Muslim women's veil or hijab between a colonial ideology and a traditionalist Islamic ideology: A decolonial vision

Muslim women's veil or hijab between a colonial ideology and a traditionalist Islamic ideology: A decolonial vision*

Asma Lamrabet

November, 2019


 Muslim women’s veil as a topic is still today at the heart of the feminist debate as well as in all the debates on modernity, freedom and the place of religion in our contemporary societies.


The obsessive focus around this subject looks very revealing to us of the binary approach conveyed as much by the hegemonic neo-orientalist vision as by that of the identity rhetoric of Islamic discourse.


We thought it is very important to deconstruct these two dominant visions, with the aim of proposing an alternative thought, capable of getting us out of the current intellectual impasse.


It seems that this question is hijacked by two visions: the neo-Orientalist vision specific to the dominant ideology and the vision that mirrors a certain Islamic traditionalist discourse refractory to any reformist vision.


Indeed, the "veiling" of Muslim women is considered as a visibility marker of Islamization in the Muslim countries as well as in the West. The neo-Orientalist vision draws the separation line between "veiling" and "unveiling" as respectively the places of representation between the tradition’s archaism as a space of "veiling" and the modernity as a space of "unveiling".



As for the Islamic vision, it perceives "veiling" as the essential marker of an Islamic identity that is very fragile and constantly threatened by the "unveiling" of a spreading Westernization. The "veiling" in the Islamic imaginary is the continuity, the safekeeping and the preservation of the normative Islamic identity space and its perpetuation.


In both visions, everything seems to turn around women’s body. To "unveil" is for some to "modernize" and "emancipate" while for others to "betray" its roots and break with its religious identity.

While veiling is for the modernist ideology to lie outside of Modernity, in the Islamic vision, it means to be rooted in the Islamic identity space. In other words, it is to "resist" Westernization.


Hence, the veil draws the boundaries of an "unthought-of" between the visibility issue and the female body, and the whole definition of modernity and its expressions. Currently, Muslim women’s bodies still seem to embody the place of tension between representations of modernity and those of anti-modernity.

Here goes a puerile question: why would it be up to Muslim women, and only up to them, to carry the "weight" of this multiple visibility? That of both modernity and Islam?

What is the reason for the fear behind the "veiling"? Is it this puerile tenacity to make "invisible" - by an excess of visibility - the relationships between private and public sphere? Or, is it the excess of modesty that seems to symbolize the veil and to redefine the "modern" relationships between men and women?


Is not the veil finally this place of all the paradoxes since while dissimulating, it exposes the vulnerability of the egalitarian ideal, the differences and the relationships between the dominant but also the incoherence of the Muslim imaginary regarding women's bodies issue!


II Political and Historical Perspectives of the Veil or "Hijab" in the Muslim World:


Until the beginning of the 19th century, we can briefly summarize the dress of Arab, Berber and Muslim women to a variety of clothing going from Haik, Jellaba, chador, niquab, long veils in black, white or colors to countrywomen scarves etc ...

There was a diversity of geographical clothing combining Religion and Culture likewise in other regions including the Mediterranean such as Sicily or southern Spain.


In Morocco, for example, it was impossible to differentiate Jewish women from Muslim women. Both wore the jellaba that was created initially for men by Moroccan Jewish artisans!


It is not surprising to note at first sight that the contemporary history of the veil or hijab as understood nowadays started in Egypt. It is still there that the most virulent debate is taking place on the issue of women's bodies and the religious approach to this issue.


The major evolutions of the veil / hijab issue can be summed up in four periods:


1) The colonization period of most of the Arab countries:


By the end of the 19th century, Egypt, still subjected to the beginning of the British colonization, experienced the first debate regarding the veiling of women. Indeed, the great governor of Egypt Mohammed Ali Pasha sent three religious scholars of Al Azhar to Paris - considered, at the time, as the center of the civilized world, so that they would be initiated to scientific and academic progress of the Enlightened West.

One of those three Scholars was Sheikh Rifaat Attahtawi who, upon his return, was the first to provoke controversy by writing a book exposing his analysis and impressions of his Parisian experience. He concluded that Gender mixing and the Emancipation of Western women was not synonymous of the moral decay, as it was commonly perceived in the Eastern vision.

In his book, duly endorsed by the imam of Al Azhar at the time and the governor of Egypt, he strongly criticized practices such as repudiation, polygamy and non-mixing [1]. An important controversy followed the publication of this book but also the works of other Egyptian authors calling for the liberation of women from the Hijab [2].


