I had to groan when the BBC newsreader a couple of weeks back announced that there was a renewed dispute over the hijab, the ‘Muslim headscarf’. As though that were news, having been a bone of contention in Western societies for years now.
The way Muslim women dress seems to be of immense interest to some people to the point of fetishism. Remember the row about the ‘burkini’? There was a furore in France when women and girls were being accosted by police on some beaches for wearing this bathing outfit.
The ‘burkini’ – hardly likely to subvert public morals, is it?
Back to the hijab. It wasn’t ‘political’ this time – like a renewed drive to ban it from schools and government departments – but a squabble between feminists who say that it is a symbol of female oppression and other feminists who say that it is empowering for women. Being a mere male, I would never understand such profundities, so I’ll desist from commenting and thereby risking making a total fool of myself.
It should be within the limits of my mental capacity to be able to comment sensibly on female head attire as such, though. In many cultures, it has for many centuries been customary for women to don some sort of head-cover. These vary from a square of light cloth that is draped over the head and tied beneath the chin or the ear to an amorphous whole-body sac with slits, sometimes muslin-covered, for the eyes. The headscarf is somewhere in between, being a long rectangular piece of cloth that is wrapped around the head but leaves the face uncovered.
The hijab (middle) is just one kind of headscarf
It’s not just Muslim women who ‘cover up’, is it?
So far, we have been looking at head coverings that leave the face exposed. But now we make a quantum leap to face coverings.
Do we group the young lady on the right with the hijab crowd or the burqa crowd? I say the latter, because recognition from the eyes alone is impossible unless one knows the wearer.
Western society frowns upon the wearing of any head-gear that covers the face, not just attire such as the burqa or the niqab. I can be apprehended if I walk into a bank with a full-face motorcycle helmet on. This is a genuine parallel because the problem is not that there is something supposedly offensive about motorcycle helmets as such, but rather the fact that I am obscuring my face. People who cover their faces are often up to no good, so it constitutes reasonable grounds for suspicion when someone does so.
The rule about not wearing helmets in banks pre-dates the public debate about Muslim female attire in the West. It sets a precedent for my saying to Muslim women, “You must not wear head-dress that covers your face. The problem is not that the gear is associated with Muslim culture. It is that, in wearing it, you are placing yourself in the same position that I do when I go into a bank still wearing my full-face helmet.”
We have a powerful argument in favour of banning the wearing of head-dress that obscures the face in public, then, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the religious identity of the wearer. But there is no argument here in favour of coming down heavy on the hijab. A headscarf is a headscarf regardless of what religious associations it may have. In a secular society, we should not impose restrictions on people when they are doing things other people are doing just because they belong to some religious group. If headscarves are OK, then all headscarves are OK, including the hijab. I see no credible rationale for putting any sort of ban on headscarves of whatever ilk for women who choose to wear them.
At the same time, neither should we make allowances for people on the basis of their religious affiliation to enable them to do things others may not do. If donning attire that covers the face is not OK, then neither is it OK for Muslim women. If they are being treated the same way as everyone else, they can’t howl discrimination.
Of course, the reason why there has been so much fuss about Muslim female head-dress and the ‘burkini’ actually has little if anything to do with those items of apparel in themselves and a great deal to do with popular resentment against the encroaching ‘Islamisation’ (a word used a lot by anti-immigration parties) of Western, particularly some Western European, societies. The visibility of the hijab, given its popularity among Muslim women, has made it a focal point of that umbrage.
Some of my female Muslim students wear the hijab; some don’t. Many of those hijabs are quite attractive – many are multicoloured, some are even embroidered. Here in Lebanon, it’s largely a matter of choice, and those young ladies have, on the whole, made the choice – if their manner and bearing are anything to go by, the last thing I would call most of them is ‘oppressed’. My attitude if I were at a Western university would be no different.
Admittedly, my attitude towards mass immigration, particularly of the illegal kind, from mostly Muslim-majority countries in Africa and the Middle East is decidedly negative, even hostile. But I do not dress that stance up as a spurious objection to the wearing of a headscarf.
Barend Vlaardingerbroek BA, BSc, BEdSt, PGDipLaws, MAppSc, PhD is an associate professor of education at the American University of Beirut and is a regular commentator on social and political issues. Feedback welcome at email@example.com