May 4, 2014 By Ayesha Iqbal

Hijab, Burqa; T Shirt or Tight Jeans? Let Women Speak

Modern-Muslim-Dress-and-Islamic-LawIn the wake of the ban on headscarf in France, the popular Insight talk show hosted by award-winning journalist Jenny Brockie, held a debate on the issue. The four-part talk show can be watched in the Youtbe (Go to the link and to the links to the succeeding parts). Though there were other spectacular shows on the issue, what marks Insight out is the presence of all voices in a single forum: we have Jacques Myard, the UMP member, who was instrumental in pushing through the ban; scholar Tariq Ramadan; and participants of different persuasions – from the religious right to Muslims who don’t practice the religion, from women who wore niqab to those who see it as symbol of oppression. In addition, the show had the presence of Australian Senator Cory Bernardi who believes that Australia had to follow suit as his country cannot accommodate the clothing.

The rationale for banning the burqa, Jacques Myrad explained, was that it violates the equality of sex and it shows scant regard for the dignity of women. Least of all, it poses a security issue as those who wear burqa can’t be identified. As for Cory Bernadi, security threat is the gravest concern. One notable point is that Jacques Myrad is less concerned about security, because he is more at odds with any form of covering of Muslim women (only full face cover will impinge on the security threat), which Tariq Ramadan sees as the right-wing discomfiture at the visibility of Muslims in the West. Also, the argument of security turned out be less defendable, as none of the burqa-clad women who participated in the show wasunwilling to identify herself.

The argument of those who observed niqab was that the dressing was an act of worship. By doing so, one emulates the example of Prophet’s wife, said Amina Gafoor. Interstingly, there was none among the participants who adopted veiling by force. One of the conditions Amina Gafoor had before her marriage, said her husband, Ahmed Saghir, was that she would observe niqab, though Ahmed Saghir was himself not in favour. Sibel Bennett, who also observes niqab, however, does not consider it as religiously mandatory, but it amounts to her freedom to choose the clothing not dictated by others. “By doing so,”‘ Sibel adds, “I need not have to impress anyone else.” Ruby Hammad, who was born a Muslim and an avowed feminist, considers it as a symbol of oppression, while Tanveer Ahmad, a Bangladeshi non-practising Muslim – as he identifies himself – sees the proliferation of niqab as part of demonstrating political identity. His take was that one could see the reflection of Leila Ahmad’s position on niqab as a symbol of political Islamism. But the question whether the choice of a person need be violated for the sake of imaginary fears, is still relevant. Tariq Ramadan equates the ban to rightist response to the visibilty of Muslims, not just to Islamism. He says that the debate on the manner, or even the matter, of veiling should be done within the community itself. While not buying the religious position on the ‘wujoob’ of niqab, Ramadan says the ban itself should be considered in the context of Islamophobia, the cancerously growing fear of the other.

What happens in Turkey

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s wife Latife Hanim wore charshpah which covered her whole body. Though Ataturk introduced dress reforms as part of modernist reform, he did not take women’s clothing under its purview. When Hayrunnisa Gul, wife of President Abdulla Gul, wore headscarf, she cited Latife Hanim as an example. The process by which universities started to ban headscarf in Turkey started after the military coup of 1980. What does Turkey say about headscarf as of now with the AKP (Justice and Freedom party) led by Recep Tayyib Erdogan in power?

Richard Peres, an Istanbul-based analyst of Turkish politics, especially of the headscarf issue, says: AK party has taken steps to solve the conflict. Universities have been opened to scarfed women, coup leaders have been arrested, generals imprisoned.’ He says, ” The main reason for women to wear hijab is religious. To some in Turkey it is a political symbol. Western visitors do not see the conflict between Turkey’s aggressive form of secularism and Islamic women’s aspirations.”

The situation now is different from 1999, when Merve Kavakci, a woman wearing headscarf after being elected to the Parliament, was prevented from taking oath and was selectively prosecuted. Emine Erdogan as well as Hayrunnisa Gul wear hijab. The democratic process in Turkey has gone to the extent of legitimising headscarf with many universities opening doors to women who wear hijab. It should be noted in the context that the election in Bosnia of hijab-wearing Mayor Amra Babic was in the news. (Associated Press, October 24). Tariq Ramadan’s argument about visibility should be understood in the context of women coming to the political front without forsaking the symbols of their tradition.

There may be people who are the followers of Kadife in Orhan Pamuk’s Snow. Kadife is the leader of headscarf girls, who insist on being covered. Kadife can be taken as a symbol of political protest from the Islamist front. But rather than seeing scarf as being intrinsic to the political system of Islamism – a stand that may force one to move against hijab overtly as a move against Islamism- many analysts have started to think the other way around: hijab as a symbol of tradition being proscribed in the west (especially in Turkey) in its onward march to modernity is resurrected by Islamists as a symbol of counter political move. Here the ban on hijab is a tool used as a counter measure. Had such a ban been not effective, Islamism would not have used it a political symbol. The fact is that all movements in the world and, for that matter, Islamism have undergone tremendous transition in the platform of democratic struggles. This transition is also visible in hijab as well.

One way of putting this transition in perspective is to gauge the responses to the celebrated muhajjabin models in the A’la fashion magazine. A’la covers fashion from an Islamic perspective, publishing devotional material of religious nature. The models who wore hijab also wore tight jeans, forcing the one like Fatehulla Gullen to accuse it of the betrayal of the principle of Islam, while, in the words of Marcel Malachowski, left-wing liberal critics joked that the dress was not exposing enough. In fact, women who wear hijab have started to redefine it according to their tastes . People like German fashion designer Ayse Kilic believe that the blend of hijab with the new concepts in fashion design is the future. Qantara magazine ( 2012: quotes her as saying: ” I hope there is a great future for this form of modern, Islamic fashion with headscarf, Insha Alla.”

The choice of women as to what manner to be dressed in, is entirely their own. Selective responses, whether it is Islamophobic or Islamist, will be marked out for its discordance.

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