The Redefined Concept of Hijab… The Urban Myth?
By A.W. Rahmaan*
Photographed by: Rafique N.
Make-up by: Amer Atta
Styled by: Fadi Zumot.
Art directed by: Kali.
Special thanks for Ark Photography for the lights.
Amman – Jordan.
As Jordan is catapulted into the modernized global world, questions of what modernization is, begin to surface. “Urbanization” in the western perspective is the movement from the traditional to the “modern” in every aspect of life. In this large scale social development do women truly make choices?
Social media is a big part of the average Jordanian’s life and has become a tool that women use to vocally demand their rights. This became more apparent during and after the Arab Spring, which we saw the creation of Facebook pages like “The uprising of women in the Arab world” and “My mother is Jordanian and her nationality is a right for me”, plus the twitter handle such as #weneedfeminism and others. Video bloggers and Instagram hijab fashionistas used social media to express their views and beliefs. Women resorted to social media to find support because the Arab Spring was not only about economic and democratic development but had a huge gender inequality aspect. In Jordan, with all these advancement in modern society, do women actually have the ability to choose their most personal form of expression, the way they dress?
Hijab is literally translated to mean veil in Arabic. Although the mainstream Jordanian Muslim understanding of hijab is when a woman covers her body aside from her hands and face, based on certain Hadith –Prophetic tradition- tied to the prophet and Quranic verse. Although, based on that same interpretation there is a hijab for men to dress and act modestly, that is socially neglected. Views of hijab are differing. Wearing the hijab is primarily understood to be a religious symbol. Many Muslim women– even those who do not wear hijab—believe that it is a religious obligation, a must that cannot and should not be avoided. Other views vary on whether such an obligation can be understood in Islam. Social pro-hijab arguments can vary from the obligatory “if you want to go to heaven” to the persuasive “do you want to be a lollypop without a cover and allow flies to eat you?” to the coercive “respect yourself and your family… have some dignity” arguments. Nonetheless, there are many young women that choose to wear hijab and redefine it for differing reasons and in different contexts.
As far as the “obligation” part is concerned, hijab is debated and counter debated on many levels. What should it look like? What it symbolizes? How should it be worn and by whom? Do women have to wear it? These are among the many questions asked. A woman needed to wear hijab in the past to distinguish themselves from slave women. Slave women were naked from the belly button up. Frankly, free women before Islam ever came wore hijab too. Another debate also says that the Qur’anic hijab verse -Q 33:59- was in direct conversation with the prophet’s wives only who wore it to distinguish themselves from other women, as not to be harassed.
Jordan as a country is seen or defined as a religious yet liberal country that does have modernized aspects and tribal traditional parts. For example there are big urbanized cities such as Zarqa, Amman, Irbid and Aqaba that are economically developed with many modernized aspects such as, developed infrastructure, educated masses, privatization, presence of foreign open market, and with new development projects daily. There are also the municipalities that are considered to be less modernized and leaning more towards the traditional. Smaller communities and local markets, more communal are characteristics of such locations in Jordan.
I believe that Amman as a city has been “traditionally” and “religiously” urbanized. Before the so called “Islamic” revival and the Islamic brotherhood came to be as influential as they are today, Hijab was not as widespread. Women wore short skirts, bell bottom pants, tight jeans, shorts and tight shirts, had all kinds of hair styles and this generation has the family photos for proof. But since then Jordan has had a growing population, bigger and better schools and universities, wider streets, new shopping malls, a diverse community still there are more women who choose to wear Hijab now even in the city. Why?
When people discuss religion they describe religion as though it is an unchangeable truth that is not vague or fluid. Rather, religion does not exist in a vacuum and is influenced by the world around us. Cultures, traditions, politics, gender and sexuality are all influential parts of one’s identity that affect their perspective and interpretation of religion. In other words, religion is fluid and personal. In terms of the values we receive from religion, the debate is not whether they are divinely given but rather that they are humanely interpreted. In Jordan, the Muslim Brotherhood originated from the combination of both groups which make up a substantial part of the Jordanian society: the Trans-Jordanian and the West Bank Palestinian. The Association of the Muslim Brotherhood was officially established in 1945. The Brotherhood became radical after the peace processes that took place between Egypt and Israel, the Islamic Revolution, and also their critiques towards the Jordanian US relationships in the 70s. The ideology began to shift from a movement that started out being focused on providing social services and charitable work as well as with politics and its role in the parliament to a politicized radical movement. It no longer was compatible with the political system and did not support democracy. It was politicized and it aggressively began to spread the necessity of the implementation of “the true” Sharia law. This ideology had strong following as the group had already garnered strong support for its original actions for social justice. This cultural, social and political phenomenon led to the misunderstanding of religion as being a monolithic entity.
