Posted in Islam & Interfaith Subjects

The Hijab & Western Civilization

Although I’ve written about this topic before and shared a few more articles about it, I feel compelled to write about it again. The hijab. A symbol of liberation for some and oppression for others. Here in the West things get even more complicated when Muslims are the minority and many unfortunately believe that all Muslims are wife-beaters and terrorists. The worst part is that it’s often no fault of their own either that they don’t know any better but that’s not the point of this post. If you type in Is the hijab mandatory in Islam? you’ll get an abundance of different answers from people, both scholars and regular folks, from all over the world.

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You’ll get the yes side and the no side and the yes side and the no side and the yes side and the no side and it goes on. Just Google it for yourself. This debate won’t be ending anytime in the near future. In an interesting twist that I wasn’t expecting, Dr. Abou El Fadl issued a fatwa cautioning Muslim women to not wear the hijab in Western society. His statement reads in part:

If you are asking me for my personal opinion on the matter, in my opinion, hijab in this country is clearly not a fard and no sin is acquired for failing to wear the hijab. The reason for this position is that the ‘illa (operative cause) for hijab was to protect women from harm and to avoid bringing undue attention to them. In the United States, hijab often results in the exact opposite, in other words, bringing undue attention to a Muslim woman and heightening the risk of harm. To say the least, in my opinion, hijab is not at the core of the Islamic faith, and not the kind of arguable duty that would be worth risking one’s safety for. Put differently, if a Muslim woman wears the hijab in the U.S., I ask that Allah to reward her for the extra effort, but I never advise a Muslima to wear the hijab in the U.S. nor am I keen on raising it as an issue of significance for a woman’s deen. If a woman does wear a hijab in the West and harm does come to her, that gives me serious pause (meaning I am troubled by the fact that the very purpose of the possible rule is now completely contravened). And in all cases, God knows best.

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As you can see from this study, responses can vary wildly from one of the surveyed nations to another. In Saudi Arabia the overwhelming majority prefers Woman 2  while Lebanon overwhelmingly prefers Woman 6. Very few people like Woman 1 but all like Woman 4. While these are just a very small sample of countries, it’s obvious that opinions are heavily influenced by the social and cultural makeup a particular individual lives in. Many hijabi women are harassed in the West and as Dr. Abou El Fadl points out, being harassed was precisely what wearing the hijab was supposed to prevent.

We can all agree that modesty is obligatory, but personally I’m not convinced that the hijab is obligatory. While looking at message boards about this issue I often saw the comment “a scholar knows best” and similar statements but this has obviously gotten scholars divided. I would mostly like side with Tariq Ramadan when he says that the hijab is an Islamic prescription but that no person or government can force a woman to either wear or remove the scarf. What I can deduct from that is that it’s recommended to wear it but it’s not obligatory, especially not when it puts you in harm’s way.

Even with this view though, I think it’s important to remain sensitive to the social and cultural views of modesty in your respective nation when it comes to wearing the hijab. In Saudi Arabia it’s highly offensive to forego a headscarf, but in Lebanon it’s a day like any other. As a hijabi myself, I wear the scarf because I like it, I find it beautiful and comfortable and I feel safe freely expressing myself and my faith in my small community here in Canada where Muslims are nearly non-existent. Modesty was very important to me long before I became Muslim so going one step further and covering my hair seemed sensible to me but when I hear the verse/phrase “there is no compulsion in religion” in Islam I get the idea that I am able to express my faith however I want (within the boundaries of what’s halal and haram) and that includes choosing how I want to express modesty. You can see from Islamic clothing websites such as Artizara where models are shown both wearing the hijab (in a multitude of different styles) and not wearing it that modesty means different things to different people yet all are equally Muslim. Your faith is more than anything expressed by what’s in your heart and not so much what’s on your head.

In conclusion, it’s obvious that how a person perceives their faith and how modesty in general relates to it is highly influenced by their social and cultural makeup and that this debate won’t be going away in the near future. The only thing I would add is that ultimately your faith is between you and God and that whatever you do or don’t do is between you and Him, but you should still be considerate of the social norms where you live to ensure your own safety and well being. What do you think? Why do you choose to wear or not wear the hijab? What has been your experience in doing so?

Author:

Liberal Muslim, social justice and human rights activist, cat lover, author and fellow human.

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