Symbols may come off as strong political statements that arbitrarily mean to impress with human sentimentality the historical suffering they have cost. Religious symbolism, however, comes with a mark of authority to separate itself as an absolutist and totalitarian mark. Hijab and veil, more or less, a religious symbol does come with many an interpretations, and with many affiliations. For many, it is the word of God that must be upheld, for others, it is the symbol of oppression of women who are denied their free will. While it may be true that hijab means absolving of free will before the word of God, but not all Muslim women observe it. The matter becomes worse if it is made compulsory by the State, as in Saudi Arabia and Iran, because it is there the matter of free will becomes a question mark.
Before delving further into the topic of hijab and veil, it is important to understand its concept. Hijab, as primarily seen, is the supposed way of life for the women in Islam. However, it does not eliminate the fact that it is a symbol of patriarchy which administers the code of dress and life dictated to women. Hijab serves the purpose of ensuring modesty for women, as implied protection from male’s prancing eyes. Also as a measure for women to show themselves only before their male guardians. This concept of guardianship seems akin to ownership of women. It is more about protecting objects and honor of men than protecting women. The assumption that hijab is a symbol of protection needs a lot of evidence to back it up. Violence against women has nothing to do with her clothing, it rests with the intent of her perpetrator. So hijab as a protection seems absurd, in fact, it can have a negative implication for women who lack the confidence to face the world on their own. Some say that a woman wearing hijab is more respected than a woman without it. This is again a dangerous assertion, preaching that respect for woman is only conditional. There is not enough evidence to substantiate that hijab is a necessity, rather, it is an ordination from God to observe it, hence it braces itself as a compulsion.
There are different interpretations on the matter of hijab, though some ambiguity is involved. Most Muslim women don’t observe it. In controlled Muslim societies, it comes as an absurdity for women not to observe it and may even face penalties for not doing so. To gain social acceptance women wear it, so they don’t feel alienated. It is understandable why it becomes a matter of free will for them when it comes to wearing one.
Hijab becomes a controversy in the political spectrum. More so, because in the global context, a hijab has become an identity symbol, and comes as a force for Muslims to assert themselves. In countries like France and Turkey which bans hijab on campus, many women wear it as an act of rebellion more than as an act of virtuousness. This is their natural reaction in the West, where they are stereotyped and opposed directly or subliminally. To many, hijab is also a marker of immigration and assimilation into the western societies, the reason why many conservatives oppose immigrants.
Policy makers in the West have a hard time devising ways to ensure freedom and will in their countries, however, their double standards come at play when they ban hijab for women. The matter gets easily obfuscated when freedom to practice religion and freedom to ensure independent will of the individual hangs in balance. Allowing head covering does ensure freedom to practice religion at the State level but it cannot ensure free will on the domestic front.
Trouble in countries that make it compulsory for women to observe hijab is infringing on the freedom of women who want to dress their way. That is when the Hijab comes under criticism of being an oppressive tool for Muslim women. But when looked at the countries that ban it, it again does look as a tool to oppress women in the ways they want to dress themselves in their religious code. There is no justification in banning it, because a woman must not be told how she should be dressed.
Hijab is also a matter of cultural assimilation into different societies. It is not humane to force a woman out of veil, what she has been practicing all her life. Since childhood, she’s been nurtured about her modesty and wearing of head cover to protect the will of God. It also has to do with traditions and customs she is coming from, that may not necessarily be religious in nature at all. So to assume that she does not have free will to wear it might be wrong, because she’ll be taking it along even in environments where there is no compulsion to wear it. To tell her to do away with it through legislation or by force will be a traumatizing experience for her. Just the same way if a woman who has never worn it in life is compelled to wear it.
In Pakistan’s case, there is a mixed society that thrives here. The wearing of veil is not as common in rural Punjab and Sindh as much as it is in the urban centers among the middle class and upper middle class in some cases. The society appears to be comparatively much more radicalized today than it was in pre Zia era in the 70’s. With the rise of Madaris and home based tableeghi centers, as run by Farhat Hashmi’s Al-Huda Center which also has sympathies with a radical group of Jamia Hafsa of Lal Masjid. The home based centers have sprung up recently with the help of foreign funding, purportedly by the Takfiri and Salafist financiers mainly based in the Middle East. The wearing of veil in today’s Pakistan is more reflective of the mindset that is creeping in today, that of submissiveness of women.
The hijab, or veil, whatever symbolism is attached with it, should not mean to admonish it or demean it. It is a right of a woman if she so chooses to wear it. However, the mindset that is affiliated with it must be countered through dialogue and education. The free will must be ensured through sophisticated legislations. Outright banning of the hijab or the veil is bound to garner more negative reaction and even aggression over these steps. The hijab will remain at the center of controversy in the wake of Muslim political maneuverings in the world and as a symbol of control by the Muslim radicals to dictate women on how they should live their lives.