The Sartorialist, who goes around the world snapping stylish folk (both known and unknown) on the streets. He captures all kinds of looks on film, everything from classic to total avant garde – but one thing I’ve never seen on his site is a woman in Hijab. Until now. And for some reason I’m delighted.
You see, despite (and perhaps because of) my cultural background I’m not really into hijab although I respect a woman’s choice to wear it - as long as it is a choice. The main reason for not being in favour of the hijab is quite obvious: oppression. We all know about Saudi Arabia and Afganistan: burkas, bans on women driving, stonings, to name but a few barbarities. But oppression aside, one of the things I like least about the hijab is that I sometimes feel it’s all about ‘uglifying’ women so as not to ‘tempt’ men. And it seems silly, as no amount of swathed cloth is going to keep a man’s eyes off a good looking woman and in any case they should control their own ‘temptation’ if they’re so worried about going to hell for it - not offload it on women! Of course many would say the hijab is just about being a bit modest, and not walking around flashing your muffin top and 5 miles of cleavage to all and sundry, but of course we all know there are other ways you can be modest without wrapping your head tightly in scarf. On the flip side, there are those who manage to look completely immodest despite wearing hijab. Just take a walk round any of the fancy shopping malls in Cairo, and the gangs of hijabed-up girls who are poured into skin tight leggings and spray-on tops will convince you of that!
But if a woman really wants to wear a headscarf I have to admit that it’s completely none of my business and I should (and do) just shut up.
What can be quite hard for some of us in the west to believe though, is that many women actually want to don the hijab. I myself can vouch it – my well-educated cousins in Sudan choose to wear it despite their mothers not doing so and often to the dismay of their fathers. And religious/cultural reasons aside there are those women that admit hijab ironically gives them a sense of freedom. Freedom from sexual harassment (contradicting my point above I realise) - hijab is great for cutting down on hassle from men. You may think this type of bother is much worse in Arab countries – but come to my Madrileño neighbourhood, Lavapies, and you will see it isn’t (and funnily enough, the cat calls where I live do not usually come from the Arab population!). Freedom from hair issues - in Sudan where women’s hair varies from highly-prized long and swishy Arab-type locks to short and afro, some women use hijab to cover up what they, and potential suitors, do not see to be their crowning glory. And it goes without saying that time and again in politics women have turned to the veil as a symbol of their freedom (whether or not we think they are misguided) in backlashes against corrupt shah’s, communists or ‘the imperial west’.
I’m going to digress a little here and ask the question, What about hijab in schools? Well for me a uniform’s a uniform. I’m very traditional in that way. And I think a 'uniform' school uniform in particular provides the kind of freedom that allows you to go about your studies without judgement from others on what you are wearing or not wearing. The danger is that banning hijab in schools will just cause more trouble than it’s worth – creating difficulties where there were none before.
So, what’s my verdict? Well, I don’t like some of the thinking behind the hijab but I totally respect a woman’s right to wear it providing it is a choice. And as for the girl above, she looks lovely, but more importantly she looks happy – and a visit to many Islamic countries will do well to remind us that there are plenty of muslim women with things to smile about whether they’re covered up or not. (The girl above is actually in Melbourne).
p.s. my next post is sooo going to be about hijab fashion :-)