Illustration by Abro

In 1962, a man asked then Egyptian President Gamal Nasser to make the veil compulsory for women. Nasser replied that for this he would need to fight a battle with millions of Egyptians.

In her book A Quiet Revolution, Egyptian scholar of Islam Leila Ahmad writes that by the early 1960s, the veil in the Muslim world had receded so much that Nasser took it for granted that only a handful of Egyptian women practiced it.

The tradition of the veil in most Muslim regions had started to decline from the 1930s. According to Ahmad, by the 1960s even women belonging to the “conservative lower middle class” had started to shed it.

British historian Stephanie Cronin, in her book Anti-Veiling Campaigns in the Muslim World, writes that the unveiling was the result of a “modernist gender discourse” in the Muslim world. The speech was sparked by the impact of European modernity in the colonized regions. Local intelligentsias began to investigate the reasons for the decline of their civilizations and the rise of the one that colonized them.

The illustrations of female students in the textbooks accompanying the One National Curriculum imply that the hijab is an integral part of Pakistani society. But is it really?

Science, modern education, integrated economies fueled by industrialization and religious reform have been identified as the main drivers of Western ancestry. According to Cronin, Muslim nationalists wanted to offer the same to their communities. They immediately adopted the economic and social “modernization models” developed by the rising Western powers. One of the lessons learned from the modernist discourse on gender in Muslim regions was that economic progress in the modern world required an educated workforce that could not exclude women.

This meant that women had to attend educational institutions so that they too could be part of the workforce, alongside the men. This is one of the reasons why the veil tradition started to decline. Cronin writes that the modernist-nationalist governments of many Muslim countries have postulated that Islam is a progressive faith and that the idea of ​​veiling is a metaphor for the modesty of men and women. Between the 1920s and the early 1970s, regimes in predominantly Muslim countries such as Turkey, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and Albania actively discouraged the use of the veil.

In most of the other Muslim-majority nation-states where the veil was also in decline, regimes had left it up to women to decide, even if the need for them to get a modern education and enter the work was strongly emphasized.

According to Ahmad, things in this regard started to change from the mid-1970s. The military defeats and the distributive failures of projects built on the pillars of the model of economic modernization in various Muslim countries, saw sections of their population turning to forces that had been marginalized to be “anti-progress”.

These were Islamist groups that had been sidelined by modernist nationalists. But now they had rich allies, such as the oil-rich Arab monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia had often crossed swords with Nasser in its attempt to replace Egypt as the most influential power in the Muslim world.

In the aftermath of the Third Arab-Israeli War in 1973, the Saudi monarchy created an artificial oil crisis that saw billions of dollars pour into its coffers. Power elites in predominantly Muslim countries quickly moved into the growing orbit of Saudi influence as a way to save their positions eroded by social strife. Ahmad writes that the Saudi monarchy had built a university in Riyadh where young Islamist dissidents from various modernist Muslim regions were trained and then returned to their countries to preach the “Saudi version of Islam.”

Ironically, leaders who were once denounced by this version as “irreligious” but now rushing to the Saudi side have received millions of dollars from the Saudis. But with these largesse came certain conditions: all manifestations of “Western” and “Communist” ideas had to be dismantled; mosques and seminaries were to be built, controlled by ulemas approved by the Saudis; and formerly marginalized Islamist groups needed to be integrated into political institutions.

The integration of Islamist groups first began on college and university campuses. Islamist youth organizations have gained influence in Muslim countries. They had a new message: Islam alone could respond to the political, economic and spiritual aspirations of the people. The rejuvenated Islamists have shamed the people for having become “slaves of the West” and spiritually weak.

Campaigns from organizations supported by Saudi Arabia have also ventured into cultural spaces. For example, hijabs were distributed among female students on campuses. All forms of the veil became the identifiers of a new generation of young Muslim women who, according to Ahmad, “asserted a different way of practicing Islam” (unlike the way their grandmothers and then mothers did. during the three decades of the “Age of Disclosure”).

The new veil trend was aggravated by the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and reinforced by the growing influence of Saudi culture, first in the Middle East, then in non-Arab Muslim countries and, finally, among the diaspora. Muslim in the West. The era of unveiling began to be pushed back from collective memory, as if Muslim women had never given up the veil.

But resistance to the hijab continues to emerge from some groups of Muslim women. They remind those who apply it that the hijab was also part of various pre-Islamic cultures and that its physical application was not divinely ordained, as “misinterpreted” by its executors (largely male). According to women’s groups, it should be a choice, not an order.

The hijab trend can also be seen as a product of hyper-Occidentalism (an exaggerated perception of permissiveness in Western societies) and self-Orientalism (dressing to signal “Islamic piety” as perceived by Western spectators). The so-called “spiritually bankrupt” West is still the public.

Recently, when textbooks accompanying the One National Program – launched by the center-right government of Prime Minister Imran Khan in Pakistan – featured illustrations of schoolgirls wearing the hijab, many activists were quick to ask what century such had Muslim girls never wear the hijab? As one reviewer rightly pointed out, the practice of having young girls wear the hijab is a recent trend.

It is naive to believe that such images will encourage widespread piety. Instead, they can actually trigger a rather distorted understanding of the veil. This was experienced by one of the Pakistani cricketers Hasan Ali. When posting a photo of his baby girl on Twitter, one man replied (rather warily) that Hasan should “properly” cover the baby girl so she can get used to wearing the veil early on. Not normal at all.

Posted in Dawn, EOS, September 26, 2021


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