Thursday, 19 May 2011
Beyond the burqa
IN MUSLIM countries, a conservative head-covering does not always mean being conservative in other ways. Just glance at a couple enjoying the romantic night air in Istanbul; her hair may be hidden, but the rest of her attire is hip-huggingly modern, and there is nothing restrained about the kiss she offers her boyfriend.
Odd as it might sound to Western ears, for many women in the Islamic world dressing “Islamically” may be a choice that has been freely taken for reasons of religion, politics or even fashion: one that is especially pointed in countries where the right to cover one’s head is restricted by law or secularist convention.
There are some places, like Saudi Arabia and Iran, where women must cover their heads; in others, notably Turkey and Tunisia, female civil servants along with pupils in state education are banned from concealing their hair. To the horror of Turkey’s secular establishment, the wives of the president and prime minister both cover their heads; hence they are barred from many state institutions, including some hospitals. On April 29th a prosecutor quashed a claim from a secularist group that the two ladies had committed a crime by attending public ceremonies in scarves.
In the rest of the Middle East, most women don a veil of one kind or another, though almost none wears the burqa. In Iran many women defy the strictures of the Islamic republic’s dress-code with token scarves, short coats and heavy make-up. They suffer in an annual campaign against “bad hijab”, kicking off now. In spring and summer women whose scarves are deemed flimsy or whose ankles are too conspicuous are taken to police stations to sign statements vowing to dress more modestly.
In other countries, where there is more choice in the matter, the reasons for veiling are more complex. In Egypt’s socialist heyday, few wore the veil. In the 1970s and 1980s, as political Islam gained ground, many covered up as a sign of growing piety and conservatism. There were practical benefits too. Islamic garb enabled women to work alongside men without attracting opprobrium from strict male relatives. Something similar applies in provincial Turkey, where the scarf has made it easier for women to be active in public.
The hijab is now so popular, in many places where it is not compulsory, that it is no longer much of a political statement. In Egypt magazines such as Hijab Fashion have proliferated, along with shops selling bejewelled and beribboned scarves. In Cairo young women match the colour of their veils with that of their tunics, handbags, make-up and shoes. In Damascus they top fashionable outfits with tightly wound white scarves. Little flesh is on show, but the tight outfits suggest that not all veil-wearers are pious.
The niqab, though, remains controversial. Shortly before his recent death, Sayed Tantawi, who was Egypt’s senior Muslim cleric, told an 11-year-old girl to remove her niqab, saying it was not Islamic. Egypt’s leaders dislike the garment but have yet to outlaw it. Periodic bans in universities and government offices have been couched in the language of security.
Politics plays a role too. In Egypt those pushing for the niqab tend to be zealous Salafists, so pure that even the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s main Islamist opposition, is wary of them. Cracking down on the niqab may be a way for the government to muzzle one group of opponents.
Afghanistan is the only country where women wear the burqa in any great numbers. Some cast it off after the Taliban’s overthrow, but many more did not. Afghan feminists—and there are such brave souls—say challenging this may not be the most urgent task in a society where imposing change from outside can often backfire