where hijab is practiced, women do not enjoy their full Islamic rights, or rights that the West would consider quite basic, such as the right to vote. Women are rendered second to men through a cultural understanding of their role and status in society. In such parts of the world, the Islamic objectives underpinning hijab may be overridden by cultural ones and, thus, hijab may indeed come to symbolize a man's control over his wife, sisters, and daughters.

Taken from this angle, it is not difficult to see why so many Western feminists or indeed Muslim feminists regard the hijab scornfully, an enemy to the cause of women's liberation rather than its champion. In this context, we can view the hijab as a cultural thing and as a practice divorced from its original Islamic aims and objectives. It now takes on a culturally molded meaning and, therefore, sits quite comfortably with other practices that serve to suppress women, a lack of access to education being an example of one. Note, however, that even in the cultural context, hijab itself is not the tool that oppresses; it is those other practices used in conjunction with it that do. Hijab merely takes on the negative associations but in itself does little harm.

Such negative associations are now changing in the West with the new wave of Muslim youth who want a return, not to culture or traditional practices, but to real religion and to a purer Islam — one that is free of cultural distortions. Hijab in such a context is primarily a religious thing, and the objectives underpinning its practice are primarily Islamic ones.

Hijab can be either a religious or a cultural thing, or even both at the same time.


Religious or Cultural?

I say primarily religious because I do believe that even in this context, hijab still bears cultural associations. However, the culture I talk of now is not that of Eastern tradition but of a new and different one, specific to Muslims living in the West. As one commentator, Andrew Calcutt, bluntly puts it, "The streets of East London now resound with two fashion statements: the hood and hijab." Calcutt makes the suggestion that "religious tradition is the new rock'n'roll, while in the current context religious clothing is a kind of (anti-) fashion."

Although I do not entirely agree with Calcutt's philosophy of religion, which states that religion is merely continuous re-invention in response to specific historical contexts rather than the embodiment of timeless divinity (I do not see why it cannot be both simultaneously; the two are not mutually exclusive), I do agree with his analysis of specific religious practices. He states that hijab can properly be seen as an aspect of youth culture, characterized by rebellion against branded clothes and the fashion industry and, though it seems paradoxical, by assertion of one's identity through the anonymity of the individual behind the hijab. The difference between this newer culture and the traditional one associated with hijab is that this one falls in line with Islamic objectives while the latter oversteps them. Thus, Islam and culture are not necessarily diametrically opposed, but only become so when their objectives are.

It is clear, then, that hijab can be either a religious or a cultural thing, or even both at the same time, depending on the context of the society it is practiced in. For this reason, we must be careful to differentiate between the Islamic and the cultural objectives that underpin the practice. While the objectives of the former are to free, liberate, and protect women, those of the latter can vary. When cultural objectives fall outside the remit of Islam — as they may do in situations where women are made subordinates to men —, then the practice can no longer be said to be a religious thing, but really only a cultural thing.


Calcutt, Andrew. “Hijab in Hood : Religion, Pop Culture and Public Policy"; University of East London, Rising East Online. May 2006. Last accessed 20 Nov. 2006.

Cole, Samuel. “Donning the Hijab : ( How Not to be a Sex Object).” The Prism. March 1998. Last accessed 20 Nov. 2006.

Emerick, Yahya. “The War of Women” Islam for Today. Last accessed 20 Nov. 2006.


Fatima Mahmoud has recently completed a Masters in Political Thought at the University of Manchester and she is an active member of the Muslim Association of Britain.

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