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Muslim Women: Wearing The Hijab

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Theology
Wordcount: 4632 words Published: 16th May 2017

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Literature on this topic is abundant as research has been conducted globally on the topic of the hijab as to the reasons why women should and should not wear the hijab. The research conducted was made possible through the use of surveys, interviews, questionnaires and observations. Katherine Bullock in particular, a Canadian community activist, author and lecturer did extensive research on the topic of the hijab and published her findings in the form of a book called Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil which challenges “Historical and Modern Stereotypes” . She has also published articles on Muslim women and the media, and Islam and political theory.

Purposes of the research

The objectives of the study are to examine if the dominant negative Western perception affects the reasons why the Muslim community is divided on the subject of hijab.

This research addresses the concern for a dialogue that could inform westernised societies about the personal reasons why some female Muslim students wear hijab and why others do not. I want my research to be meaningful, relevant to local communities and to open my mind and that of others by being taught through research and personal interviews about the subject.

Scope and limitations

The pool of participants is limited to the Muslim students at TSiBA Education. The data set is meaningful, but not representative of the vast range of Muslims in different contexts. It will however show a diversity of views within a common theology and faith.

Plan of development


2.1 Participation

The target group for the research is 20 South African Muslim women between the ages of 18 and 40. This age group is the target of this study because they are the current generation of TSiBA students and are experiencing modern South Africa in a time when it seems there is an ever increasing influx of Western culture. The age group is also likely to include married women who might be inclined to think differently about the hijab as their marriage might have changed the way each looks at the hijab.

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2.2 Methods of data collection

Two sets of data will be employed: 1) open-ended e-mail questionnaires with 20 Muslim students about the hijab 2) Conduct interviews and observations on the candidates if further data is required. The first data collection method I chose was a simple questionnaire. The research draws on qualitative data from questionnaires and interviews with 20 Muslim female students of varying ages within the TSiBA community.

After many different drafts of the questionnaire I went to the Tertiary School in Business Administration (TSiBA) Education to distribute the final version. My questionnaire included the opinions of both young women who wear the hijab and those that do not. I did not ask for names in any section of the survey to ensure the anonymity of all my human subjects. In the end I collected 20 surveys in total. After gathering the questionnaire, I analyzed the results manually.

As my second method of data collection, I conducted interviews, each having an approximate duration of between 30 minutes. I used a recording device on all my interviews.



Keywords: Islam, Muslim, hijab, veil, female, students, TSIBA Education, reasons, dominiant negative Western perception.

The debate regarding the wearing of religious garb in public, specifically coverings worn by Muslim women has increased over the past few years resulting in a lot of controversy among those who agree with the practice and those who do not (iqraonline.net). The French, along with the west expected that the hijab would pass away into history as westernization and secularization took root. However, in the Muslim world, especially among the younger generation, a great wave of returning to hijab was spreading through various countries. This current resurgence is an expression of Islamic revival (Khaula Nakata, A View Through Hijab, 1994, pg 2).

Hijab is seen all over the world, especially in places with a high concentration of practicing Muslims. The hijab has been the focus of often fierce media debates and has come to symbolise the clash of cultures supported by links between Islamic “extremism” and 21st century terrorism. While in several Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran, the full covering, known as the burqa, has been compulsory. A hostile response against Muslim culture has seen such traditional clothing banned, along with the much more common hijab, in the interests of secularism. In this context, Muslim women are portrayed by the Western media either as veiled victims in need of liberation because of a lack of free choice in foreign lands, or a threat to the Western societies in which they reside because of their choice to adopt the hijab which is a traditional Islamic dress.

Muslim women are almost consistently portrayed as oppressed and veiled, a terrorist threat or exotic, sexualised beings. This is in line with Said’s theory of Orientalism (Said, 1978), which argues that the Muslim world and its inhabitants are considered backward, barbaric and outsiders to Western society. This portrayal of Muslims is notable in the media in terms of the coverage of Muslim women. Most representations of Muslim women involve them wearing traditional Islamic clothing such as the hijab, and their role in the media is generally limited to commentary on issues such as the veil.

