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In Islamic cultures, a hijab is a garment worn to cover a woman’s hair in order to preserve their modesty. The Quran, the five pillars (teachings) of Islam and Prophet Muhammad’s teachings remain somewhat ambiguous on head, face and body coverings for women thus leaving interpretations up to cultural norms, individual preferences and the law.
Other types of garments exist as well, such as the chador, niqab, and burqa, which cover varying degrees of a woman’s body based on either societal pressures or personal preference.
Two to three centuries after Prophet Muhammad’s death (from the ninth to sixth centuries), traditional scholars postulated that the Quran required women to wear loose-fitting clothes to cover everything but their hands and faces. More modern and progressive interpretations of Hadith (Islamic teachings) believe that this is not a requirement. In both cases, it is up to the woman to determine to what extent she adheres to the religion and in what way she chooses to express that.
“Interpretations of the Quran vary greatly; it is actually one of the most polysemic texts. The Quran tells women to use their head covers to also cover their chest, meaning that it presumes the existence of a head covering but does not explicitly mandate it. Some believe that this means women must wear hijabs, but others believe that the Quran is only asking women to cover more private parts of their body,” Dr. Sarra Tlili, Assistant Professor of Arabic Language at the University of Florida, said. “Different people understand things in different ways, and I respect that.”
Especially in recent times, governments across the globe have weaponized religious expression by imposing both bans and mandates on women’s head and body coverings. Countries including Austria, Denmark, France, Belgium, Bulgaria, Netherlands, China, Sri Lanka and Switzerland have imposed bans (to some degree) on the wearing of a hijab whereas Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Yemen are among those which have mandated the hijab.
Dr. Semiha Topal, Professor of Religious Studies at the College of William and Mary, examined the reasoning behind these restrictions. “The common thing in all of these rules is the marking of Muslims as ‘different.’ That difference becomes a problem in countries like France so the purpose is assimilation – to make Muslims look like everyone else. Muslim women become the bearers of the Muslim-ness as an identity, and as a result, they often bear the burden of these political clashes,” she said.
The aforementioned Dr. Tlili shared her perspective on such impositions, highlighting her opposition toward any attempt to control women. However, she does understand the actions of governments imposing hijab mandates because she sees it more as an act of preserving culture amidst westernization rather than an act of controlling women.
“In the Islamic world, if an act of worship is forced upon women, it loses its purpose. If I wear a hijab because it’s mandated, then I’m obeying the government – not God,” Dr. Tlili said. “In European countries, hijab bans are just an attempt to impose a given culture of secularism on women. It’s a very narrow understanding of modern values in general and it’s totally inconsistent with the values of liberalism and freedom.”
Junior Shania Mahmood comes from a Muslim family whose women choose not to wear hijabs for the most part. “I think the wearing of a hijab is not only tied to religious reasons but also personal ones. Because I didn’t grow up with anyone close to me wearing a hijab, I do not feel the same personal connection to it as a lot of other Muslim women do.”
In a perfect world, the freedom of expression of all people would be respected. But unfortunately, society allows politics and discrimination to corrupt the sanctity of religion which results in devastating events such as the recent conflict in Iran.
“I see in this generation that, more and more, we are embracing who we are. Life will always bring hatred depending on where you are, who you are, and what you choose to tell the world. But thankfully, whether a woman chooses to wear a hijab or not, our world is growing more accepting of diverse cultural expression as time goes by,” Mahmood said.