Iftar in Patterson, New Jersey Image from Wikimedia Commons

Iftar in Patterson, New Jersey
Image from Wikimedia Commons

“Dad, do we have to wear this?”

We were on our way to visit a Shi’a mosque in Salt Lake City, Utah,  a number of years ago, and my 10- and 12-year-old daughters were asking about the scarves I had invited them to wear.

“No, absolutely not,”  I said.  “The only reason I gave those to you is in case you wanted to.”

“Why would we want to?”

“Out of respect.”  I did not know much about the scarves or their use, just what I learned earlier that week about its history.  “We’re visiting another church, and there many of the women wear these over their hair.  They’re called hijabs.”

“Oh, we heard about these.”  Both girls then told me many of the things they had ‘learned’ from their friends at school, about how Muslim men force their women to wear clothes to hide who they are, and the word ‘subjugate’ kept coming up.

“Let’s ask when we get there,” I invited.  “Since it’s someone else’s church, I thought it would be nice to show respect and wear it, to help them feel more comfortable with us being there.”  The girls decided that was a good idea, and ended up making a wonderful first impression.

The hijab has come to be (mis)understood by Western media as the visible indicator ‘proving’ Muslim subjugation of women.  It is impossible, a friend from Morocco explained, to say that such a thing isn’t true for every Muslim in the world (a quarter of the world’s population).  “With such a huge population, even a tiny percentage will contain a large number of real people, but regardless of whether or not such people call themselves Muslim, subjugation in any form is against the teachings of Islam,” she told me.  She and her friend were both in the US studying microbiology and genetics, she did not wear a hijab and her friend did, and the women in both their families were split pretty evenly as to who chose to wear hijabs.

From our Western point of view, expecting a person to cover his/her head as part of religious observance is not unusual – the nun’s habit, for example, immediately comes to mind, as does the yarmulke for my Jewish friends.  And for the majority of Muslim women the headscarf means something completely different to what we ‘understand’ from various media.

Mohamed began receiving the revelation of the Qur’an in 610, on the Arabian peninsula.  This era, explains Dr. Sophia Pandya from California State University Long Beach, was particularly harsh for women.  A family’s cattle was better cared for than many of the girls and women in a family, and a young woman felt to be a drain on resources could be buried alive in the desert sands without fear of reprisal or reprimand.  The length, color, and luster of a woman’s hair was used to judge her breeding potential and overall health in a similar way to how the potential health of livestock is judged by the appearance of the animals’ hides.  In contrast, by covering her hair a man was forced to address the woman to her face and acknowledge her identity as a fellow human being.  A typical Western response is our immediate rebuttal, but doesn’t the Qur’an say a husband can beat his wife?  Yes and no, Dr. Pandya says.  “The Arabic word many have translated into ‘beat’ has over thirty other meanings, including variations of ‘separate’ which are more contextually valid – so Westerners find it problematic to say the least to fully appreciate the Qur’anic scripture.”  (Comments made during her lecture on Women in Islam at Pacifica Institute Utah, February 8, 2013)

Now asking a Muslim what the hijab ‘means’ is like asking Christians their views on particular subjects; just as Christianity is a rainbow of points of view, so is Islam.  My friends at Pacifica Institute Utah, a Turkish-American service organization, have a unique perspective.

During the Ataturk government, a system of enforced secularization was observed – religion in the workplace or professional environment was frowned on.  Muslim women who insisted on wearing their headscarves were banned from higher education and serving in public office.  Within the last decade or so that has radically changed.  Like the Amercian colonials adopting ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ as their own (sung by British troops to tease the Americans), many Muslim Turks feel that it is a symbol of their religious freedom to wear their hijabs.  I asked my friend Hulya to visit with the women who make up Utah’s Pacifica Institute and tell me more.

“I asked the ladies of Pacifica, and most of our answers (about wearing the hijab) are the same.  We come from all parts of Turkiye:  Ankara, Giresun, Istanbul, and Erzurum.  All of us are well educated, and we have college degrees in various areas:  Turkish Language, Economy, Biology, Education, and Computer Science.  I have a Masters Degree in Biology Education.  Most of us are teachers in different schools.

“Why do we wear hijab?  Inner peace and harmony, solidarity and peace, and the perseverance of society.”  (Modest Dress in Abrahamic Traditions, The Fountain Magazine)

Other Muslim women whom I’ve asked about this subject have very similar responses.  Those who wear or don’t wear are never judgmental about the sister who chooses differently, and will enthusiastically defend the choice whichever it is.  And they consistently tell me that to wear the hijab is a sign of devotion and modesty.  One poet I spoke with, who wears a full burqa, said it is wonderfully liberating.  A Western convert to Islam, she said that reciting her poetry in full burqa gives her unimaginable freedom – “Everyone only listens to the words I’m moved to give, and the message is pure and  undiluted.”

And I love this video, interviewing several Muslim women of Charlotte, North Carolina:

Meet the Muslims of Charlotte – Hijab Question