Muslim women often dress in a manner that conforms to the cultural and religious dictates of Islam and Islamic countries. In America, a vast number of Muslim women continue the tradition of hijab. Hijab refers to the scarf that covers the hair and neck of a woman as well as the generally loose and covering clothing that is preferred so as not to draw attention to her physical form or adornments.
The history of hijab in the culture of Islam comes under some scrutiny. Prior to the revealing of the Quran by the prophet Mohammed, women wore veils to show that they were wealthy and did not have to work. Mohammed’s wives were also veiled. It is argued that the tradition of veiling or at the very least covering hair and neck was not derived of Islam, but rather continued into Islamic culture from earlier societies.
Today, it remains an integral part of the Muslim culture. I am not Muslim. But, I work in a private Muslim school that asks teachers to wear hijab so that the young women and girls in the school who choose to do so, can with pride. The religious affiliation of the school made no difference to me when I took on employment there. I’m a credentialed teacher hired to teach the core subjects of our national and state curriculum. And though I’d had several friends over the years that were Muslim and had a passing familiarity with the religion, I definitely wondered what it would be like to wear hijab on a daily basis.
American women have worked hard for political and personal freedoms. While some may argue that they come with a cost, there is no doubt that women in our society have nearly a full range of career options, educational opportunities, and financial successes. The sexual revolution told us we owned our bodies and could give it freely to whomever, not simply a sole male partner to whom we wed. Virginity and chastity were no longer a commodity to a relationship. Experience and skill define a modern woman who is comfortable with her body and her sexuality. We are even allowed to flaunt our sexuality for power positions. However, undefined lines exist within our culture that we should not cross lest we be revered as a tramp, called easy, or assumed to lack intelligence. There is a strange duality between being a prude and a slut. Women who sell their physicality for power are deemed oppressed, as are any who conform to rigorous codes of modesty. Enter the Muslim woman and the general belief that the religious dictate to dress modestly, and fairly covered is a sign of oppression. As soon as I began to figure out how to put the scarf on my head, I wondered if I was conforming to a form of oppression. I wondered how I would feel.
But, there is an interesting thing in leaving only one’s face exposed while keeping ones shape and figure largely undefined-people look you in the eye, and they listen to what you say. Someone scoffed at my initial observation by telling me I was wrong about why women wore hijab. They said the reason was that men gawked at the women if they did not. Well, I’ve been gawked at many a time in my life and it was not by men who were unused to seeing a woman with exposed arms or hair. I’ve been whistled at in years gone by and heard the rude comments. On the contrary, in the Muslim environment, I’ve seen nothing but deep respect shown to the women in our work environment.
Physical attention aside, the hijab is far more than an act of modesty. Though, it is important to note that men in Islamic society also adhere to codes of modest dress. Hijab is about demonstrating that the human form is not worthy of greater admiration than Allah himself. The beauty of Allah’s creation of each human is within the person.
For a person like myself, who does not believe in any higher being, or a divine creator, it is still an interesting expression of liberating the inner person. I’ve found that wearing the hijab creates a culture of equality rather than inequality. The veil, the head scarf, or the modest dress does not weigh a woman down. Believing that a woman or a man for that matter should remain modest, revealing their physical forms only to those closest to them is not a form of oppression in and of itself. It is a matter of respect. Oppression exists when the inner beauty and the inner value of a person are regarded as lesser or not on an equal footing to another. Limitations on political freedoms, educational freedoms, financial freedoms, and spiritual freedoms based on gender, race, or sexuality are the root of oppression. These are of course matters for discussion in all cultures. But as I work share part of my life in and among a different culture, the Muslim culture, I have come to learn that the hijab, the standard head covering for Muslim women is not inherently oppressive. Muslim women living in societies not governed by Islamic law should feel free to dress in the way they feel most comfortable. They should do so with dignity and acceptance-the same acceptance anyone would want for dressing in a manner they feel most self-respecting.