On the meaning of the hijab

Good debate on the matter in the NYT (given my history on the subject– see #5).  Loved these two takes:

Asra Q. Nomani:

As mainstream Muslim women, we see the girl’s headscarf not as a signal of “choice,” but as a symbol of a dangerous purity culture, obsessed with honor and virginity, that has divided Muslim communities in our own civil war, or fitna, since the Saudi and Iranian regimes promulgated puritanical interpretations of Sunni and Shia Islam, after the 1970s Saudi oil boom and the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

In the eight times the word hijab, or a derivative, appears in the Koran, it means a “barrier” or “curtain,” with spiritual, not sartorial, meaning.

Today, well-intentioned women are wearing headscarves in interfaith “solidarity.” But, to us, they stand on the wrong side of a lethal war of ideas that sexually objectifies women as vessels for honor and temptation, absolving men of personal responsibility.

And Nushin Arbabzadah:

Standing on the road that ran alongside the main school building, I watched mustachioed secret policemen carry about a dozen girls out of my school on stretchers. I was bewildered. The next day, at the regular morning assembly on the school field, our headmistress told us that the mujahedin had poisoned our drinking well because our girls didn’t cover their hair properly. She declared that from now on, the school would follow much stricter hijab rules. No more headscarves that loosely hung over our heads. No more thin scarves that more rebellious girls slung around their necks, “like snakes,” she said.

My school decided to appease, rather than defy and defeat, the mujahedin, or “holy warriors.” From now on I had to wear a white headscarf. I learned that the hair on my head was not just a battleground for an ideological war between the secular government and the mujahedin. It was also a political symbol that could be negotiated without my consent.

My hair didn’t belong to me. It belonged to the Soviet-backed Kabul regime and its enemy, the Western-backed mujahedin. My hair was the target of a proxy war.

Obviously, there’s some contrary views.  But I find these by far the most compelling.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

8 Responses to On the meaning of the hijab

  1. R, Jenrette says:

    I totally agree with these writers. I see women wearing that veil as a threat to me, not from those women but from those men who decided that women should be kept in their place which is ever in thrall to some man.
    Down with patriarchy wherever it exists,

  2. Jon K says:

    I worked with female Somali refugees who were between the ages of 18-21 at the time I knew them. Not only did they wear the head covering but I know for a fact at least one of them had undergone female circumcision as well. Believe it or not, she was not only proud of that enough to mention it to someone who was little more than a friendly workplace acquaintance, but she saw it as an important part of her cultural heritage and really would have been offended had I shared my personal feelings about how barbaric that is.

    I don’t think we should allow practices like that in this country. At the same time, it is not my place to dictate or judge the cultural mores of a completely different society that may operate with a completely different moral matrix than that of modern western culture.

    There is a concept in psychology that defines Americans (and other westerners) as W.E.I.R.D. which means Western, educated, and from industrialized, rich, and democratic countries.

    Slate had a pretty good article that explained this better than I can:
    WEIRD subjects (perhaps you were one?) are still human, of course, so you might think that what’s generalizable to them must be generalizable to the rest of humanity. But in fact, that’s not the case. WEIRD subjects, from countries that represent only about 12 percent of the world’s population, differ from other populations in moral decision making, reasoning style, fairness, even things like visual perception. This is because a lot of these behaviors and perceptions are based on the environments and contexts in which we grew up. There’s a big dose of sociology in our psychology. For example, WEIRD people are better at optical illusions involving line length, possibly because our environments contain a lot of straight lines in things like buildings.

    All I am saying is that most of the world doesn’t see things from the same perspective we do. Shouldn’t we make an effort to meet people where they are instead of forcing them to conform to our values?

    • Steve Greene says:

      Great points, but, with limits. FGM– judge away.

      • Jon K says:

        I agree that it is a horrible practice. I am curious how you would handle a random workplace conversation about cultural differences and then have that bomb dropped on you. It was totally too much information, and it left me momentarily speechless. Her clearly strong belief that it was a good thing that happened to her was difficult for me to process, and I decided at the time I should keep my opinion to myself. It’s not like anything could be done to fix what had been done, and I’m pretty sure that tradition will end with her now that she lives in this country (at least I very much hope so).

      • Steve Greene says:

        I would have been entirely non-confrontational in a workplace conversation. E.g., I think Jehovah’s Witnesses are nuts, but I am unfailingly polite and non-confrontational when they regularly come to my home.

  3. Mika says:

    When it comes to female genital mutilation, I really think that we should force them to conform to our values. Here


    are some powerful pictures.

    About the hijab, I’m not as certain. Is it so objectionable mainly because it is so visible form of oppression? Well, ymm… yes and that’s why it should be fought because it has so huge symbolic meaning. I don’t know 🙂

    • Steve Greene says:

      Yeah. I’m quite comfortable banning certain things like FGM. Would never suggest banning the hijab, but I would be just fine if it was seen as culturally acceptable as neck tattoos (i.e., not very).

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