Is the hijab just a waste of time?

Last Monday, there was an article by a sister called Jana Kossaibati on finding suitable clothes to go with hijab, complete with a picture feature on various items that the author thought fit the bill. Notice that we are talking about western clothes here; if she had just stuck to shalwar-kameez (oh, I forgot, not all Muslims are Pakistanis, but never mind), there would have been no story and nobody would have known and got upset as a result. Anyway, her article has been the inspiration for two hostile letters; one of them by one Dr Gloria Spicer last Tuesday (second one down), and the second by Kate Melville, appearing yesterday.

This is what Gloria Spicer had to say:

To avoid searches for clothes that “cover everything but the hands and face” which are “loose enough to hide” her body shape, perhaps Jana Kossaibati (G2, 30 March) should consider other approaches to the “sartorial challenges” of hijab-wearing? Questioning, challenging and rejecting dress codes based on irrational beliefs that require women’s bodies to be invisible, swathed in obliterating layers, would be a start.

What sticks out here is the phrase “questioning, challenging and rejecting”, as if that was some sort of natural progress. It’s a bit like the phrase “free inquiry”, which we all know is only ever used to mean inquiry which leads to the rejection of religion. The fact is that some of these women will have questioned them and not found them wanting, or else were convinced by the authority on which they came.

This is what Kate Melville had to say:

I’m baffled. Wearing hijab or niqab in temperate climates makes no sense - it’s far too hot and humid to be comfortable, restricts movement, activity, freedom and hearing. I am constantly amazed by hijab-wearing women’s limited capacity for hearing what’s going on around them, stepping out into traffic, apparently oblivious of other people. When I see young girls wearing hijab, never again to feel the wind in their hair, it makes me weep.

If wearing hijab is about the letter of the law, not its spirit, does she not question such rules? If the dress code is about the spirit of Islamic law, perhaps clothing and appearance generally ought to aim at being unattractive, with no room for “getting away” with wearing western clothing, make-up or anything that anyone - any man? - might find attractive. Isn’t wearing “style”, “on trend” or “beautiful” clothes a challenge to the rules? If, as her friend states, “When you’re wearing hijab all the attraction goes to the face,” is that deliberate? Or to be avoided?

One might think that compelling women to worry about issues for which there are obviously no coherent rules and no sensible rationale is one way for the Muslim patriarchy to make sure that women waste their time, remain ignorant and never quite focus for long enough on things that really matter.

I’ve been a van and small truck driver for years. I’ve never noticed a problem with women in hijab stepping out in front of me — in fact, when driving in areas where there are a lot of Muslims (e.g. Tooting, the nearest such area to where I live), they do so less frequently than others, in my experience. I must say I don’t often notice the wind in my hair, unless it’s cold. Then, I could probably use a head covering (although I actually almost never wear a hat). And “temperate”, when used of climate, actually means “often cold”, as it actually is here in the UK.

As for whether wearing attractive clothes is against the letter of the rules, some do in fact say it does, but this is clearly not Ms Kossaibati’s position; most Muslim women the world over don’t wear a black (or any other colour) abaya. Again, had she stuck to an abaya, there would have been no controversy, but even then, she would have needed something to wear under it, as women take off their abayas when they are at home, or somewhere there will only be women or close family. Wearing clothes that happen to be trendy is not against Islam in itself, of course. However, the notion of clothes which draw attention to a woman’s face, rather than any other part of her body, is not confined to religious Muslims by any means, and surely most women like men who are talking to them to look at their face, not their bust.

Hijab is certainly not a means of wasting women’s time — many, in fact, say it actually saves them time doing their hair in the morning. In parts of Africa, it is common for schoolgirls to have their hair cut short, which is required by some schools, to stop girls spending too much time in the morning on styling their hair, so a headscarf and a simple tie-back seems a less barbaric method of achieving the same thing.

Perhaps a Muslim woman should write a response to Melville’s letter, because explaining the practical benefits of hijab isn’t the easiest thing for a man to do, except to say that I’ve come across a lot of women saying there are benefits, even in niqaab, let alone the normal hijab. However, I’m shocked at the negative response to a cheerful article by a woman expressing a very moderate religious viewpoint about dressing in a graceful and feminine way; it is not as if she was disparaging about women who did not share her opinions. The hostility some of these people have for even the most moderate of religious expressions is nothing new, of course — they would like the public space to be completely free of it, not just government offices and schools but also the airwaves and media.

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