17 July 2010

Behind the Veil

When I talk about Morocco, for the most part, I don't talk a lot about Islam. To me, after almost 3 years experience with the country, it is such an integral part of the fabric of life here, that I almost don't even think to talk about it. It has become a literal "matter of course" to me. Plus, I don't know as much about it as I would like to, and so I need to be careful where I step.

I do, however, want to post here about a Muslim issue that a lot of Americans and Europeans seem to focus on: The Veil. My audience here is people who know nothing or very little about Islam and Muslims, and so if I say something wrong, or misquote someone, please DO correct me.

Personally, before I lived in a Muslim country, I thought very little about this piece of cloth these women wore on their heads, and when I did think about it, I had an attitude of pity - these poor women, someone made them cover up... that sucks for them.

As time passed, however, and I began to know more and more women who wore hijab (the headscarf) - although I just recently made my first friend who wears niqab (the full face veil) - I began to see that this little piece of cloth didn't change how these women acted, or saw themselves, in very many ways at all. They still joked, laughed, cried, sang, learned, danced, loved, and lived, just as much as women in any other place. The only difference I've really seen is that these women seem to respect themselves more than the ones who don't cover, because they are making a choice (for the most part) to commit themselves to their religion, and making a choice to respect their bodies.

Does that statement seem contradictory? I think many of us in the U.S. would say that if you like your body, why don't you show it off? But I have found that these women and girls who choose to wear hijab have a higher self-esteem and a higher self-worth. Aren't we always bemoaning how obsessed our culture is with sex and skin, and how girls have such low self-esteem in high school? I've seen my hijabi students vocally fight with men, challenge them academically, and truly value themselves for their brain. Now, of course, much of this is a generalization, and I know many Moroccan women and girls who value themselves without wearing hijab.

"Hijab" in Islam actually means more than just wearing a scarf on your head:

قُل لِّلْمُؤْمِنِينَ يَغُضُّوا مِنْ أَبْصَارِهِمْ وَيَحْفَظُوا فُرُوجَهُمْ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ أَزْكَىٰ لَهُمْ ۗ إِنَّ اللَّـهَ خَبِيرٌ بِمَا يَصْنَعُونَ وَقُل لِّلْمُؤْمِنَاتِ يَغْضُضْنَ مِنْ أَبْصَارِهِنَّ وَيَحْفَظْنَ فُرُوجَهُنَّ وَلَا يُبْدِينَ

"Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them and Allah is well acquainted with all that they do. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty..."
[Quran 24:30-31]

So if you read the Quran, you will actually see that "hijab" or the concept of modesty in Islam also includes men, AND includes them to the same degree as women. It has been culture, tradition, and the passing of 1400 years that have given us what we know today as hijab.

But I am not a Muslim, and so, if you are really interested in this topic, I would recommend reading this recent New York Times article about what it is like to wear niqab in the United States. Here is an excerpt:

"I do this because I want to be closer to God, I want to please him and I want to live a modest lifestyle," said Ms. Ahmed, who asked that her appearance without a veil not be described. "I want to be tested in that way. The niqab is a constant reminder to do the right thing. It’s God-consciousness in my face."

But there were secular motivations, too. In her job, she worked with all-male teams on oil rigs and in labs.

"No matter how smart I was, I wasn’t getting the respect I wanted," she said. "They still hit on me, made crude remarks and even smacked me on the butt a couple times."

Wearing the niqab is "liberating," she said. "They have to deal with my brain because I don’t give them any other choice."

Reading this article has reminded me that there is so much more to women's lives - whether Muslim or not, hijabi or not, niqabi or not - than what they choose to wear (or what they are coerced into wearing by their culture). I think it is limiting of Americans and other people to focus solely on clothing. Yes, it is the most visible reminder of the differences between us, but to these women, it is as natural as putting on a coat or sunglasses before you go outside would be to us non-hijabis. To me, hijab is only a symbol of a deeper well, and, considering the problems problems between the Western and the Muslim world, and the problems that the Muslim world faces all on its own, then a piece of cloth should be the least of our worries.


Anonymous said...

I have a question dose it say women have to wear the hijab to guard their modesty or is it culture? If you know could you please let me know. I have no clue. THANKS

daleyco said...

Hi Anonymous-

Thanks for commenting. I think that the New York Times article, and my own article, both say that women wear hijab for BOTH modesty and cultural reasons. I think that the issue is too complicated to say one thing about it...

Does this help you?