12/01/2015

draft of my hijab paper

            How does Islam fit into Western cultures? All over the world, particularly right now, in Europe and France this is a topic of much discussion and controversy. The object that symbolizes this battle more than any other aspect of Islam is women wearing the hijab (Marcotte 163). Islam has been reduced to a brand and the hijab is its logo. The West has taken a symbol of modesty and loaded it to the brim with meanings. The dogma of Islam also front loads this tradition with lots of meaning. I intend to ask the questions: do these two groups, the West and Islam, see the hijab in the same way and what are the meanings assigned to the hijab by those who wear it?
            A semiotic analysis of the meanings that pop into the minds of non-Muslims at the sight of the hijab shows just how negative their perceptions are. The West often depicts the Hijab as a sign of political agency and devout faith in an Islam with a fixed dogma. By in large the Western nations of the world also agree that the hijab is a sign of submission by women and dominance over women by men. I will argue here, when the women of Islam cover it is not a sign of political views, submission to men, nor a measure of how adherent they are to Islam.
            Even when we consider Islam and its own understanding of the veil it is easy to find misconceptions among its followers. The popularity of the veil in America really points out where these misconceptions come from. Covering has grown in popularity in relative recent times. Decisions made by Western countries to ban covering coupled with the settling of Muslim refugees in the West has made the veil a necessity for Muslim women. This creates a visible connection to other Muslims in an unfamiliar setting.
            I will show that Islam itself does not fully understand the decision of young women to cover. All the Qur’anic verses and Hadiths that guide the faith only hint at the hijab and do not come close to identifying why it is worn in the modern world. I will also show that the Western perception of the hijab reflects people’s own fears and prejudice more than any motives expressed by young Muslim women who choose to cover. The answers to the questions about the hijab are found in the reasons given by the young women who decide to wear them. It is not surprising that the reasons young women give for wearing the hijab do not reflect the dogma of Islam or the perceptions of the West.
The insider view: Islam and the hijab:
            The obvious first choice for information about the hijab would be the Qur’an. This holy text of Islam is considered by Muslims to literally be the words of Allah as they were dictated to the prophet Mohammad. It is the first source of dogma for Islam and all the scriptures that guide the lives of the faithful come from its pages. It is the Qur’an where the hijab is first mentioned.
O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their Jilbabs (Hijabs) over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested. And Allah is oft-forgiving, most merciful (Qur’an 33:59)
These are the directions that first state women should cover their hair when abroad, abroad is thought to mean not at home. There are other verses in the Qur’an that direct women to subdue their eyes, not reveal any parts of their bodies except that which is necessary and they should cover their chests and not relax this code in the presence of men other than their fathers, husband’s fathers, brothers, sons of their brothers etc. (Qur’an 24:30-31). The message is that women should cover to protect themselves from men who would see them and take liberties.
            There have always been those in Islam who would work to hold women back (Bloom and Blair 47). This is often presented as reasoning against the acceptance of Islam in the West. This is an example of another fundamental attribution error made by the Western World in how it frames the discussion of Islam.
Western Understanding: What America knows about the hijab:
            . In America Muslim women tend to wear the veil at a higher rate than women in Muslim countries around the world. Wearing the Hijab has seen a resurgence in the Middle East and North Africa. An example of this would be Somalia. Islam in Somalia has traditionally been very lax; this was true before and after the fall of Somaliland. After the dissolution of Somali’s central government in 1992 it was still not a country where the hijab was common. It would not be commonplace there until after it was adopted by Somali refugees in the United States. It is important to note this because it goes against one of the cornerstones of Western perception about Muslim woman and the veils they wear. The wearing of the veil is not a symbol of devout Islam; it is too newly a revitalized practice for that (Boyle and Ali 66-73, 74).
            In the West the semiotics around the hijab are by-in-large negative. People have grown up with these assumptions about the veil and that continually perpetuates these notions (Danesi 20).  The idea that the Hijab is something worn by all Muslim women, for all time in all Muslim countries is a very common assumption made in America. Conservative dress, a label applied to all sorts of coverings worn by Muslim women, is assumed to be done out of obligation rather than choice (Nadal et al. 157). There are many styles of veil worn by Muslim women, such as the niqab, lithma and burqa cover the entire face, more than less conservative coverings like the hijab, abayah and gins, but they all represent the same lack of personal freedom in the eyes of the West (El Guindi 7). This supposed lack of freedom becomes evidence for the idea of the universal mistreatment of Muslim women.
