Hijab and freedom

Having to spend 7 hours in transit at the Bahrain airport, I was struck by the strange contrast between what I saw there and what I had seen in the last two months of having lived in England. While I settled into the seat at the transit lounge, tired from lack of sleep, I saw a young Arab couple with their little daughter who looked no more than two years old. She  was in the lap of her father, a tall young man with a thin beard, wearing the traditional Arab dress for men which was a long, one-piece, white garment that covered his whole body and a white scarf on his head. With him was his wife, looking confident, energetic and somewhat perfectionistic. She was clad in a black cloak (the abayah) from head to a little above her sandles, covering everything except her face. Soon they were joined by another young woman, similarly dressed and looking very vibrant, and the three seemed to be having a good family-time.

Sitting there for about an hour, I saw these people leave and new groups of women, dressed in the same manner, come in. It struck me how different these people were from those in England, where one sees plunging necklines, tight t-shirts, short skirts, stockings and other tight-fitting clothes all the time. The one is designed to provoke, exhibit and declare the wearer’s freedom against norms. The other is designed to conceal, draw the lines and declare the wearer’s allegiance to family, society and the traditional ethic.

I noticed that despite being fully covered, these Arab women often wore colourful and pretty head-scarves, beautiful bangles and one could see that they wore jeans underneath the cloaks. Their demeanour certainly did not show them to be suppressed women. Rather, they came across as full of life and energy, their vibrant conversations brightening up the dull Gulf airport lounge full of disoriented looking working class men from South India. These women were all around the airport, some sitting alone and others in groups.

It brought home the truth I have realised several times in the last year or two. Hijab or any form of traditional clothing that covers the body fully is not a form of backwardness or suppression, but rather of freedom. This is a freedom from wearing clothes that leave no sense of privacy or intimacy, clothes that reveal the body to complete strangers to an extent that was only to be seen by intimate others in the past. It is a freedom from having to regard your body as an object that must be attractive for you to be valued.

The dress of the Arab women at the airport is, instead, an act of free will which chooses to draw the lines between the intimate and the public. Yes, in the case of the hijab, the lines are often drawn more severely than in many other traditional societies of the world. But the underlying message is that only some may see a woman’s beauty, her flowing hair and the shape of her body. When you go out to the market, or to the airport, you send a message – to others and importantly, to yourself – that love and lust have a proper space, and that is within the family.

This step keeps their allegiance firmly fixed to the Islamic world-view where family is the building block of society and rabid individualism is discouraged. The West may be correct in pointing out that these women may be consciously or subconsciously suppressing their own desires at times. It may notice the instances of physical abuse and suppression of women in these societies which undoubtedly exist as extreme cases. But it forgets that there is less infidelity, less divorce and lesser children growing up wounded by their parents’ absence – physical or psychological. Moreover, there is something to have faith in beyond one’s own self and all is not simply handed over to the moods of the individual who believes in nothing and lives on instinct.

From having made friends a year ago with a few young women who wore hijab, I must add that they had their own ways of relating modern culture through the food they ate, the music they heard, the movies they watched and the language they spoke. They had their own temptations and they had their own struggles, often only semi-conscious, in negotiating the traditional view of their religion with the modern culture of Pizza Hut and American Pie. Of course, those who have already chosen to live the modern way cannot be just asked to turn back to tradition, for that would be a superficial attempt to address deeper changes in the psyche.

But one thing was still clear. Fundamentally, they had not lost their Islamic identity. What emerged from those smiling faces wrapped in pretty head-scarves and those refrains from dancing in parties with men was a deeply rooted self which may be tempted, but would not be flattened by Hollywood and its aides to become like every other self in the world. In these women, like in the Jewish men who let their side-locks grow and wear a skullcap, the attack of modern western trends had not erased the distinct traditional ways in which the human spirit has expressed itself in every civilisation and every culture of the world.

~ by tdcatss on December 17, 2009.

2 Responses to “Hijab and freedom”

  1. I like your POV expressed here. It kind of emphasizes “freedom but at what cost” kind of idealogy.

  2. thanks!

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