One of the first images that come to mind when we think of Islam is a woman in a headscarf, a symbol which Muslims offer to the rest of the world. Now, the hijab is a cause for much debate which I’m not about to delve in to, but suffice to say that the hijab is held up as a symbol of oppression by people who claim that Islam does not respect women. In a way, you can understand why people think this way, it seems that by covering up, a woman blames her own body for the desires of men, that she feels she needs to be hidden from view because she is worth less than a man. For others, the hijab is liberating as it rebels against the notion that a woman is only worth the attractiveness of her body – a revolutionary act considering how much a woman’s sexual allure is valued in the world today.
Veiling of the head is a custom amongst women of various cultures and religions. For some, veiling the head is merely decorative, like a hat, while for others it holds a deeper meaning. In India, many women cover their heads with a dupatta or the pallu of their sari. Covering the head with cloth is a tradition that goes as far back as 3300 BCE, to the Indus Valley Civilisation where women often covered their heads with an uttarya, or upper garment. In modern day India, head coverings are seen more in remote areas and less in the larger cities like Mumbai and Delhi, where Western culture has more influence. Sikh women wear a chunni on their heads when visiting the gurdwara, as it is seen as a way to show modesty and respect before God. In Nigeria, women’s traditional dress includes a gele, a head wrap, similarly to the traditional clothing of Mali. Women in some Christian sects cover their heads when praying in church, and more commonly, nuns cover their heads to show their devotion to God. Traditional Russian clothing for women includes a headscarf and headdress. A headscarf is part of the traditional garb of Romanian women too. The inclusion of a head veil in the cultural clothes of women around the world is evidence that the headscarf is a sign of femininity for many people, and if a woman chooses to dress that way, it is nothing to be ashamed of.
The idea of veiling being synonymous with oppression is not simply a twenty-first century notion either – it has existed ever since Westerners started travelling East and encountering cultures that were new to them. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, wife of the British ambassador to Turkey in the early 18th century, was known for her letters detailing her travels to the Ottoman Empire. In one of her letters, she describes the clothing of Muslim women, noting that every part of their body but the eyes is hidden, and they are totally unrecognisable, even to their own husbands. She writes that “this perpetual masquerade gives them entire liberty of following their inclinations, without danger of discovery.” She then goes on to explain how Turkish women were able to have affairs with men other than their spouses, without fear of discovery. As these women had “all their money in their own hands” they relied on their husbands for little. “’Tis very easy to see that they have in reality more liberty than we have,” wrote Montagu. Reading this, I was astounded to see another opinion of veiling – that covering herself offers a woman an type of agency rooted in mystery. Not that I condone cheating, but you see what I’m getting at.
For many Muslim women, the headscarf is worn first and foremost because it was commanded by God. What the hijab signifies is different for each individual, but I think I can speak for all women who choose to adorn the hijab when I say there is nothing more frustrating than when others try to tell us how we should feel about the way we dress. The view that wearing a piece of fabric on your head means that you are oppressed is frankly ridiculous, and is exemplary of an attitude that cannot comprehend cultures other than one’s own. In a world of increasing globalisation, culture shock is inevitable. But by making an effort to understand other cultures and traditions, the response to multiculturalism can change from fear to tolerance.