Therefore, it is undoubtedly the book of the Duke of Harcourt, "Egypt and the Egyptians", with strong orientalist overtones, that triggered the intense debate on women, first in Egypt, then in the rest of the Muslim countries [3]. This book sharply criticized the status of women in Egypt, their veiling, their confinement and their discrimination and undermined their status in Islam especially through the issue of veiling or Hijab understood as confinement. Veiling women involved at that time confining women in their private space and prevented them from accessing to the public sphere.


Later on, around the years 1900 and following all the controversy generated by the critics to the book of the Duke of Harcourt, another book appeared, developing what we could call as the second wave of the debate on the Hijab and the women’s status, namely, the book of Quassim Amine "tahrir el mar'a" [4]. Quassim Amine, through this publication, strongly condemned the misogynistic traditions that oppress women in the name of Islam. He also argued that Islam as a religion does not impose their confinement but rather the culture and the local patriarchal tradition.


We should precise that Quassim Amine criticized the Hijab as an integral veil of the woman (niquab or burqua) which was, in his opinion, synonymous with confinement. He claimed throughout his book the idea of unveiling as the path to the legitimate socio-political participation of women.

The book of Quassim Amine was undoubtedly a turning point in the discourse on the emancipation of Arab women and especially on this issue of the hijab. It provoked such a virulent controversy that hundreds of books were published to respond to his text.

This was the starting point for a debate that would continue provoking controversial, passionate and extremely virulent debates throughout the Muslim world.

However, it is necessary to know how to replace this debate back in the context of the time, namely that of an Egypt and an Arab world under colonial rule. What the entire colonizing world represented, was perceived as "foreign" to the Islamic culture, as a serious threat of deculturation and thus forcibly unacceptable.

The women’s issue has been one of the central topics in this power balance between Islam and colonization. Its consequences are still tangible, in other patterns, through the current dilemma between modernity and tradition within the current Arab-Muslim societies.

The concepts of unveiling, women's rights and emancipation were regarded as conceived by the colonizer and since he was rightly perceived as an oppressor, those concepts were therefore morally and ethically inadmissible.


From this perspective, Quassim Amine’s book was seen as an expression of an alienation ideology that betrayed not only the cultural vision of that period but also the principles of political resistance to the colonizer. It was a period of an intense political tension and the ideas of Quassim Amine were almost unanimously condemned to the point of accusing him, as well as all those who agreed with him, of "high treason” to the values of the nation!

We should also recall that the colonizer himself largely contributed to the instrumentalization of the history of the veil of Muslim women.

Indeed, it is well known how the Orientalist narratives about the inferiority of societies to colonize - and thus to civilize! - focused mainly on the theme of women who were considered as being oppressed by their religious tradition.

These stories were very useful for the European colonizer to endorse his colonial civilizing mission. The white European man was not only to bring civilization to these societies, but also to "save" women from the oppression and confinement imposed by the native man [5].


One of the leading figures of this colonial policy was undoubtedly Lord Cromer, Consul General of Great Britain in Egypt for 24 years [6]. Known as a fervent opponent of the feminist movement and women’s suffrage in his native country, Britain, while in Egypt he was an "alleged" great defender of women's rights and especially a fervent opponent of their veiling and confinement! He continued to denounce the status of Muslim women, stating that: "The status of women in Egypt, but also in all of the Mohammedan countries, is in itself a dread impediment to their development and rise to the rank of the civilized nations"[7].


Lord Cromer kept repeating his rhetoric towards women but in practice, he did absolutely nothing to improve the plight of these same women. Indeed, he refused to invest his government's money in building schools and in education despite the great demand for it at the time. He even denied funding for a Medicine school for women, created since 1830, only agreeing to donate funds for training of midwives [8].


In Algeria during the 1950s, the same scenarios repeatedly took place: "The leaders of the French administration in Algeria undertake big efforts on the wearing of the veil designed in this case as a symbol of the status of the Algerian woman ... The dominant administration commit, via the military dignitaries’ spouses, to defend Algerian women who are humiliated, cloistered etc. ... Algerian women are invited to "be outraged" and to play a fundamental role against their veil and their seclusion ... each dose of semolina distributed corresponds to a dose of indignation against the veil and the oppression of women! The colonial administration invests large sums in this fight because making women adhere to the values of the colonial administration is to conquer a real power over the men and to deconstruct the Algerian culture ... "[9]

The unveiling ceremonies were rife: "Massive demonstrations organized by the army in the cities starting from May 18, 1958, led by the Generals’ wives like Mrs. Massu, who was fully committed to the fight against the veil!" In several cities of Algeria, we witness the same theatrical scene: groups of veiled women walking in parade to places dedicated to official ceremonies where they take off their veil in public "[10].


