The fashion magazine Vogue launched its Arabia edition with Gigi Hadid, a half-Palestinian model, wearing a hijab. The glint in her eyes, the posture, the sequinned cloth covering her face, but leaving the shoulder naked displays playfulness and confidence. It’s almost an invitation.
One Middle East expert questioned if the Arabic Vogue cover isn’t a textbook example of how not the West, but the local elite that are Self Orientalists, since the Editor-in-Chief of Vogue’s Arabia edition is Princess Deena Aljuhani Abdulaziz, who is married to a Saudi prince.
The niqab, the hijab and the abaya are promoted as modest clothing by Muslim clerics. While abaya are worn in Gulf nations, in countries like Turkey, there is a concerted push for more and more women to wear the hijab.
On February 1, 2017, social media was flooded with messages asking women to celebrate World Hijab Day. Started by a New Yorker Nazma Khan, it advertises the hijab as a tool to protect a woman’s modesty. The home page of the website flaunts messages like:
“I believe the concept of bringing attention to the modest attire that Islam encourages Muslim women to wear is something very positive especially in our fashion obsessed scantily clad societies. Allah created us to love modesty.”
“I wear hijab because it is a part of my faith and it makes me liberated as it protects my modesty”.
As the Muslim world tries to reorient perceptions about hijab, is it selectively sending a more liberated message to the West? Is it telling them the niqab, hijab and abaya are teasers, enhancing a woman’s sexual appeal while for internal consumption it continues to be a modesty enforcer, a chastity belt if you like?
At the heart of the debate is the question of choice.
The scarf that covers the head, but opens opportunities
In Iran, women have to keep their head covered in public by law. In Tehran, most wear a tightly-pinned scarf, but you will spot enough women whose scarfs are inclined to slip and worn only to adhere to the letter of the law, not its spirit. The Shah had made Iran the Paris of the East, plunging it into what many perceived as too debauched a modernity.Conservative families pushed back. The regime of the Ayatollahs began in 1979, and soon made the wearing of the scarf mandatory.
At a shoe shop in Iran, I met a group of ladies trying the fanciest pair of stilettos. I asked them how they feel about wearing the scarf.One said, “This is Iran, not America.” Another added, “I am [a] free lady like American ladies, but not when it comes to the scarf.But don’t worry, even though I wear the hijab in public, I am the queen of the house.”
The message she wanted to give was clear: even though the scarf made her seem a second-class citizen in public, she wanted me to know that at home, she is her own person and has kept the balance of power in her favour.
At the university of Tehran, I put the same question to a group of abaya-clad students. Zainab comes from a religious, orthodox family.She said, “I don’t think freedom is to wear make-up or short clothes. I think covering up is modest and I am a modest person.” I asked her if she thought I was immodest since I didn’t wear a scarf, and the question surprised her because as far as she was concerned, guidelines for modesty depend upon religious faith. “No,” she said to my question and added as explanation, “But I am a Muslim.” I asked her why Muslim men didn’t cover their heads, to which she replied, “They have to do a lot of other things.” She didn’t detail what these things are, but tried to make me understand how the hijab has actually helped women. “You see, wearing the hijab has exponentially increased the number of girls attending school and college. So it has helped,” Zainab told me.
Behind the choice of these students is a misunderstood definition of modesty, but also a clear goal to achieve education and be successful professionals.
From ‘white’ to ‘pious’, these are the new Turks
In 2013, Recep Tayyip Erdogan overturned the decades-long ban on wearing of the headscarf in government offices, hospitals, universities, and schools.
Erdogan’s continued political escalation perhaps reflected the changing national mood or brought to the fore, the existing conservative bloc, which felt unheard in a modern, secular government.It allowed women like Meryem İlayda Atlas to step out of homes and enter professional arenas. From an orthodox religious family, in her mid-30s, Atlas is now a successful editor. Her colleague, Sarder Karagoz, Editor-in-Chief of the leading pro-government Turkish newspaper, The Daily Sabah, described Atlas as one of the emerging elite in Erdogan’s Turkey. Atlas’s La Ci Vert is part of the same group of publications.Karagoz said, “These are the educated, the religious, the pious Turks who have been denied their place in their country by the white Turks, the secular elite.”
Atlas says, “We are not prisoners of the head scarf, but prisoners of gaze,” she said. She says she wears the hijab because it helps her define herself and the boundaries within which she operates. As a Muslim woman, Atlas says she needs to lead a modest life. If she wears a hijab, she is able to avoid being invited to parties with alcohol, from men approaching her to even shake her hand or give a hug and a peck on the cheek. “It makes life simpler, helps me from attracting unnecessary attention,” she said.“It is the same as for women who wear the make up or wear short dresses – that is their choice and this is mine”.
The hijab-wearing women are being presented as the new success stories in Turkey. Atlas explained what it takes for a woman like her to be successful:
Both in Iran and in Turkey western modernity was thrust upon its people.The return to religion, to hijab, is a way for people to identify themselves differently. But the question of identity is also a political one. What women wear is being used to define how open or traditional the state is. Wearing an abaya and hijab is made a question of faith at times to tame a woman and at times, to create a binary in which a ‘modern’ woman who sheds clothes and is an object of lust.
For women in the Middle East, for all practical purposes, the choice is a non-choice. Their first consideration is the calculation of how effectively they can navigate their surroundings to get to what they want. The concept of choice — of choosing to or not to wear a hijab is flawed unless the women making the choice deeply self-introspect. Under circumstances that make it so difficult for them to exercise their independence without the aid of shields like the abaya or hijab, is this really a choice that they’re making or is it the only option that society is offering a woman who has ambitions beyond traditional confines?