For centuries, men have told women what to wear and what not to wear. And these dictates usually depended on religion, class and ethnicity.
So, Catholic nuns, for example, wore a prescribed habit – to distinguish them not only from their married sisters, but also from each other.
And fashion, which is largely a class phenomenon, serves to distinguish the rich from the poor, the global from the local, “us” from them, and introduces appealing variations in ethnic clothing.
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These few preliminary remarks can be seen as a backdrop to recent controversies related to the Muslim hijab. How did this primitive tribal custom, which does not even find its way into the Quran, become a defining garment for modern Muslim women?
The words burka, abaya and niqab don’t know the Quran. Word hijab is found but does not refer to a veil or scarf as is the case today. It has been translated as barrier, screen, partition or curtain. There is no reference to women’s clothing.
So how did the hijab assume such an important role in the social and political life of Muslim women? For this, it is necessary to consider the political situation of the Muslim world.
“Immigrants in a foreign land, they cling to their cultures of origin, anxious to stand out from the values of their host countries”
Western Asian countries, mostly feudal kingdoms or oligarchies, have been under Anglo-American hegemony for decades. Most have been reduced to pawns in the global Game of Thrones.
Many of these countries are Islamic today, but have had a rich history of domination and independence. More so, a significant number of their populations are now migrants to Europe.
Immigrants in a foreign land, they cling to their cultures of origin, anxious to stand out from the values of their host country. Keeping their wives isolated and inviolate now takes on an importance far beyond its real meaning. Controlling the clothes women wear is one way to do this.
Something similar is happening in India, where the Muslims who ruled the country for eight centuries are finding they are now strangers in their own country.
Simply put, the insistence on covering the female body is directly proportional to the degree of discomfort and threat felt by men in a given society. Because no matter the society, it is the men who decide. That’s patriarchy.
And as always, reliance is placed on religion to support social behavior. Thus the Christians with the cross, the Hindus with the construction of temples and the Muslims with the veil.
“There are many who are not racist, but who do not support the veil – feminists are one of them – because they believe that it is humiliating and oppressive for all women”
As the French scholar of Islam Olivier Roy rightly observes, the issue is complex because two issues are intertwined: ethnicity and religion.
There are many who are not racist, but who do not support the veil – feminists are one of them – because they believe that it is humiliating and oppressive for all women.
And there are racists who don’t object to the veil – because they think these people are “far too different from us” anyway – and therefore keep their “lower customs”.
How does what we have said relate to the recent case of female students wearing hijab at a college in Karnataka?
The college, with the courts and the government behind them, opposes girls wearing face coverings in a public institution. On the face of it, this is secularism in practice – everyone, no matter what religious community they belong to, should wear the commonly accepted university uniform.
But the girls in question proudly want to assert their identity in a society that is rapidly becoming Hindu and where minorities take their place.
The insistence on a secular uniform comes from a political party that has no qualms about a chief minister from another state coming to power in the saffron robe of a Hindu monk!
“As India slowly moves away from the constitutional values of secularism, democracy and equality before the law, what looms is not freedom but enslavement to archaic and feudal values”
And while Muslim women are attacked for wearing the veil, no one stands up to Sikh men with turbans.
These students want to be educated but also want to affirm their identity as Muslims because religious identity has become a platform in all majority politics.
So is it a question of a woman’s right to choose or is it a question of community identity?
As India slowly moves away from the constitutional values of secularism, democracy and equality before the law, what looms is not freedom but enslavement to archaic and feudal values.
Religion is invoked not as the freedom to believe and contest, but as the home of indoctrination and rigidity.
And as always, it’s women — whether they’re wearing hijabs or jeans — who pay the heaviest price.
*The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
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