Colombo Telegraph

The Islamic Hijab & Veil

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

A Quiet Revolution (Yale University Press, 2011) is by Leila Ahmed, an Egyptian-American; Professor of Divinity at Harvard University. Unless otherwise made explicit, what follows is from this study. The work’s focus is mainly from the 20th century onwards, with much of the reference being related to Egypt (to a lesser degree to Saudi Arabia) and the USA. The hijab and veil are emblems of Islam (p. 132) though, of course, there are pious Muslim women who don’t wear the hijab. Equally, to be a Muslim is not necessarily to be an Islamist: ‘Islamism’ is a very political form of Islam (ibid).

Women’s rights have been used as a cloak to attack Islam and the Muslim world in general; to denigrate and dominate (pp. 223-4). For example, the British Occupation of Egypt began in 1882, and Lord Cromer was appointed consul-general, a post he held for twenty-four years. Cromer who repeatedly decried the position of women in Islam was a fierce opponent of women’s rights in England. Indeed, he was for a time president of the ‘Society Opposed to Women’s Suffrage’ (p. 31). The presence of the veil was taken to be an indicator of the level of the backwardness of a society (p. 20) – isn’t it still? The Oxford historian Albert Hourani in The Vanishing Veil (1956) predicted that it would soon be a thing of the past (p. 19) but the veil reappeared in the 1970s (p. 8), and today we live in a world where veiling steadily gains ground across the globe (p. 305).

The Caliphate which had existed under the Ottoman Empire was abolished in 1924 by Kemal Ataturk. In 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood was founded by Hasan al-Banna whose ideal was to work for humanity, particularly for the poor and oppressed. Their clinics, health-care centers and hospitals were open also to the needy who didn’t belong to the Brotherhood (p. 51). A Muslim Sisterhood was established in 1937 (p. 136). The Brotherhood was dissolved in 1948 and al-Banna murdered. Fleeing persecution in Egypt, members of the Brotherhood found refuge in Saudi Arabia which from the 1950s saw a massive increase in its oil-based wealth. The Kingdom, established in 1932, followed the teaching of Abd al-Wahhab (1709-92), and sought to Wahhabize Islam (p. 97). Members of the Brotherhood offered their experience and expertise, and it is they who ran Saudi projects, including publications and missions. (In the past, wealthy Egyptians had taken to wearing European-style dress. Now women returning from Saudi Arabia with money to buy houses, property or businesses imitated the Saudi dress-code: Saudi chic, p. 101. Besides, wearing the hijab a woman could leave the home, go out to work and yet signal that she was a good wife and mother: p. 122. This is particularly relevant in the context of over-crowding in buses, trains and offices.) A university was set up in Medina in 1961 to train Muslim missionaries (p. 61). The word jahiliyya (jahl = ignorance) referred to the pre-Islamic era in Arabia but Egyptian Sayyid Qutb (leading intellectual of the Brotherhood, hanged in 1966) asserted that most so-called Muslim countries were in fact not Islamic but rather were jahiliyya societies (p. 69). To Qutb, the Islamic confession of faith, “La illaha illa Allah”, was revolutionary: sovereignty lay not in governments but in Islam (p. 71), and the true path was through dedicated and selfless labour and struggle. Of the four types of jihad (jahada = to strive): the first and the greatest is the struggle with oneself. I am reminded of one of the sayings attributed to the Buddha, very much in line with Stoic philosophy: Greater than conquering others is the winning of control over oneself.

The 1956 constitution gave Egyptian women the vote. “By 1962 women had been appointed to senior government positions, and all the women holding such positions were bareheaded” (p. 64). But more than the defeat by Israel in 1948, the defeat of 1967 had “an earthquake-like effect on the Arab world” (pp. 65-6): I suppose because it was not an honourable defeat but a humiliating debacle. Arab efforts at Westernisation hadn’t brought results, and the people now believed that salvation lay not in nationalism, not in socialism, but in Islam: an attitude encouraged by the ruling elite of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf kingdoms threatened by notions of socialism. The wearing of the hijab is influenced by non-religious factors and developments as well.

African Americans make up a considerable percentage of US Muslims (p. 11). Similarly, some of the so-called ‘Untouchable’ caste in India, rejecting a religion which sanctioned their rejection, converted to Buddhism. And Arundhati Roy in her novel, The God of Small Things, suggests with ironic humour that if there are “untouchables”, then there must also be “touchables”. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, America became an “Islamist haven” (p. 177) with the Reagan administration elevating Wahhabism to the status of ‘liberation theology’. Abdel Rahman, known as the blind sheikh, obtained his green card quickly, and Ayman al-Zawahiri was also in the US (p. 180).

To wear the hijab or veil in a Muslim-majority country is to conform; it’s quite a different matter to do so in a minority situation, particularly one where Muslims face resentment, even hostility. The attack of 11 September 2001 led to contradictory reactions on the part of Muslim women in America. Some abandoned the hijab but far more began to wear it: we have a right to be treated equally. Often, these women were young, university-educated and successful professionally. They are a far cry from the stereotype of powerlessness, poverty and near-illiteracy; a stereotype which has a long pedigree, for example and at random, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein states that the intellect and an independence of spirit are “forbidden to the female followers of Muhammed” (Chapter 14). The resurgence of the veil was overwhelmingly a women’s movement, and there was a “dramatic increase” in attendance at the mosque (p. 169). Wearing the hijab became an act of solidarity with Muslim women all around the world (p. 209). “Palestine and solidarity with the Palestinians loomed large among the reasons given for donning the hijab” (p. 210). “9/11” also prompted a different interpretation of some aspects of traditional Islam. For example, Laleh Bakhtiar in The Sublime Quran, “the first English translation by a Muslim American woman”, adduces linguistic grounds for re-reading verse 4.34: the verse does not mean that a husband can beat his wife but only to leave her alone (p. 267). The “prophet Mohammed was never known to have beaten any of his wives” (ibid). “The absence of a woman’s point of view” in Islam needed to be changed. What was now questioned was not the authority of the Qur’an but its interpretation over the ages by men. Attitudes and practice are not fixed but fluid.

To employ paradox, wearing the hijab is silent utterance. But what is the significance of this silent statement, the quiet revolution of this book’s title? What different factors lead to the wearing of it? It will be interesting if similar research were to be conducted in Sri Lanka by a female Moslem who not only has access to fellow Moslem females from different areas and social groups, but is also able to win their trust and candour. Perhaps, such studies already exist? I’ll be grateful for guidance.

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