Who are those ladies, and why do they cover themselves like that? Many people in America and all over the world have wondered or asked about this question. Others, rather than asking questions or wanting to
know what culture entails this on women; make harsh judgments about the religion that supposedly forces this kind of abomination on women. They are the ones who, without the knowledge of this culture, discriminate against those women who cover themselves modestly. Who am I talking about? What religion, culture, and discrimination am I pointing to?
The religion is Islam, where its followers believe in one God, and I am referring to the headscarf or the hijab that Muslim women wear as a part of fulfilling their faith. Muslims believe that God has ordered them to wear the hijab in the holy book or Qur’an as a means to conceal their beauty and guard their modesty from strangers. This is explained in the following sentence, “It is obligatory for a Muslim woman to cover her head, bosom, and neck completely so that nothing of them is seen” (Abdul Aziz, 138). These parts are covered by the hijab, a cloth long and big enough to do so, to comply with the obligation. Hijab is an Arabic term that literally means a covering or partition, not a veil as most people commonly misinterpret. The definition can be understood as women wearing the hijab to create a partition from other strangers. In Islam, women must wear the hijab in front of all men except their grandfathers, fathers, husbands, brothers, sons, uncles, in other words women can show their hair to those men whom they can not marry. In addition to wearing the hijab in front of those men, women must also cover their hair in front of strange women (women they do not know). Along with the hijab, some women wear a face veil or niqab over it; some of which cover their entire face and some of which have slits for the eyes. Using a niqab is not obligatory, but those who do choose to wear it, do it for religious reasons.
Misconceptions and Reactions
One of the most common misconceptions related to the modestly covered Muslim women is that they are forced to wear the hijab or dress conservatively, when this is not even the case in most places. I have heard many stories of families who live in America, where the husband prefers his wife, or a mother prefers her daughter not to wear her hijab, in order to fit in with American society. One of my friends falls into this category so I can tell you personally the feelings of this matter. These women, out of fear of the discrimination against them by Americans, conform themselves to the American culture hoping they will fit in better and not be subject to others ridicule or prejudice. In the cases where it is the husbands who prevent their wives from wearing the scarves, it is also because they do not want to be alienated. This being said, it can be seen that those who do wear the hijab do so with courage. They are brave enough to stand up for what they believe in; they do not live for the people in this country, they live to obey their God’s commands wherever they may live. At the same time this does not mean that they lash out against the foreign culture, it just means that they also want equality in this country, a place where they can walk freely without fear of being harassed, or judged negatively because of their culture.
So why do foreigners, to the religion Islam, think that Muslim women are forced to dress the way they do? It all has to do with the way one has been raised in his/her culture and how he/she is brought up to perceive other cultures to his/her own. Steven E. Barkan explains in his sociology text, “Ethnocentrism…refers to the tendency to judge another culture by the standards of our own and to the belief that our own culture is indeed superior to another culture” (Barkan, 44). How I relate this definition to the belief that a lady is forced to cover her hair is that to a person from a foreign culture, it is sometimes inconceivable that a woman would voluntarily cover her self up in a society and culture where it is a fashion for women to wear as less or sexy clothes as possible. In their culture a woman willingly dresses in attire that is fashionable whether it is revealing or not. And if a preteen or teen does show too much cleavage showing going to school or elsewhere, it’s almost always the dad that is portrayed in movies as telling the girl to “cover it up” before stepping outside. Based on what the society portrays on how a woman dresses and how and who they are restrained by, they believe that the only way that these Muslim women can dress so conservatively is that if their parents force them, because they are trying to judge the Islamic culture along the lines of their own culture, whether it may be American, Hispanic, Indian or any other culture.
The question that arises however, is a very good one; why would or how can a woman dress conservatively like that in this culture where woman in almost all mediums are portrayed in the exact opposite way. The answer is as I have said before. These women who are brave enough to cover up the way they do, do it for not their own sakes but for God’s. And the women who, though Muslim, do not cover themselves with the hijab it is either because it is their choice, or their fear of how they will be treated and responded to in a society where a nice portion do not appreciate diversity. There are those who have a constant struggle everyday in front of the mirror thinking about doing what they think is right. The fear that some women have about wearing the hijab is justified. The discrimination, prejudice, and mainly harassment from the foreign cultures are enough for some women to seriously consider their choices.
