Editor's Note: As the Muslim world commemorates the birth anniversary of Lady Zainab (peace be upon her) this week, let us take a moment to remember those present-day Zainabs who are braving innumerable odds in their defense of the Islamic Hijab.
In the past few years, the Islamic dress code, and specifically the Hijab observed by Muslim women, has been the subject of a number of controversial laws and regulations in European and majority Muslim countries. In France, young Muslim girls were banned from wearing the Hijab in public schools as of 2004. In Turkey, an overwhelmingly Muslim country, women are prohibited from observing Hijab in schools, universities, and government offices. Merve Kavaci, an observant Muslim woman who was democratically elected to the Turkish parliament in 1999, was prevented from taking her seat in parliament because she observed the Hijab. In other European countries such as Britain, Italy, and the Netherlands, right-wing politicians have made efforts to ban the right of Muslim women to cover their faces. This anti-Hijab movement, which is only a part of the broader Islamophobic movement in Europe, deserves to be rebuked in the strongest terms. Moreover, it also makes little sense from a social policy perspective.
The commandment to observe Hijab is stated clearly and unambiguously in the Holy Qur'an (24:31). Today, there is a complete consensus amongst Shia Maraja (religious authorities) that observing the Hijab is a requirement for women, and that as a part of Hijab, it is necessary for a physically mature Muslim woman to cover her hair in public. Similarly, to the best of this author's knowledge, all four Sunni schools of thought – Hanafi, Shafai, Hanbali, and Maliki – deem observing the Hijab to be a wajib (mandatory) act for a woman.
In an effort to secularize itself and imitate European countries, Turkey has outlawed Hijab in public places such as schools and government offices. That the Turkish government is able to do this while the overwhelming majority of its population is Muslim is unfathomable. It is one thing for the state to separate itself from religion. It is quite another for it to prohibit the observance of a fundamental component of that religion in several arenas. Muslim scholars have long recognized that Hijab is a fundamental component of Islam, and as such, accepting its necessity is a logical outgrowth of accepting that there is no deity but God and that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him and his progeny) is His messenger. Those Muslims who prohibit our sisters from observing Hijab in public arenas – where hijab has been deemed mandatory according to God's laws – are not only affronting those sisters, they are affronting God and His laws. In this regard, efforts should be made by Muslim scholars in Turkey and elsewhere to demonstrate to Turkish officials the necessity of Hijab in the public arena, so that this cruel and oppressive ban is eventually lifted.
In majority non-Muslim countries such as France, some argue that a ban on Hijab in public schools is more justified. Yet it is precisely in non-Muslim countries, where sexual mores are so loose, that it becomes even more relevant for Muslim girls to observe Hijab properly. Most readers of this article have likely attended a public school somewhere in North America and can recall the lax atmosphere that existed in such schools in terms of mingling and interaction between boys and girls. Unfortunately, however, sheer ignorance of the purpose of Hijab and Islamophobic tendencies have combined to rile up anti-Hijab sentiment in European countries such as France. Often times, non-Muslims have the misconception that the Hijab is tool of repression used by Muslim men to control their women and reinforce patriarchal attitudes. Muslims need to take responsibility for this misconception and explain that women observe the Hijab for their own protection and modesty and do so in response to the commandments of God, not those of any man. It is also worth pointing out that the Hijab has a basis in Jewish and Christian scripture as well, and it is as a result of this that Catholic nuns are seen observing a type of covering similar to Hijab.
Furthermore, even those in European countries who recognize that hijab is not a tool of repression argue that a Hijab ban is necessary in order to create a strong, homogenous, secular culture. However, a homogenous and secular culture is not created by neglecting the rights of that some members of that culture to observe a fundamental component of their religion. Rather, banning the Hijab in public areas such as schools is seen as an act of hostility and aggression against Muslims, and as such, is only likely to build create more resentment from Muslims toward the government and culture at large. For instance, as a result of the ban, many Muslim families in France have withdrawn their daughters from school altogether, which will only result in Muslims being less educated and more isolated and marginalized. The French and other governments considering a type of Hijab ban need to be clearly informed that Muslims are glad, and indeed obliged, to obey man-made laws to the extent that they do not conflict with God's laws. However, in the event of a conflict, Muslims will always choose to follow the laws of God over the laws of man.
The Muslim woman's Hijab is a symbol. It is a symbol of her independence and liberation from the glares of strange men and an affirmation of her right to be treated according to her character and intellect, not according to her looks. Every Muharram, we beat our chests and lament over the fact that Bibi Zainab and the other noble women of the Prophet's Household (peace be upon them) were paraded through the streets of Damascus without any head-covering while being teased and mocked by strange men. As Muslims, we need to wake up from our slumber and speak up for the rights of our modern-day Zainabs, whose rights to observe Hijab are being trampled. In keeping silent on this issue, we fail to defend those same principles that we spend two months of every year mourning.