When Raphael Lemkin went in search of a word that would provide the archetype to define the most heinous of crimes against humanity, skeptics of language trivialised his efforts arguing that, “a word is a word is a word.” Yet, notwithstanding the weighty arguments put forward by his critics, the coinage of Lemkin’s term “genocide” has achieved, at least linguistically if not practically, what he had hoped such a word would achieve – a definitive impact of intense human suffering on those who hear it. And while the subtleties of semantic choices may differ significantly from men and women’s sartorial choices, with respect to the donning of the Muslim headscarf and the current debates surrounding it, would it be cogent to claim that – a headscarf is a headscarf is a headscarf?
Although part of very different journeys, these semantic and sartorial selections do share certain commonalities: my Armenian friends for example hold a deep emotional attachment to the term genocide, contending that the Armenian massacres of the early 20th century must be considered genocide. Equally, for Muslim women who wear the headscarf, it is not just another piece of clothing but an important and powerful external symbol of self-identity. Unfortunately however, it is a symbol that has become vexed with difficulties having become associated with emblems of female servitude, marginalisation and oppression. Therefore, it is imperative to delineate and demystify a religious icon that is meant to denote the virtues of modesty from the abrasive ideas it has come to be aligned to.
Paradoxically, it is Muslim-majority countries that have taken the lead in perpetuating the heresies of an otherwise everyday symbol characterising a person’s distinctive individuality and confined to the realm of that person. Pictures of women being forced to wear full-face burqas or veils bonded in the shackles of male subjugation and being relegated to the four walls of their homes have immortalised the Muslim woman as an object eternally subservient to a superior sex. Yet, as other Muslim women, like myself, who choose to wear the headscarf of their own freewill would testify, the entrenchment of such perceptions in secular societies are far removed from the original verities of its purpose. As a consequence of this dogmatic approach to the hijab in certain Muslim-majority lands, we have heads turn at a woman in a burqa and not so much as a blink of an eye at a nun who adorns herself in a robe – the argument being (and at times rightly so) that while the former is enforced, the latter is voluntary.
To be sure, the Muslim woman in a headscarf has evolved over the decades and embraced a variety of competing views. They are no neat camps in which women in headscarves may be divided, they cut across a large cross section of society and the external expression of the scarf itself differs widely. Some are convinced the Quranic injunction includes the covering of the face while others vociferously oppose this. Thus, even within Muslim women themselves, there is no clear consensus of what constitutes an accurate depiction of a headscarf that adequately fulfills religious requirements. Having grown up in Pakistan and lived in the Middle East, the US and in Paris (now residing permanently in the UK), I have been privy to a staggering variety not just of the hijab but also of the societies in which it is worn. In the backdrop of this broad-ranging experience, I feel the headscarf debate within Muslim communities has stagnated on technicalities, at times entirely overlooking the headscarf’s actual purpose while the discourse in secular societies like France has transformed a complex question of self identification to one of compatibility with an ultraliberal republic.
These contesting viewpoints are detrimental in their own respects. Two things are clear: First, that in as much as you categorically cannot force a Muslim woman to wear the hijab – the Quran testifying to this in Chapter 2, Verse 257 stating that, “There is no compulsion in religion” – you cannot compel a Muslim woman not to wear the hijab. In this sense, those Islamist fundamentalists who subject women to wearing the veil and the French republic that wishes to take the right to wear a headscarf away from Muslim women bear an uncanny and ironic semblance to each other. Second, the existing discourse within Muslim communities must transcend the overemphasis on the external expressions of the hijab and focus on its internal values of modesty and righteousness. Stereotyping on both ends of the spectrum linger – at times those who wear the headscarf become self righteous and critical of those women who choose not to – while those who choose not to wear one at times pigeon hole women who do.
As a woman who chooses to wear the headscarf (while not believing that my faith requires me to cover my face) I feel the real journey is the hijab’s inward focus on the virtues of modesty and righteousness. The external expressions of the hijab must mirror these virtues in order to be complete – as God says in Chapter 7 Verse 26, “O ye Children of Adam! We have bestowed raiment upon you to cover your shame, as well as to be an adornment to you. But the raiment of righteousness – that is the best.” Thus, with religious and secular oppressors and the development of societal stereotypes having shaped the trajectory of a timeless issue, and the far right now arguing that the hijab promotes passive extremism, the contours of the original verities of the hijab must be redrawn. Within this new sphere, both religious and liberal zealots must revaluate their positions, perhaps bearing in mind that Virgin Mary who is always depicted with her head covered is also considered exemplary for Muslim men and women in the Quran.