The liberal argument against Islam is that the Quran is a patriarchal text and that misconception is largely due to the fact that interpretation in Islamic scholarship has been male dominated. Due to this, the understanding of hijab, what it is and who should wear it is centered round male needs and understandings. The mainstream male argument on hijab in Jordan is mostly comprised of two components. The first is women should wear hijab in order to protect themselves from sexual harassment, which is an action that is justified to many, because it is perceived that a man is incapable of controlling his sexual urges. The second argument is preserving the honor of the family, which is purely cultural. For the woman who does not cover is seen as someone who is not or less respectable. The problem is that in either case the debate is from a male’s perspective on women that comes to fulfill male patriarchal needs -their urges and/or “honor”.
“…there are many who believe that there is a relationship between growing up in the city, and wearing hijab. The more urbanized the less religious is the let’s call it ‘modernized and Western’ perspective.”
A product of this un-nuanced understanding of women’s hijab has led to the spread of the legendary lollypop comic strip, in which women who have chosen to wear the hijab are related to a covered lollypop protected from the onslaught of flies. While all transgressing sisters, who do not cover their hair are exposed and dirty like the unwrapped lollypop. After the comics have reached levels of creativity which include iPhone cases and rotten apples, women have decided to use social media to take a stand and show the world what it sounds like to be on the receiving end. A group of Muslim American women uploaded a viral video entitled “A Man’s Hijab” in which some pious sisters led a parody jalsa –a meeting for debate- in order to criticize the logic of how a male led society convinces women of their hijab. Arguments range from brothers hiding their fitna – temptation- causing dimples, to being wary of growing a beard for the purpose of hotness or Sunna.
As more women address these preconceived socially religious implications of being women, many have reclaimed and redefined the concept of hijab, its purpose and its meaning to them. Hijab today takes many forms and fulfills many purposes, from the religious to the political to the development of cultural identity.
In 2005, Egyptian singer Haitham Sa’eid, filmed his music video, “Homma Malhom” with a Hijabi female model. Although the video received a lot of criticism for the model’s “wrong” representation of how a Hijabi girl must behave, and the way in which she chose to wear Hijab, it was revolutionary. One commentator on Youtube said: “You will never be satisfied with anything. Whether naked or wearing a veil, is not different to you. We are a strange society! And just because she’s veiled, wearing jeans and not an abaya on her means her Hijab is not valid? And showing her hair with revealing clothes is fine and you all would like that?” another commentator highlighted the clip’s reality “The first and last clip to show a veiled girl”. The song’s title reflected the video’s theme, “Homma Malhom” Arabic for “what is their business?” which is very inspiring for young impressionable girls and reflecting the reality when it came to the kornish’ romance scene by the Nile that was much happening in Cairo at the time, between the hijabi girls and their secret boyfriends.
Also, more recently, in New York, Muslim women directed a video to show the diversity and fluidity of what hijab meant to them. Although New York may seem far off, I believe it is relevant as it is another case in which women redefine what hijab means to them in an urbanized context. While skateboarding, modeling, and roaming the streets of New York to Jay-Z’s song “Somewhere in America“, these “Mipsterz” – short for Muslim hipsters- break stereotypes of how a Muslim women “should” act and dress like. Although the video, published by Sheikh & Bake Productions, has garnered a lot of support from Muslim millennials around the world, the women were not prepared for the viral backlash that followed from the criticisms of Muslims, especially in the Arab world. These criticisms stemmed from the belief in a singular understanding of how hijab should be worn, because of their imbedded reasoning of a singular understanding of Islam. In the case of the mipsterz, city women made it clear that certain understandings of Islam do not define them. They reclaimed their agency and redefined the way they view hijab as being their choice and as something that does not stop them from reflecting their modern urbanized lifestyle and identity.
In the Jordanian context, there are many who believe that there is a relationship between growing up in the city, and wearing hijab. The more urbanized the less religious is the let’s call it “modernized and Western” perspective. In Jordan that really does not apply. In this country the more or less urbanized does not mean less religious or traditional! These beliefs are still very rooted in society.
In Amman, women today wear hijab for various reasons. As a Jordanian woman in hijab myself, having had many discussions with many women on hijab, I have seen that there are women who truly choose hijab as a religious obligation that does not stop them from being modern social women. While some women do not believe that hijab is an obligation but wear it as a means to maintain the family honor and avoid sexual harassment. Other women, most of whose mother’s don’t wear hijab, see hijab as not a religious obligation but rather sign of social oppression. I think that the main problem is that many Jordanians tend to inherit their ideas from the generations before them. How they perceive a “man” and “woman” is something that is socially constructed. We do not ask ourselves how we gain the knowledge that we have, and the manner in which we gain that knowledge! The argument lies whether women are actually making active choices.
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