Hijab: Act of rebellion or a choice?

Published: December 20, 2010
Emma Tarlo, author of "Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics and Faith".

Emma Tarlo, author of "Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics and Faith".

LONDON: Why are so many young Muslim women in Britain wearing the hijab? Can wearing a headscarf be an act of rebellion? The Express Tribune spoke to Emma Tarlo, author of “Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics and Faith” for some answers.

Published earlier this year, this book examines how Muslims in Britain are increasingly expressing their identity and faith through different forms of dress.

“In the West, ‘Islamic’ covering, such as the hijab (headscarf), jilbab (long black gown) and niqaab, is often perceived as being traditional, backward and potentially anti-Western. I wanted the book to open people’s minds and take them away from the stereotypes. For many Muslims now it is absolutely not about traditional versus modern,” said Emma Tarlo, who is a Reader in the Department of Anthropology, Goldsmiths, University of London.

Muslims in the West are going through complicated internal debates about how to present themselves in the public sphere. Young people who want to express their faith often want to get away from their ethnic background. They want to be British and Muslim.

The older generation from South Asia, for instance, dress in a culturally defined way. The tight hijab is very different from the dupatta that they wear. For the young it’s partly about stepping away from tradition into being modern Muslims. Many feel a sense of empowerment and pride in their religious identity.

The emergence of companies that are catering quite specifically to Muslims who want to cover up and are living in the West, is quite interesting. Most of those involved, personally struggle to find clothes that cover and aren’t austere black jilbabs imported from Syria.

Designers want to design clothes for who they feel they are. Hijab also becomes a fun and attractive thing, no longer associated with austerity and piety. You can be part of the hijabi crowd, it can be cool as well.

There are some hardliner groups who abide by a stricter interpretation of Islam. They want the dress to be an explicitly anti-Western stance and believe that engagement with fashion is a negative thing.

The book also exposes tensions within this movement. People are policing each other’s piety and there are assumptions made about you if you don’t cover up. Women living in certain areas of England can find themselves under pressure to wear hijab. In these areas, Muslims participating in local community life stay covered up, and there can be pressure to conform.

Many of the girls interviewed by The Express Tribune faced resistance from their families when they took up the hijab. Initially, they said, it is very difficult. They felt like all they were donning before the hijab had been completely wiped out and that they were being perceived as Muslim and nothing else. Hence, they would have to work harder to reassert themselves through it and that’s where the experimentation with clothes comes in.

The girls said they eventually settled into it and then felt they couldn’t imagine life without it. According to them, they feel a sense of solidarity and an instant connection with other people who wear it.

The hijab can mean different things to different people. In many instances, second generation girls visit relatives in Pakistan or Bangladesh with their relatives expecting them to be dressed up in the latest fashions, except, out steps a hijabi. They’re told, “You can take your hijab off now,” and the British girl says, “But you don’t understand why I’m wearing it!”

It’s clear that what might be an act of rebellion in one place might be an act of conformity in another. In the West it’s more difficult to assert a minority identity, and being visibly Muslim has the sense of doing something for yourself.

Published in The Express Tribune, December 20th, 2010.

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Reader Comments (22)

  • Dec 20, 2010 - 12:40PM

    Muslims in my hometown Bangalore are also beginning to assert themselves dress-wise. The men sport beards and the women wear Arabic style abayas or indian style burkhas with the veil covering the face. I see this even in the more affluent gulf-money driven societies as well. It seems religiosity increases with affluence. It is sad because these young girls who are wearing the face veil are denying themselves all the opportunities they could enjoy in a free society. Recommend

  • pakistani
    Dec 20, 2010 - 2:12PM

    @ prasad: just because someone is covering their body and/or face does not in any way relate to the opportunities that they might be exposed to or can exploit. A free society is not defined by the CLOTHES they wear, its marked by the attitudes they wear and how they prosper.
    if “opportunities” in your definition mean showing alot of skin, then clearly you need to get your priorities and beliefs right and perhaps then decide who is entitled to which opportunity. and speaking of opportunities, so what your basically trying to say is that Indian Muslims are denied equal rights because they cover themselves? is that what you are implying? if that is the case, then clearly, it is YOU who is conservative and discriminative in your thinking rather than those muslim girls. Recommend