It is one thing to be ignorant about another culture, it can be understood, but it is another to thing to act out critically, harshly, or even violently because of that ignorance. There is a good example of discrimination that took place in France in 2010; the French senate passed a bill to ban the face veil. What is really interesting is their reasoning for passing the ban, “supporters of the bill insist that it is aimed at integration, rather than stigmatizing a minority group” (Al-Jazeera). This line of reasoning is anything but true. Integration is known as the final stage of both the Minority and Majority Identity development. For minority identities integration means that its group members, “appreciate and participate in the traditions and practices of their own culture yet are also able to appreciate, and perhaps even incorporate, aspects of the majority culture” (Willis-Rivera, 29-30). For the majority group the definition of the integration stage is along the same lines, “people in the majority group understand the privilege that is held by their group and work toward a more equal society…[they] have a greater understanding and appreciation for the minority groups as well” (Willis-Rivera, 31). Now knowing the true connotations of integration, how can the ban on the face veil in France act as integration of the society? It does indeed stigmatize the minority group, contrary to what the supporters of the bill stated, because the majority group (the French) do not possess the understanding or appreciation of the minority group (the Muslim women). And the minority women cannot reach the stage of integration if they are prevented from incorporating their cultural practices.
This issue is further complicated by the fact that it seems that the French believe that women do not want to wear the face veil and that they are forced, so they have come up with a punishment, “Men who force their wives or daughters to cover for religious reasons would face tougher penalties [than the women who wear the face veil] of up to $38,685 and a one-year jail term” (Al-Jazeera). This shows how ignorant the foreign culture is of another culture. There may be a few families where men may force the wife to wear the hijab and niqab but by passing this bill, they have inconvenienced the women more than the men. “Some Muslim women argue that such a law would force them to stay at home so as to avoid showing their faces in public” (Al-Jazeera). One woman goes on to state that she will now be sending someone else to do her shopping for her and that she will not leave her house. Once again how does this fit in with “integration,” when the law has just seemed to oppress women more than any face veil or headscarf could ever do. These women are giving up their freedom when in truth their freedom has been plucked from them. On this matter the French seem to have made the decision from an etic point of view and thus ending up committing acts of discrimination against the Muslim women, similar to the discrimination against any other race or religion excluding white Christians. Not only did the French ban the niqab in France, but much earlier when they colonized Algeria in Africa, they sought to impose their “civilized” culture upon the Muslims there. Enloe states in her article, “French administrators saw removing the veil as part of France’s ‘civilizing mission’” (Grewal, 223). The lack of respect for another culture is portrayed again in this quote. They do not even stop to consider that they are not the only ones with feelings. The people from whom they are stripping away their rights from have feelings too. But no, by committing this act, they have failed to acknowledge these Muslims as human beings and that they have a right to their personal actions.
Unless you are a white male Christian, the chances of you being treated equally are very slim. Like the discrimination against Negroes, Hispanics, and immigrants, the discrimination against Muslim women is very common and often more intense than the former categories. In addition to being from a religion that sparks so many controversies, the way women dress in Islam is constantly poked at by people who view different cultures with what seems to be an etic screen. There is constant negativism towards other races and cultures that are labeled as inferior by those who proclaim they are superior. The constant attack on the hijab and niqab blinds the people from noticing that there is a human being underneath the covering. Rather than trying to understand the Muslim woman’s feelings of her beliefs and actions, the majority group projects what they might feel if that was their culture and comes up with the idea that the culture is oppressive and tries to fix it when it is not broken. By these actions they do not consider that there is a person beneath those veils and that she is liable to have thoughts and emotions on a matter, such as whether she wears the hijab or not. But these women are treated as objects by the way their decisions and thoughts are made for them; this is similar to how most women are still being treated. The only difference is that rather than making decisions and projecting their thoughts on women from their same culture they seem to think that they possess the right to make decisions and come up with strong opinions about another culture about which they do not have a basic understanding. For a society to exhibit true integration, the majority identities of a society must try to understand the different cultures or at least understand there are different cultures with different thoughts, views, and beliefs. They must not take advantage of their privilege and undermine another’s culture to their own.
Relating this with the concept of wearing the hijab or niqab, the foreign culture should not look down upon a woman covering herself up modestly in contradiction to other women. The term modest is relative, and it should be understood that the relativity of this term comes from the difference of religion and culture. Thinking that one’s culture is superior over another because it does not oppress women by forcing them to cover themselves completely is completely mistaken, because where it may seem like oppression for one, it is actually an act of conviction for another.
EDCC, WOMEN’S 200, 26th November 2012
Abdul Aziz, Maulvi. Studies in Islam: Grade Seven. New Delhi: Islamic Book Service, 2003. Print.
Al-Jazeera. “French Senate Passes Face-Veil Ban.” Al-Jazeera. 14 Sep. 2010. Web. 2 Dec. 2012.
Barkan, Steven E., Sociology: Understanding and Changing the Social World, Brief Edition. New York: Flat World Knowledge, 2005. Print.
Enloe, Cynthia. “Nationalism and Masculinity.” Grewal 223
Grewal, Inderpal and Caren Kaplan. An Introduction to Women’s Studies: Gender in a Transnational World. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010. Print.
Willis-Rivera, Jennifer. The Essential Guide to Intercultural Communication. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010. Print.