To veil or not to veil? The question over whether Muslim women should wear the hijab is on the front line of Islamic-secular relations in nations across the world. In three different continents, Kyrgyzstan, Canada and Nigeria are the latest contested battlegrounds for use of the traditional Muslim headgear. The Kyrgyz education ministry has officially banned the practice on school grounds and have imposed a fine of 700 soms (about $19) on the family of infractors.
Meanwhile the Youth Minister of Nigeria’s mainly Muslim state of Kano has denied the state government issued a directive for female students of all religions to wear the hijab. Over in Canada, politicians of all political parties have protested a recent decision by Elections Canada to allow veiled voters to participate in the upcoming federal elections without having to lift their veils.
According to Turkish sociologist, Nilufer Gole, veiling is the most salient emblem of contemporary Islamism. She says no other symbol reconstructs with such force the ‘otherness’ of Islam to the west and its use shows the insurmountability of boundaries between Islamic and Western civilisation. Gole also says that female dress codes have always been the litmus test of modernity in Islamic societies.
Her words are quoted in Geraldine Doogue and Peter Kirkwood’s study of the relationship between Islam and the west entitled “Tomorrow’s Islam: Uniting age-old Beliefs and a Modern World”. While the book addresses many controversial issues in relation to Islam, the chapter on the hijab and whether Muslim women are oppressed is possibly the most disputed. Doogue and Kirkwood interviewed many prominent Muslims for the book and found great diversity among Muslim women on clothing choice.
Baroness Pola Uddin, a Bangladeshi born British Labour politician (and the first Muslim woman in the House of Lords), told the authors she was puzzled by the decision of English Muslims to take the veil. She said her home culture has produced many female engineers while the women she knows are not passive and would not consider taking up the veil.
Turkish TV journalist and filmmaker Ayşe Böhürler, meanwhile, deeply shocked her family when she wore the veil that had been cast aside for two generations. She did not see her act as casting aside the secular reforms of Kemal Ataturk. Instead she saw her actions as the next logical step: by linking progress with an accompanying religious commitment. It was both a protest against Western ideas of modernisation and an affirmation of a collective identity.
Another Turkish interviewee, Professor of Sociology Ayşe Öncü, was not so sure. At her university in Istanbul, women students were debating the issue in detail: not only whether to wear the veil but if so, what version: full cover up or tied scarf. Öncü was worried that gender segregation would become a state policy. Geraldine Doogue believes that Muslim women are being encouraged to be anxious about their bodies and the whole idea seems suspiciously like self-loathing.
Wearing a veil was a Persian Zoroastrian and then Byzantine fashion which only made its way into Arabia after Mohammad’s death. There are no injunctions in the Koran about wearing the hijab. There is only one passage in the Koran (Sura 24: 30-31) about the need for modesty and it applies to men and women. Both men and women should “lower their gaze and guard their modesty” while in addition the women "should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof.”
The recent rise of the hijab is puzzling to western women, where dress codes have tended to become increasingly less modest. For many in the west, the hijab is a symbol of oppression against Muslim women and is a reminder that in some Muslim societies women are second-class citizens who cannot attend universities, are not allowed to drive and are victims of honour killings, circumcision and domestic violence. Ayşe Böhürler rejects this analysis. “For me it means freedom,” she said. "I do not want to impose my values on others and my own daughters will be free to choose whether to wear it or not”.