  • Danish
    Dec 20, 2010 - 2:19PM

    @ Prasad

    Who are you,me and for that instance anyone, to decide, what is right and wrong for the Hijab wearing girls. Let them decide for them selves.Recommend

  • kashif
    Dec 20, 2010 - 2:32PM

    In Islam the dress for women is know as good by which she can cover her whole body and it should not be as tight as the shape of body could be visible including head. Face is not included in it. Islam does not tell to cover face of a woman. But in some countries where sexual and physical harassment is higher i would suggest to cover the face too. But it is not compulsory in Islam. Islam is as modern as this world. There are some limits not extremism. The main purpose is to cover body with loose dress. Recommend

  • Gulmeenay
    Dec 20, 2010 - 2:49PM

    Well the problem here is that since its an Islamic injunction to wear the Hijab, it has already been decided that women should cover their heads. Those who don’t are in violation of Islamic laws/traditions/injunctions and so presumably they will or should be punished for it. Doesn’t really leave one with much of a choice. Who puts on a hijab really without the fear of being punished for it?Recommend

  • saad
    Dec 20, 2010 - 3:01PM

    hijab starts from the eyes with lowered gaze. this so-called hijab or to be apt a scarf is just a trend and a frame to highlight the face (made up in most cases). to think of it was this scarf worn by muslim women centuries ago? and what is a 2 and a half yard dupatta for? first care to wear it carefully. n this hijab on tight jeans n tops and see thru shalwars is a joke!Recommend

  • Mr Maker!!
    Dec 20, 2010 - 3:30PM

    @Pakistani, I think what Prasad is trying to say is that he has ‘noticed a change’ in the behaviour of Indian Muslims regarding their dress and general appearance in recent years. This sudden ‘urge’ to cover up among Muslims is a polititical reaction to a perceived threat. Muslims generally feel threatened by what’s happening in the world around them and sadly see this outward religiosity as one way of making their point. The problem is that this attitude only widens the gap between them and the rest of the world or society(if they live in a nonmuslim environment).
    Also I would like to point out that this obsession that some Muslims especially men have with women ‘not showing their skin’ is very unhealthy and shows bigotry and ignorance. Muslim women are pressurized by the men in the society to dress and behave according to their wishes whether they want to or not. This male chauvinistic attitude is what keeps our societies backward.Recommend

  • Pakistani57
    Dec 20, 2010 - 4:57PM

    past decade specially world’s perception of Muslims have became negative which gives us normal Muslims only two choices step back and be defensive / apologetic or represent your faith by dressing like a Muslims .. I think that is why you see a large number of young Muslims starting to dress according to the Islamic code / traditionRecommend

  • Khalid
    Dec 20, 2010 - 5:17PM

    It is important to understand that the women in the West choose to wear the hijab and do so by their own free will and feel it is important to do so.

    The reaction to the hijab worn by some of my female family members has been far worse in Pakistan than in the Europe and USA. The hijab is not accepted in “polite society”. It seems (to me) that it is seen as an attack on women by Pakistani women I have met.

    Relatives in Pakistan ( especially female) could not (or refused to understand) that educated Muslims living in the West would CHOOSE to wear the hijab.

    As usual, Pakistan never fails to surprise ( and disappoint).Recommend

  • Mawali
    Dec 20, 2010 - 5:52PM

    @Pakistani & Danish; I do not wish to speak for Prasad but, judging by his previous comments he comes across as a very moderate accepting individual. He did not by any means suggest that wearing the hijab was either wrong or unacceptable.
    I on the other hand do think that wearing the hijab from a religious perspective is wrong ONLY because it has not been proven through Quran that hijab is mandatory. I only accept what the Quran suggests and do not lend much credence to the various and sundry hadees. The few Islamic experts that exist themselves remain divided over the authenticity of the hadees. In surrah Nisa Quran does speak about the hijab but the few who can be called experts have suggested that this injunction came about not as a mandatory practice for all times but a suggestion considering the political and tribal conflicts during the time of the revelation of the surrah.
    Then if the males think that they are so weak and consider every woman as a sex object and thus require her to hide her identity. Can we not then say that women have similar tendencies and feelings and thus obviate the need for men to consider covering themselves as well?
    I respect people; both men and women for exercising a choice whatever that may be. I do however, have a problem when people are either coerced or practice rituals out of ignorance and are unwilling to either listen or change. Its about time Islam caught up to the twenty first century.
    I have no problem with anyone male or female donning a hijab out of choice as a fashion statement.Recommend