            The Western impression of Muslim women as being mistreated helps reinforce the idea of an oppressive Islam. The hijab and other coverings become the outward symbol of how abusive Islam is to women. The hijab in America is viewed as if it were a pair of sunglasses covering the black eye of the archetypical abused housewife. This view has many effects on the Islam in America. One symptom of this assumption is that Americans are often perplexed at the idea that any women would convert to Islam (Maslim and Bjorck 97-98).
 Another misconception in the West is that Muslim women are anti-feminism. The view that Muslim women dress as they do because they are submissive (Ali et al. 45) and they have no will of their own is very common (Rehman and Dzlegielewski). These ideas are not backed up by the facts of Islam but the narrative has been controlled by the louder voices of the media portrayal of Islam in the West.
The motives of America and its Western allies have always been sold to the public with thin evidence to justify occupation and war. They have always kept the story of Islam’s treatment of women in their back pocket. Images and ideas of the Qur’an presented to the public as being anti-feminist and condoning the abuse of women are kept in the conversation because these stories are powerful in the way they offend our sense of values. The hijab as bondage is a concept sold to America through its media. The hijab represents their values and the values of the West will protect us and stop them (Toossi 641-645, 651, 653).
The Qur’an never says that women must wear the veil (Bloom & Blair). It is a choice made by the wearer. There are exceptions and this is part of the problem with Western ideas of Islam, the West sees a fixed Islam, a religion that is the same throughout the world. Traditions which exist in cultures where Islam is present are all balled together into one story of Islam. It is common for women to wear a burqa in Iran, under the law in Iran, but it is not a law in Islam. Throughout the world, most Muslim women do not wear any veil (Scott 208-4). There is a line in a hadith that states “The best among you are those who are best to their wives (Ibrahim 74). The value of women is not part of the Western conversation about Islam. Since around 632 CE the Qur’an has given women the right to own property, control their own finances and seek divorce compared to Christianity, Muslims were the original feminists.
           
The wearers of the hijab weigh in:
For the wearers of the Hijab there are many reasons given as to why. These reason do not always mesh with the dogma of Islam; often in mainstream Islam the reasons for the veil have been politicized beyond the meanings given in the Qur’an. These reasons also do not back up the perceptions of what the hijab means to the West. France and America in particular have assigned many meanings to the Hijab that are based on fear driven assumptions but fall short of much truth.
            In a study by Ali et al, Muslim women do talk about how their individual ethnic cultures have used Islam to oppress their rights. This is contrary to the religious teachings of Islam. In the West all of the cultures are combined for the sake of perpetuating the worst possible view of Islam.  This is the equivalent of portraying the Westboro Baptist Church as all of Christianity. Whites in America identify their religion as their culture, and project their cultural understanding onto Muslim women. In the same study mentioned earlier, white Christians identified this way but African American Christians and Muslim women identified their culture as their ethnic racial background and their religion separate from that (45). This is likely where much of the perception of the West is rooted, in their traditions being generalized to all cultures around them.
            Another source of Western ideas about Islam is the idea that most Muslim dress is not compatible with the sexualization of the female body. In America women are often seen as sex objects. In Islam modesty is a cherished value but secular western views don’t put much stock into modesty. The idea that Islam is oppressing women because they wear the Hijab is never reconciled against the idea that modest dress and conservative non-secular values are considered prudish. Women in conservative dress often become the victims of harassment in the west (Nadal et al. 157) (Maslim and Bjorck 97-98). This is of course against the popular ideas of the good Christian and “do unto others as you would have done unto you” (Luke 6:31) but that does not change Western perception of the hijab.
            Conservative dress reflects the modesty of the wearer but in the West it is viewed as a sign of devout Islam and overall conservative values. In Nadel et Al, a subject is quoted as say “I’m covered up: people wouldn’t think that I actually have fun…” and “… I’m human, I have fun- just because I where a Hijab on my head doesn’t make any difference.” (157). The American Polo shirt is a piece of clothing that marks the wearer as boring in the view of many, yet there is not near as much stigma attached to wearing what is typically the uniform for playing golf.  It is very likely to see groups of young Muslim women acting the same as young secular American women but we still see the hijab as some kind of anti-fun device. In the West, the idea that Muslim women have fun never seems to be considered.