Western Influences

Dominant negative Western perception

The Western media and feminists often portray the hijab as a symbol of oppression and slavery of women. (http://www.al-islam.org). Many feminists, both Western and Islamic argue that the hijab is a symbol of gender oppression and that the Islamic veiling of women is an oppressive practice. Fadel Amara, an Islamic feminist and a Muslim female member of French government says “The burqa is a prison, a straightjacket. It is not religious. It is the insignia of a totalitarian Political project for sexual inequality.” (King,”Islam, Women and Terrorism,” 299.)

Feminists argue that public presence and visibility is important to Western women. It represents their struggle for economic independence, sexual agency and political participation. In the West, celebrity is the peak of cultural legitimacy. The hijab is a challenge to the view of liberated visibility and freedom of self-expression unfettered by “the male gaze”.( www.theage.com)

After a century of struggle for freedom of expression that included discarding the bra, some Western countries have called for banning the hijab in schools. They have developed, it would seem, a rather limited view of what public visibility might mean to different women. France’s 2004 law, known popularly as the ‘law on the headscarf’, reveals the difficulty of respecting conflicting ideas between diverse communities, especially when one community, in this case the Muslims of France, is a minority. According to this law, female students are banned from wearing the hijab as well as all other openly religious symbols in public schools. France bans women from wearing the hijab in public schools because many feminists and lawmakers argue that veiling women serves as an oppressing force, a force that silences women. Alia Al- Saji states in her article “The Racialization of Muslim Veils: A Philosophical Analysis” many feminists see the headscarf “As a symbol of Islamic gender oppression that …should be banned from public schools, a space where gender equality is presumed (or desired).” Supporters of the law believe it fights gender oppression and gives equality to women in the school system.

Katherine Bullock sheds light on the differences in judgment over hijab by having identified themes from her research on the women and Islam field. She divides these themes into the descriptions of those who are for and those who are against the hijab.

According to Katherine Bullock, critics of the veil rely on secular liberal assumptions about society and human nature and therefore the veil is supposed to be and described as a symbol of oppression because it:

Covers up (hides), in the sense of smothering, femininity

Is apparently linked to the essentialized male and female difference (which is taken to mean that by nature, male is superior, female is inferior);

Is linked to a particular view of woman’s place (subjugated in the home);

Is linked to an oppressive (patriarchal) notion of morality and female purity (because of Islam’s

Emphasis on chastity, marriage, and condemnation of pre- and extra-marital sexual relations);

Can be imposed; and

Is linked to a package of oppressions women in Islam face, such as seclusion, polygamy, easy male divorce, unequal inheritance rights.

3.2.2 Media attitudes to reporting Islam and hijab

While the media cannot be held solely responsible for the construction of national identity nor blamed for societal attitudes towards minority cultures and religions, they play a significant role by providing “the lens through which reality is perceived” (Bullock & Jafri, 2000). While the Western media sees itself as a democratic institution, it is often held accountable for legitimising and spreading racism and bias against religious communities such as Muslims (Bullock & Jafri, 2000). The media portrays Muslims as “tricky, sleazy, sexual and untrustworthy”, as uniformly violent, as oppressors of women, and as members of a global conspiracy (Bullock & Jafri, 2000).

Macmaster and Lewis identify the shift in the European media’s portrayal of veiled women from exotic to a danger to society (Macmaster & Lewis, 1998, p. 121). They point out the juxtaposition of representations of Muslim women as concurrently oppressed and threatening, while Kolhatkar highlights the depiction of Muslim women as “shapeless blue-clad forms of Afghan women” (Kolhatkar, 2002, p. 34).

The identification of Muslim women in the media by the use of traditional Islamic dress has been noted by Begum, who argues that “images of Islamic dress are increasingly used in the media as a visual shorthand for dangerous extremism, and … Muslims all over Europe are suffering from the consequences of such associations” (Begum, 2005, p. 1). In France, a breeding ground of media and political debate about the hijab, has had a polarising affect on the Muslim community and a divisive impact on society and feminism. (Begum, 2005, p. 1)

The media’s portrayal of these women went from sinister symbols of Islamic extremism to brave heroines of the republic overnight (Ezekiel, 2005). But since then, the French media have reported on the suspension of a Muslim meter reader who wore a hijab under her hat, the banning of a fashion show of veiled women, the prevention of hijab-wearing mothers from volunteering in schools; the refusal of service to a student wearing a hijab by a university cafeteria and the banning of a witness to a civil service wedding from signing the documentation because her hijab prevented her from being formally identified

According to Ezekiel, sexism and racism intersect in this debate. On one side of the feminist debate about the hijab, there are those who demand veils be banned from French streets as they encourage the harassment of unveiled women. But at the other end of the spectrum, feminists advocating a Muslim woman’s right to choose to wear or not to wear a hijab have aligned themselves with fundamentalist Islamic leaders, arguing that it’s a Muslim woman’s obligation to wear a hijab and demanding the ban be overturned.