  • Owais
    Dec 20, 2010 - 6:17PM

    @ Mr. Maker!! There are three points in your reply. Both of which do not make sense at least from my experience. First, you say that Muslims are dressing conservatively (or religiously) because they perceive certain threat. I may not be wrong to say that when faced with a threat, today’s Muslim who has no collective strength, would choose to forgo any ostensible sign of his/her faith instead of exhibiting it. I live in Germany and sport a beard. I feel a little intimidated nowadays because of terror threats to Germany and related security measures. A feeling I sometimes get is to remove of kind of apparent signs of my faith and not the other way round!

    Second, this attitude of dressing in religious way does not create problems. If you are on a nudist beach you will not go nude yourself. There are some principles which are ingrained in one, which cannot be compromised ever. People who cannot understand and live with other people’s choices are conservative and not the others.

    Third, if Muslim men sport some religious physical bearing it comes out to be their own choice. But whenever a woman chooses that, it is because her husband/father/brother demands them. This is akin to say that Muslim men can understand and follow Islam more than women and the latter are so dumb and can never understand it, decide for themselves and without men they may eventually go heretic. Mr. Maker! This is the male chauvinist attitude that is dangerous and you fail to see that because you can’t see your own self. Recommend

  • G. Din
    Dec 20, 2010 - 7:10PM

    Wearing “hijab” or “abbaya” or “burqa” is your right in a free society. It is not for others to dictate how you dress yourself or whether you should grow a beard or how long that beard may be.
    But, by the same token. those with whom women dressed like that, or men sporting a Muslim or a French beard, come into contact have the right not to interact with them. A former British Foreign Secretary refused to interact with such people and asked them to communicate with him on public business only in written form and never come into his office.
    Thus it is quite conceivable that doctors may refuse to treat such people, shopkeepers may refuse to trade with them and all will be within their rights in a free society. Judges in the US have refused to hear cases from women so dressed.
    So the conclusion is: humour yourselves as you would but be mindful of the other consequences your eccentricities may lead you to. You may be tremendously religious in your own way but others may not give a hoot for that. There are NO ENTITLEMENTS, no “devil quoting the Bible” in a multicultural, multiethnic, plural society.
    The alternative: Try to get along instead of poking your fingers into the eyes of those whom you must interact with or constantly trying to rub everyone else the wrong way – for your own sake.Recommend

  • Dec 20, 2010 - 7:56PM

    This link provides very good detailed information on the reasons & law regarding Hijab
    The term “¦ijãb—الحجاب” literally means a cover, curtain or screen. It is not a technical term used in Islamic jurisprudence for the dress code of women. The term used in Islamic jurisprudence that denotes the conduct of unrelated men and women towards one another, and their dress code, is “satr or sãtir—الستر، الساتر”.In the last two decades however, the Muslims in the west, as well as the media, use the term “¦ijãb” to define the headdress and the overall clothing of Muslim women.

    Islam has strongly emphasized the concept of decency and modesty in the interaction between members of the opposite sex. Dress code is part of that overall teaching.

    This is a command to Muslim men that they should not lustfully look at women (other than their own wives); and in order to prevent any possibility of temptation, they are required to cast their glances downwards. It is also a command to Muslim Women to lower their eyes..Recommend

  • nina
    Dec 20, 2010 - 8:53PM

    Why in the Christian faith, you will always see that the Christians depict Mary, (mother of Jesus) with a head covering, and the Catholic nuns of today cover their heads. But when Muslims want to follow the commandments of their religion, it becomes a political/social issue. Learn to expend your energies on more worthwhile causes.
    Traditionally, Hindu culture also covered up very much, just look how the women of Rajasthan covered their faces in the presence of unkown men.
    The way the West has exploited woman creating her into an almost naked object for the purpose of advertising and making money is sickening.Recommend

  • Anoop
    Dec 20, 2010 - 9:07PM

    There is a bit of both in India.

