Hubbub over the hijab: The tale of the headscarf in a democracy

-Fidha Sherin

Can a piece of clothing pose threat to democracy? Apparently, yes. The hijab that clad the believing Muslim woman has now become the shroud of the withering spirit of democracy. From a symbol of oppression to a feminist statement, the hijab has been there, done that.

In the backdrop of growing Islamophobia in the west, the multiple-hued hijabs have come to be seen as the black-hued civil disobedience protest banner. In most Muslim-majority countries it is mandatory for even young girls to wear the hijab, sometimes against their will. The stark contrast in both the above cases has become a bone of contention between law-abiding ‘believing’ women and freewheeling ‘believing’ women.

To clear the air, there is almost unanimous consensus on hijab as being sanctioned by the Quran among the Muslim community. But what most Muslims refuse to accept is that there are no clear instructions on the nature of the hijab. Islam as a religion promotes modesty in all ways of life and definitely in clothing for both men and women. That said there is some vagueness as to what exactly is modest.

Hijab is the term used by many Muslim women to describe their head cover. The Arabic word ‘hijab’ literally means barrier or veil. Other meanings for the word ‘hijab’ include, screen, mantle, curtain, drapes, partition, division, divider, barrier.
The word ‘hijab’ is used in 7 Quranic verses. The verses are: 7:46, 33:53, 38:32, 41:5, 42:51, 17:45 and 19:17.
Curiously, none of these verses explicitly talks about the head cover for women.

Speaking of another misconception among Muslims and non-Muslims both, Islam in its most pristine form is way more liberal than what most fundamentalists would lead you to believe. It explicitly forbids people from judging others because of their perceived sinfulness – ‘Do not look down upon a person because they sin differently from you’. The idea is that while one can be outwardly pious he or she may not be so in heart and vice-versa. Therefore, using the hijab as a tool to measure a woman’s piety is pretty much flawed.

Critics of the hijab constantly point to the highly sexist approach in asking women to cover up, while pro-hijabi women feel liberated as they need not subscribe to society’s ideas of beauty and by extension, their objectification.

As a practicing Muslim, I have somewhat ambivalent feelings about this issue. Wearing a hijab does pose a practical inconvenience and covering up does feels safe sometimes. I am not a religious person, but I do not feel comfortable showing skin while I feel the need to cover one’s head is an antiquated practice. You see, that’s me talking there and I do not speak on behalf of anybody.

Then there are others who support the hijab as a matter of choice. Yes, definitely the hijab boils down to freedom of choice and freedom of choice is one of the cornerstones of democracy. Several hard-hitting issues including the legalisation of same-sex marriages could be approached from the lens of freedom of choice. Same applies to the hijab as well, if a woman wishes to dress in shorts and T-shirts, so be it. If a woman wishes to cover herself from top to toe, so be it. Why the double standards?

Freedom of choice is the reason why most of us prefer democracy in the first place. On that ground then, the sight of a hijab-clad woman should reaffirm our faith in democracy, provided that the woman in question has the freedom to choose not to wear it as well.

Critical theorist Nancy Fraser opines that sustainable democratic cultures depend on cultural conflict—not consensus. Contrary to popular belief, democracy does not require a homogenous culture. Instead, Fraser insists that democracy requires what is called as a “multiplicity of publics”. The greater the degree of conflict in a democracy, the higher is the chances to make space for divergent opinions. We as a society will only evolve if we could “entertain an idea without accepting it”.

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