The authors argue that because of the media’s cultural fixation on Muslim women’s dress as a symbol of oppression, Muslim women often have to focus on that aspect of their identity as well, even if they would rather discuss something else. They suggest that even responsible journalism about Muslim women tends to demote them to the role of a reactionary source in the hijab debate. “In sum, it is clear that Muslim women are predominantly presented to the Canadian public as foreign, ‘exotic’, oppressed, or threatening ‘others’ rather than as one’s ‘unexotic’, unthreatening next door neighbours.” (www.reportingdiversity.org.)

Clearly, the hijab story remains newsworthy in Western countries, and Muslim women’s identities are inextricably linked to the headscarf as a result. The argument of oppression

Although it is true that many women do choose to wear the Hijab, it is not the case for all women. In many Middle Eastern and North African countries women are forced and are persecuted and abused for noncompliance with the hijab. This Hirshmann, “Western Feminism, Eastern Veiling, and a Question of Free Agency,” was recently demonstrated in Pakistan, where an extremist killed a women’s activist and government minister, because she refused to wear the Hijab. King states, “From Afghanistan to Algeria to Sudan, Pakistan and Iran- women are systematically brutalized and caught in a deadly crossfire between the secular and fundamentalist forces.”

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Some Islamic feminists argue that although the statement in the Quran about women covering themselves was not meant to oppress women, the interpretation of those verses by Islamic societies does in fact oppress women. Although it can be argued that the hijab is a symbol of the oppression that occurs against women in Islam, many Islamic women don’t agree. It is true that under some Islamist rule, specifically in some North African countries, Afghanistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia women are oppressed and forced to wear the hijab, but in an international context, this is the exception to the rule regarding women’s practices of wearing the veil11.

Salma Yaqoob, a Muslim woman who chooses to wear the hijab explains the veil is not only an oppressing force in Islamic countries that require the veil, but also in Western countries that ban the veil. Yaqoob adamantly contends that by infringing laws that restricts women’s choice on whether or not to wear the veil, they are also being oppressed. “I am opposed to the Saudi and Iranian governments’ imposition of the veil and that of the Taliban previously. But this is also why I oppose the ban on wearing the hijab. In both cases the woman herself is no longer free to make a choice. In both cases her dignity is violated.”. Yaqoob explains that more women are currently banned from wearing the hijab, than are required to wear it.

The argument of liberation

It can be argued that rather than oppressing, the hijab is liberating. The oppressing force behind the veil is when members of the authority, both Islamic and Western, take away a woman’s right to choose. The veil itself is just a piece of cloth. We interpret the hijab according to our social and religious constructions. Through the Western discussion and banning of the hijab in public schools, the Muslim school girls of France lose their freedom to express their spirituality. This view on the veil serves to continually disable and oppress women by terminating their freedom of spiritual expression.

France’s 2004 law on the headscarf disables Islamic females from wearing the veil in places of education. The desired effect of the 2004 law is to fight gender oppression and inequality in the public school system, but as a residual effect, it actually diminishes women’s freedoms rather than enhancing them. The ‘law on the headscarf’ supports the oppressing Western discourses about veiled women and attempts to Westernize French Muslim schoolgirls.

Internal debate: Reasons for wearing and not wearing the hijab

The opinions of Islamic women vary in their decision whether or not to wear the veil. Some feminists, both Muslim and non-Muslim, defend the veil as a mark of agency, cultural membership, and defiance. Tayyab Bashart, a feminist scholar and Muslim who teaches in France, explains her beliefs, “A woman in hijab, who is a functioning member of society, symbolizes an empowered, independent woman, rather than someone who lacks self-determination and is a puppet of society” (Tayyab, Basharat.”Hijab as an instrument of Taking Women off the Sex Economy.”). Muslim women see bans on the veil as creating or perpetuating stereotypes that are becoming harder to fight. Hirshmann states that “Western society tends to oversimplify these cultural stereotypes without looking into the women whom they think are being degraded.”