    The educated ones and the progressive ones dont enforce any Burqa on their Children. The Children also want to blend in and dont really see the point in wearing a Burqa. In Bangalore, its common site now to see women in mini-skirts and hence, the society has to a certain extent come out of the eve-teasing mentality, although it exists in certain parts and seeing skin is not such an uncommon site.

    There are other extremes also. There are newly-discovered Muslims, they force Burqa onto their Children. There was a Pre-University College in my School Building and it was an all-girls College. There was a Muslim Girl who used to come in a Burqa in an all-girl College! Why? Because her father made her so.

    So, you cant really generalize but the trend in India is progressive. The educated know how to adapt to the new India. The one who rebel also find comfort in India’s secular laws.Recommend

  • Dec 20, 2010 - 9:10PM

    ys to hijabRecommend

  • sam
    Dec 20, 2010 - 9:59PM

    i live in NYC and observe hijaab and its extremely difficult over here because people see hijaabis with such a weird look, i have been cursed many times at subways, faced rude attitudes of people and unwelcome looks and gestures. I was not a hijaabi back in my country Pakistan, when i sent my pics to my close relatives wearing hijaab they all laughed and passed some heart breaking remarks and was really ashamed of their thinking
    @mr owais u said that female take hijjab because they are forced to do that but with all due respect i have seen men who tell their wives not 2 take hijaab, I am not saying that all men are like this or all women are pious, but one should not point fingers on women after seeing few of them wearing hijaab forcefully….my apologies if u find anything offensive Recommend

  • Owais
    Dec 21, 2010 - 1:27AM

    @ Sam: I am sorry for not putting the right punctuation mark at the end of the sentence. I meant that it is wrong to say that every woman who takes hijab is being forced by their male family members. Please read my comment again to the end and you may get what i was trying to say. Again apologies for not being very clear. Recommend

  • Faisal
    Dec 21, 2010 - 6:29AM

    I would like to speak my mind on this and nothing else. I am a Pakistani who has lived in many places including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia and UK. Generally speaking and discounting the anomalies, a woman walking on the streets of Jeddah wearing hijab is a norm, no heads will turn to her, I assume that she will feel secure. On the other hand, a woman walking with hijab on the streets of a western city will inevitably attract attention and despite of her prescribed dress code, my assumption is that she will feel insecure. Now in this case, wearing the hijab is problematic to say the least. Same applies to physical appearance of men as well. If only Muslims use common sense and dress up moderately as per the norm of the society they live in then we will have far less problems and much more time/energy to spend on matters of real substance… education, structure of civil society, civic sense, children, human rights, democracy etc. Muslims were on top of the world once; debate of why we are not there now is useless. Who is on top of the world? West. How do we get there? Learn.Recommend

  • Yash
    Dec 21, 2010 - 10:14AM

    Why dont you people understand that, hijab or covering doesnot relate to representing or exposing as religious or rebellion.
    The only thing is in Islam exposure of body is not permitted for women and men to some extent. Its more on women as for their respect and situation as more they exposed with their bodies and faces they are vulnerable to bad sights and being caught under malintentions of men.
    Nothing with anit some body or other ppl like that.
    Thats it. Recommend

  • nomaan
    Dec 21, 2010 - 11:18PM

    I think Hijab is still fairly a new concept for pakistani’s in general whether lving abroad or at home. In pakistan our tradition is to wear the dubatta, which still caries the same effect if worn properly as suppose to being worn loosely around the neck. In the US, hijab is now becoming the new statement among all HS and college going women. But even with this, sometimes the meaning of wearing the hijab isn’t properly followed thru as sometime the i see there’s a shortage of cloth elsewere on the bodies i.e. worn with skirts exposing more than ankle, tight skinny jeans with overflowing sweater.Recommend

  • Dec 22, 2010 - 5:03AM

    Hijab is an link textidentity. Recommend

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