            Nausheena, is the Director at Council on American-Islamic Relations,in a conversation we had she said about wearing the hijab, “I realized this very recently, like last night. When people ask me, why do you wear it [the hijab], I respond with modesty, feminism, etc. But really I do it for HIM! HIM ONLY. I am going to make sure I land this message; I wear hijab to please Allah swt.” In her comments Nausheena says something that catches many in the West off guard. She says one of the reasons she wears the Hijab is feminism. This is difficult for people in the west to understand for two reasons: the first, mentioned earlier, in the West the hijab is viewed as a way for men in Islam to oppress women. The second reason is that in Ali et Al’s research, most Christian women in America identified with feminist values but at the same time rejected the label. The opposite is true for Muslim women who were most likely to identify as feminist. (Ali et al. 13).
In Conclusion:
            The reasons given by young women who have decided to cover with the hijab, niquab, burqa and other traditional covers are often feminism and modesty. Other reasons include a sense of belonging; it is a way to stand unified with the Muslim community in general. In fact, it is true that the Hijab and other coverings have grown in popularity around the Middle East and Africa after its use grew in the Muslim diaspora (Boyle and Ali 66-73, 74).  After Somali refugees settled in Minnesota there was a move to wearing the hijab. This provided refugees in Minneapolis and the surrounding area with visual cues as to who they can communicate with and who is in their community. It was after this that the hijab became popular in Somalia. Through return visits and remittances, the trend of wearing the hijab in the West has spread to Africa.
            One of the biggest reasons for covering and one that is so difficult for the West to understand is “for him”. The Qur’an is believed to be the literal word of God as given to the prophet. To cover is a way to honor God. This is a difficult concept for secular society to grasp. Considering that the concept is not so far from wearing a favorite sportsball’s team jersey, it is difficult to imagine why it is so misunderstood. Wearing a cross is very popular in the States but it is somehow seen as more acceptable that wearing a hijab. In other Western countries like France the hijab has been outlawed in schools because of its “religious” significance (Scott 208-4). Wearing a hat with a team logo, product logo or political logo is acceptable but a religious symbol like a hijab cannot be worn in public schools. In France this is so extreme that when young Muslim girls wore headbands to cover their hair after the hijab was banned, France then banned headbands that were specifically being worn in place of hijabs.
            There are many things that come to mind about what the hijab means and these meanings are different for different people. Within Islam the ideas of meaning are varied even inside its own traditions. Islam has been used all over the middle east, Europe and Africa to oppress women and to liberate them. The Qur’an can be used as a source of the words of Allah but this has little weight in the actual dogma portrayed by different cultures within Islam. The oppression of women in truth has nothing to do with the Qur’an or Islam. The West also has its own understanding of what the hijab means. Meanings run the gambit from the oppression of women, political allegiance to terrorists, all the way to nun like devotion to Islam. These western perceptions are often as telling about as the Wests fear of Muslims. The hijab has become the icon of the Islam, the semiotics around it sum up all the views and it is often used to signify radical Islam among other things. Right now the debate around refugees from Syria is centering on the fact that since Syrians are Muslim, the refugees could have terrorists with them. Bill Peduto, the mayor of Pittsburgh summed up the refugee situation when he proclaimed “These people are living in hell for people to characterize them as terrorists … it’s not only unfortunate but inhumane” (Bauder 1). Because the popular image of Islam is summed up by the woman who wears a hijab, comments like this speak directly to the Western perception of the hijab. When the word “refugee” is used, it brings up Muslims in our mind and that brings up the image of a woman in a hijab for many. The hijab is in many ways the logo of Islam in the modern world.
            The hijab represents a rock and a hard place for the wearer, especially in the West. Within Islam the hijab can be used to maintain control of women, in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia where governments are working against a woman’s right to choose whether or not to cover. In America the hijab is linked to terrorism, piety, sexual oppression, anti-colonial revolution and the act of refusing to assimilate (Toossi 641-645, 651, 653). There are reasons not to cover, but covering in the name of modesty, feminism and faith are powerful motivations, which assume the weight of dogma and perception.




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