Reasons for wearing the hijab in Islamic Tradition

The most basic debate over the hijab is over the requirement of the hijab. This is an issue that is debated by many Muslim scholars. First in order to understand why there is an issue it is important to understand the power of the Quran. The Quran is the word of God brought by his last messenger the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). Islam is the total submission to Allah (God the Father) and obedience to Allah, as the Quran is God’s word then it also means total submission and obedience to Quran. The first issue with the requirement of the hijab comes from whether the hijab is in the Quran or not. There are two sides to this argument; there are those who say that the hijab is a requirement because it is in the Quran and those who say that it is not because it is not part of the Quran. Amr Khaled’s lectures have greatly influenced the Muslim youth, especially Muslim female youth on the topic of the hijab. He represents the school of thought that considers the hijab to be directly in the Quran and thus a requirement for Muslim women. In one of his lectures about the hijab he says “Some people argue that this hijab is not obligatory and that it was not mentioned in the Quran.” These are the Qur’an’s verses that make the Hijab obligatory to Muslim women.

“O Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to draw their cloaks (veils) all over their bodies. That will be better, that they should be known (as free respectable women) so as not to be annoyed. And – ALLAH – is Ever Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful. (33:59)” ( Amr Khaled). Here in this verse women are told to cover their bodies so that they should be known as modest women and are not harassed.

The hijab, according to many Muslims, has multiple uses and meanings. The hijab’s symbolism is one of modesty and morality. According to Islam, the hijab functions as a shield for a woman against the lustful gaze of men. The hijab also serves as a cover to preserve the modesty and piety of the woman, as that is her main role as stated in the Qur’an. Not only is this her role in her faith, but in society as well. The Qur’an also states that the woman is the family’s main preserver of honour, piety, and modesty. Thus, the hijab is an aid in which the woman can successfully carry out this function as demanded by Allah through the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) (Kulenovic 714-715). Amr Khalad, a popular Islamic scholar, layman, and highly influential Muslim speaker, has had a strong influence on Muslim youth in on the issue of the hijab, especially in Jordan (Stratton 98). According to Amr Khalad’s lecture “Al-Hijab,” the hijab also serves the purpose of forcing men to not sexually objectify women but to see her as a vessel of intelligence and high moral values. Khalad says that the hijab reinforces the fact that “Islam… made the beauty of women of a higher value in men’s eyes by providing protection [in the form of hijab] to that beauty from uncontrolled lusts and desires, and instead ordering men to respect greater the inner beauty of her soul. Thus, the real value of women is associated with the degree of her bashfulness and her abidance by it” (Khalad “Al-Hijab). This is the tradition Islamic rational for the hijab and why it is important in Islam (Khalad “AlHijab”).

A study about hijab in the West also provides another theory that I believe can also be applied in South Africa because it is a country heavily influenced by the West. The idea of the hijab as a symbol of resistance is explored by Tarik Kulenovic but not necessarily one that is strictly political. Tarik Kulenovic’s theory suggests that the hijab in the West is a matter of identity, a physical symbol of a woman’s Muslim identity. This symbol also carries a message of religiosity in a modernizing society which encourages a secular life style and scorns tradition. Kulenovic asserts that “the modern identity of Muslim women, which includes the wearing of the veil, is primarily the identity of resistance to the values than individuals find foreign to them and as such imposed on them” (Kulenovic, page 717). Thus, in modern society, the hijab can be thought of as a means of retaining a religious life style while assimilating to the demands of the modern world. Another reason women choose to wear the hijab is that they find that the hijab serves as an empowering factor. Yaqoob states her personal reasons why she wears the veil, “For me, the wearing of the hijab denotes that as a woman I expect to be treated as an equal in terms of my intellect and personality and my appearance is relevant only to the degree that I want it to be, when I want it to be.”

