In the News: Hijab, Hijab, Hijab. Why Are We Obsessed With a Head Scarf?

Model Gigi Hadid on the cover of Vogue Arabia's first issue, March 2017
Supermodel Gigi Hadid on the cover of Vogue Arabia’s inaugural issue, March 2017

In the past week, I have come across more articles on hijab, the head cover worn by some Muslim women and others, than any other news story. More than the war in Syria.

This week alone, government officials, a multinational corporation, individuals, and the European Union are using hijab to articulate a wide range of positions. A symbol of resistance and opportunity for some, a tool of oppression for others.

These are some of the stories making headlines right now:

1. Nike unveils the Pro Hijab for Muslim female athletes. Priced at USD 35 and available in 2018, the Pro Hijab is targeted at consumers in the Arabian Gulf who wield enormous purchasing power. Like many other international brands, Nike is keen to target this demographic. Possibly the biggest hijab story of the decade. 

2. The European Court of Justice delivers a landmark ruling which states the workplace ban on headscarves is legal. Amnesty International warns the ruling “panders to prejudice.”

3. A Pakistan government official wants to make hijab mandatory for female students at colleges in the province of Punjab. To sweeten the deal, extra marks will be rewarded to those who comply. The good news: the government has rejected the proposal. The bad news: this will not end attempts to control what women can and cannot wear.

4. In the age of President Trump and his Muslim ban, women are choosing to embrace hijab as form of resistance, introducing a modern-day counterpoint to a widely accepted image of hijab as oppressive.

5. Backlash to Nike’s Pro Hijab gives rise to #BoycottNike on social media. Many accuse the company of making money off the subjugation of Muslim women.

Controversy surrounding the hijab is not new. If I were to calculate how long the hijab has been an object of public scrutiny, I would need to go back many hundreds of years.

European art of the 12th century and onwards depicts inhabitants of Muslim lands as exotic, backward, violent, and sexually depraved. Artists reimagined the private spaces inhabited by Muslim women and often showed them in the nude, the ultimate “unveiling.” Jean August Dominique Ingres’s Grand Odalisque of a young Oriental chambermaid, hookah pipe in hand, is one of many such paintings of the period. Like others, he never visited the Orient.

Oriental painting of a young chambermaid in the nude
Jean Augusta Dominique Ingres, Grand Odalisque, 1814, Musee du Louvre.

It’s a long running obsession by any measure. Unbelievably, this makes he hijab the most controversial piece of cloth in history.

In comparison, hijab in the UAE is apolitical. Who wears it, how they where it, when they wear it, and why they wear it are all non-issues. No one forces you to wear it, and no one yanks it off if you do (looking at you, France). There is no religious police. Notions of modesty for Emirati society are not religious; they are deeply cultural.

I feel like a broken record. There are plenty of women who chose to wear it, and lead productive lives while doing so. What will it take for us to turn the page and move on from the hijab to a point where it simply does not matter what a woman wears?

4 thoughts on “In the News: Hijab, Hijab, Hijab. Why Are We Obsessed With a Head Scarf?”

  1. Great post and important and timely topic. I wonder how we as Christians would react if a necklace with a cross led to this much controversy? Unfortunately culture and religion are often misunderstood. It will take more education to view head scarves as no big deal.

    Liked by 2 people

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