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How the hijab became a symbol of so much tension around the world

A headscarf for women means different things to different people, but it’s almost always men who make the rules.

On first glance, the hijab looks innocuous enough — a medium-sized square piece of cloth that Muslim women use to cover their hair and neck, much in the same way that Orthodox Jewish women wear wigs or Amish women wear bonnets.

In reality, though, it’s a powerful symbol and one that is easily weaponized.

In other places, and in other times, the hijab rules have been the opposite.

There are other such cases, and other historical examples in which the hijab has provoked tension and even violence.

But what is the hijab, really, and how did it come to be such a potent symbol?

Hijab 101: a history

“Hijab” is the Arabic word for barrier, and it was initially used to refer to a partition or curtain. The practice of women wearing a veil began long before the Islamic prophet Muhammed was born, and in some ancient societies, including Mesopotamia, the hijab signified high social status because it was difficult to do any sort of manual labor while wearing one.

There are several verses in the Bible that refer to both Jewish and Christian women wearing veils. In Genesis 24:65, Rebekah covers herself when Isaac approaches her. From 1 Corinthians 11:5: “But every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head — it is the same as having her head shaved.”

Initially, many scholars believed the hijab was intended only for Muhammed’s wives, but a generation after his death the practice became more widespread among his followers. Over time, it became a key part of a Muslim woman’s attire.

There are different ways for a woman to cover herself. The hijab is simply a scarf that conceals the hair, not to be confused with the “niqab”, which obscures the head, face and body, leaving an opening over the eyes, or the burqa, which is similar to the niqab but places a mesh screen over the eye opening. Even among women who wear only a headscarf, the practice takes on different forms throughout the world.

And many Muslim women choose not to cover at all.

The rules: It depends on where you live

With all these different practices, what does religion require?

That question isn’t easily answered; it’s a matter of interpretation. If the Quran’s requirement for modesty is clear, the precise mandates are not, and today adherence takes many forms. Some believe veiling isn’t a requirement in the Quran, while others read it to mean that no part of a woman’s body should be visible. Women are generally allowed to be uncovered around other women and close male relatives.

In the modern era, hijab requirements have changed with the political winds — as in the case of Turkey in the last decade or so. The hijab is actually now required in some countries where it was previously prohibited. Iran is a prime example; the country banned the hijab in 1936 in an effort to modernize the country and promote European dress as a way of erasing tribal and class-based differences. The hijab later became a symbol of opposition to the Shah and to colonialism; the requirement to wear it — at the heart of today’s tensions — was only imposed in the wake of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

A similar evolution has played out in Afghanistan. Beginning in the late 1950s, women in Afghanistan were encouraged not to wear the veil in public, as part of social reforms; it is now required there. The hijab has been made mandatory in Indonesia’s Aceh province, but that’s no longer the case in Saudi Arabia. And in countries on the other end of the spectrum — particularly those in Europe — the hijab is banned in specific places, such as schools and government buildings, and the burqa and niqab are more widely prohibited.

Rules made by men, consequences felt by women

Many who oppose the hijab, particularly those in the West, believe that the headscarf is a tool of oppression against women — that those who choose to wear it are unaware of this oppression, and have been brainwashed by their religion.

As the French historian Nadia Hamour has argued, “It must be explained relentlessly that both the veil and the burqa are a symbol of women’s oppression, a mark of gender segregation, the marginalization of women and the appropriation of power by men.”

Others believe that the idea that women wearing the hijab must be rescued from oppression simplifies the matter. “It’s almost like speaking from above, ‘You don’t know what you are doing, you are brainwashed.’” Semiha Topal, visiting assistant professor of religious studies at William and Mary, told Grid. That, she said, is demeaning to women who choose to cover themselves.

Patriarchy is often met, at least in part, by feminism, and the hijab has been no exception. Women say they want to be free to make their own choices as to whether they wear the veil. And there are plenty who wish to, for a variety of reasons that range from resistance to conformity. Again — it’s complicated. Some women say they choose to cover themselves because of religious observance; others say they feel it protects them from unwanted looks from men; still others say it’s a way to adhere to the Quranic call for modesty. For many Muslim women, the hijab is a constant symbolic reminder of their faith, much in the way a wedding ring is a reminder of one’s marital vows.

And yet, even the modesty argument has two sides. “On the one hand, it’s supposed to prevent you from being reduced to your body, your sexuality, put your personality before sexuality, but it also operates in the other way because you cannot hide your sexuality when you are wearing the hijab,” Topal said. “It is a sign of being a woman, marks your gender again and again. It has all these complexities.”

Religion, politics and personal choice

Why has the hijab led to so much emotion and legislation over the centuries?

In countries with limitations on the wearing of the hijab, those who support such limitations see the hijab as both an affront to assimilation and, especially in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, a symbol of militant Islamism, which they conflate with Islam itself. In countries that mandate the wearing of the hijab, it is a way of controlling women and limiting their roles in society.

Many of the Iranian women who are now marching against hijab mandates actually choose to wear them. For them, and for many Muslim women all over the world, the issue is not a matter of religion but a question of politics and freedom. It’s a simple but profound notion: Women want to be free to make their own decisions.

In this view, anti-hijab laws designed to free them from oppression aren’t the answer — because such laws are themselves oppressive. In 2021, when French lawmakers proposed legislation that would make it illegal for girls under 18 to wear the hijab, the internet exploded with a #HandsOffMyHijab (#PasToucheAMonHijab) hashtag that went viral.

“We constantly vilify these morality police in Iran and Afghanistan, but in countries like France, if you are wearing the full veil, police will tell you not to wear it and give you a punishment. How is that different?” Topal said. “The state telling them what to wear or what not to wear, it’s a way of controlling the bodies of women. That’s the main issue. It’s not religion or Islam or any other religion.”

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