Katherine Bullock addresses dominant western assumptions by proving through her research that the reasons some women wear the hijab are that the hijab:

1. Does not smother femininity;

2. Brings to mind the ‘different-but-equal’ school of thought, but does not put forward essentalized male-female difference;

3. Is linked to a view that does not limit women to the home, but neither does it consider the role of stay-at-home-mother and homemaker oppressive;

4. Is linked to a view of morality that is oppressive only if one considers the prohibition of sexual relations outside marriage wrong;

5. Is part of Islamic law, though a law that ought to be implemented in a very wise and women-friendly manner, and

6. Can and should be treated separately from other issues of women’s rights in Islam.

4.2 Reasons for not wearing the hijab in the Islamic Tradition

In the Qur’anic this verse although it says to draw the cloak all over their bodies, it does not specifically say the hair. In addition, it does not specify in what way, to what extent, and in what manner women should cover themselves. There are many modern alternative views to this idea that the hijab is compulsory because it is in the Quran. For example, Dr.Reza Alsan, an internationally acclaimed writer and scholar of religions,the founder of AslanMedia.com and also one of the leading scholars in the alternative view, considers the hijab not an obligatory aspect of being a Muslim woman. Reza claims, “Although long seen as the most distinctive emblem of Islam, the veil is, surprisingly, not enjoined upon Muslim women anywhere in the Quran” (Alsan). Instead he claims that the veil was in Arab culture before the arrival of Islam, through contact with Syria and Iran, where the veil was the sign of the upper class women. According to Lelia Ahmed and those who fall in the second school of thought like Reza, the only places that the hijab is applied to women is when it is addressing the wives of Prophet Muhammad. Thus the veil was only associated with the prophets wives and his daughters not all women of Islam. This school of thought does not deny that modesty was expected of all believers. Women should “‘guard their private parts… and drape a cover over their breasts”‘ when in the presence of strange men (Surah 24:31-32)” (Aslan). Here specific parts of the body are named that women should guard and cover including the private parts and the breast but the hair is not mentioned. Thus those in this school of thought like Leila Ahmed and Reza Alsan do not believe that the hijab is mandatory for Muslim women because it is not mentioned in the Quran.

According to Bullock, critics of the veil rely on secular liberal assumptions about society and human nature and therefore the veil is supposed to be and described as a symbol of oppression because it:

Covers up (hides), in the sense of smothering, femininity

Is apparently linked to essentialized male-female difference (which is taken to mean that by nature, male is superior, female is inferior);

Is linked to a particular view of woman’s place (subjugated in the home);

Is linked to an oppressive (patriarchal) notion of morality and female purity (because of Islam’s

Emphasis on chastity, marriage, and condemnation of pre- and extra-marital sexual relations);

Can be imposed; and

Is linked to a package of oppressions women in Islam face, such as seclusion, polygamy, easy male divorce, unequal inheritance rights, and so on.

4.3 Spirituality

Some women have a deep spiritual and religious connection to the veil and firmly disagree with the view of it as a sign of oppression. Many Muslim women feel uncomfortable without wearing it because the hijab is deeply-rooted in their personal values and religious tradition. A main reason women choose to wear the hijab, is as expression of spirituality. Bashart states in his book that “Muslim women carry with them their sacred private space into the public space by use of the Hijab.” (Basharat, “Hijab as an Instrument of Taking Women off the Sex Economy”). In this view of the hijab, the veil is not simply an article of clothing; or a symbol of oppression it is a tool of spirituality for women.

Fadwa El Guindi, author of The Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance, says “veiling patterns and veiling behaviour are…. about sacred privacy, sanctity and the rhythmic interweaving of patterns of worldly and sacred life, linking women as the guardians of family sanctuaries and the realm of the sacred in this world”


This research investigates the reasons why the Muslim community is divided on the subject of the veil and if the dominant negative perception of hijab (as the hijab being oppressive) has affected, if at all, the wearing of hijab in TSiBA Education. In the attempt to answer this question, the research has presented two hypotheses.

Firstly, the divide on the practice of the hijab exists within the Muslim community because there are different interpretations of the verses of the Qur’an where Allah commands females to over their hair.

Secondly, that the dominant negative Western perception causes some Muslim women to fear wearing the hijab and to abandon it all together as wearing the hijab could result in more oppression to females- as portrayed in Western media.

Thirdly, Some Muslim women choose to wear the hijab for spirituality reasons despite constant the pressures of the West.


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