Intense Hijab Debate Rages Between Reformist And Traditionalist Muslims

The hijab, the name the headscarf worn by some Muslim women is often referred to, still continues to be a controversial topic both between Muslims and non-Muslims and within the Muslim community itself. This week, discussion about the hijab flared up during some very public exchanges through the media.

Recent efforts, including the one made by the Wheaton College professor Larycia Hawkins, to wear a hijab in solidarity with Muslim women inspired Asra Q. Nomani, one of the founders of the Muslim Reform Movement organization, and Egyptian born journalist Hala Arafa, to pen an opinion piece for the Washington Post titled “As Muslim Women, We Actually Ask You Not To Wear The Hijab In The Name Of Interfaith Solidarity.”

Their argument is that, first off, the hijab isn’t a necessary part of Islam and reflects a conservative view of the religion pushed by conservative religious factions, like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Salafist groups in the Muslim world. They argue that by wearing the hijab, it doesn’t show solidarity with average, everyday Muslim women, and only helps to further entrench the idea that a Muslim woman should wear a hijab.

“This modern-day movement spreads an ideology of political Islam, called ‘Islamism,” enlisting well-intentioned interfaith do-gooders and the media into promoting the idea that ‘hijab’ is a virtual ‘sixth pillar’ of Islam, after the traditional ‘five pillars’ of the shahada (or proclamation of faith), prayer, fasting, charity and pilgrimage. We reject this interpretation that the ‘hijab’ is merely a symbol of modesty and dignity adopted by faithful female followers of Islam. This conflation of hijab with the secular word headscarf is misleading. ‘Hijab’ literally means ‘curtain’ in Arabic. It also means ‘hiding,’ ‘obstructing’ and ‘isolating’ someone or something. It is never used in the Koran to mean headscarf.”

That was countered by an article in the Huffington Post, titled “Open Letter to Women of the World Considering Wearing Hijab in Interfaith Solidarity with Muslim Women” by Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) spokesperson and hijab wearer Zainab Chaudry, who sees the hijab as an important part of being a Muslim woman.

In her article, she argues that women who wear the hijab are too often the targets of hate and violence based on anti-Muslim sentiment. She argues that the solidarity being shown by wearing the hijab is welcome by her.

“It is arguably the single most powerful article of clothing. It has elicited controversy, stirred consciences, evoked pity, inspired curiosity, instilled confidence, inspired admiration, generated disdain, and garnered respect. It continues to mystify many, and is widely debated time and again. Hijab refers to a physical veil, but it is also a code of conduct and state of mind. Literally, it translates to ‘barrier’ or ‘partition.’ Islamically, it has a far broader meaning that conveys modesty. On a subliminal level, it can have as many different meanings as the women who wear it, because each individual experience is deeply personal.”

The Washington Post article was also met by another open letter style article in AltMuslimah where an African American convert to Islam, Keziah Ridgeway, further takes exception to the views on the hijab put forth by Asra and Hala.

“So when I read an article written by two women disparaging hijab, who claim to speak on behalf of all modern Mainstream Muslim Women I get angry. I get it though. You come from immigrant backgrounds where maybe many you know were forced, shamed, or pressured into wearing the Khimar. That sort of trauma can leave a lasting impression. It has certainly led you to make misguided judgements and declarations about covering in Islam that are simply not true. At the very least you should be an ally for women who choose to cover.”

It should be noted that at the end of the article by Asra Q. Nomani and Hala Arfa they state outright their support for those who do wear the hijab or headscarf.

“The new Muslim Reform Movement, a global network of leaders, advocating for human rights, peace and secular governance, supports the right of Muslim women to wear — or not wear — the headscarf.”

One further idea popped up by critics on twitter who argue that when non-Muslims wear the hijab in a show of solidarity, what they are actually doing is performing an intolerable act of cultural appropriation and they should choose another way to show their solidarity.

Don’t wear hijab to show solidarity, not because hijab is oppressive or forced, but bc there are ways to support w/o appropriating my hijab.

— صراط () December 22, 2015

A brown girl named Fatima is going to experience islamaphobia whether or not she’s wearing hijab, but you’re not going to put on brown-face.

— صراط (@luleeya95) December 22, 2015

Despite this, organizations and mosques have organized events and days around getting non-Muslim women to try on the hijab for a day, for example, a “Try On A Hijab” event held recently in Brampton, Ontario. The Toronto Star talked with some of the organizers of the event to get their view on the hijab, including Mutahira Farooqi, president of the Women’s Auxillary of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jam’at Brampton – Heart Lake branch.

“We are supposed to follow the teachings of the Qu’arn and one of the basic teachings is that we should cover ourselves properly. The purpose of the hijab is that we should be recognized, distinguished and known as Muslim. It makes us feel more secure and shows our actual beauty: Our character.”

Furthermore, each February, there is World Hijab Day which reaches out to non Muslim women all over the world to try on the hijab.

As the debate rages on about the role the hijab plays in modern Islam, in both Islamic countries and the West, an obvious divide has opened over what the religion is meant to be. Is a non-Muslim woman wearing the hijab in solidarity a good thing? Is the hijab an important part of Islam? Is it required at all? How should non-Muslims respond to the idea of the hijab? Is it oppressive? Is it freedom?

The debate over the hijab is giving meaningful insight into the development of Islam as a religion, and highlights the diversity of thought and belief within the Muslim community. It shows that the community is not one cohesive group that all thinks the same, as too often Muslims as a whole are seen. There are varying views, from the liberal perspective to the ultra-conservative perspective and everything in between, with the hijab being just one of many points of discussion.

[Photo by Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images]