In the same style, a poster published by the 5th Psychological Action Bureau of the French Army (1957-1960) proclaimed: "Aren’t you pretty? Unveil yourself! "[11]

These theatrical scenes of public "unveiling" are not inherent to the only "colonial" North African past. New York, February 10, 2001 - during Victory Day ceremonies at Madison Square Garden - a neo-colonialist remake of a similar scenario took place. An Afghan girl (spokesperson of the Rawa movement) was in fact, at the center of a media ceremony of unveiling. The Afghan girl wearing a burqua solemnly climbs onto a stage where she is greeted by the influential TV presenter Oprah Winfrey and slowly takes off her cloth!


This woman is thus delivered and saved by the North American feminist icon who makes her move, with a strong symbolic gesture, from the space of the shadow and the veiling to the space of the modernity, the unveiling and the light...

The image of Muslim women who are unveiled or have joined the colonialist discourse is an image still very present in the Islamic imaginary where colonial guardianship is always associated with unveiling and hence with every conception of liberation or emancipation judged as alienating concepts since claimed by the colonizer.


2) The period of nationalist revolutions and independence movements:


With the reformist thinking of Imam Abduh, we see the birth of a new thought combining the criticism of traditionalist Islamic discourse with the rejection of any enslavement to the colonial system. Important nationalist Arab figures, like Saad Zaghloul, involved women in the liberation and independence movements, while criticizing, this time from the inside of the tradition and the Arab-Muslim culture, the reclusion imposed through the veil covering the whole body of women. The unveiling then becomes legitimate - since it was no longer claimed by the colonialist but by Arab men - even if it continues to be criticized by conservatives and new followers of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. Female figures initiated therefore the socio-political participation of women like Houda Chaarawi who made the unveiling (from the niquab) a symbol of national liberation.


That was the end of an ideological phase where the unveiling of women's faces - the rejection of the niquab - then the headscarf on the head and the gradual adaptation to the Western dress would gradually become the social and cultural norm for long decades.


3) Religious revival and the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood movement (1928):


During this period and with the emergence of the ideology of the Muslim brothers, it is the gradual reappearance of the hijab or scarf covering the hair. This latter will however take on another connotation this time, namely that of the claim of an Islamic dress code with revivified notions such as the notion of modesty and religious commitment (iltizam).


It is no longer a matter of endorsing the women’s confinement by wearing a veil that covers the whole body (niquab) or the prohibition of the social participation of women. It is rather claiming the wearing of clothes conforming to a certain so-called Islamic vision with a hijab or veil conceived this time and understood as a scarf covering only the hair. The denomination remained the same since it is still called hijab but the semantic shift was made rather on the content. We went from the term "Hijab - niquab - seclusion" to that of "Hijab - scarf - religious commitment, moral and political militancy".


This new Hijab is the expression of an ideology that values the concealment of feminine appearances for being of temptation, in other words, it values above all, the asexual human being and not the woman. However, it must be acknowledged that, according to the same discourse, this valorization of sexual neutrality is put forward only regarding physicality. Yet in the public and family space, the sexual hierarchy and the assignment of women to their sexual biological function is the rule and they are even the core values of the ideology of a political and traditionalist Islam.


In the same vein, we should note that even if women's social participation is tolerated, gender mixing is still forbidden according to the vision of the Muslim brothers, who only conceive the social participation of women in the strict area of the "daawa" or religious proselytism with people of the same sex.


During the Nasserian period in the 1950s, an ideological conflict emerges between the Muslim brothers and the so-called secular nationalists. This was followed by a strong and harsh repression of the movement of the brothers, initiating the beginning of the focus of the political Islam movements on the issue of "hijab" as a symbol of resistance to political repression. The concept of Hijab with the repression of the brothers took on a connotation that was much more ideological and political than religious.


4) Periods of the 1967 Defeat with the failure of pan-Arabism and the emergence of “the religious” as resistance means until the early 1990s:


With the failure of pan-Arabism and the policies produced by Nationalism, political Islam took over as a resistance force but also as a form of identity upgrading. The loss of bearings, the nationalism deadlock and the collapse of the leftist ideologies at that time paved the way to the discourse on Islamic identity, the Oumma and the symbols of the religious affiliation to take over and offer to people the means to regain their lost dignity.


This was the beginning of the return in force of the Hijab in university campuses as well as the niquab with the birth of Neo-Salafism.

Women’s education is claimed by all Islamist movements but in single-sex groups and following a rigorous education.

The emergence in the 1990s of new independent and non-political religious preachers set up an important turning point in the history of the appearance of religiousness in the Arab societies. These preachers focused the core of their speech on the hijab as an Islamic prescription and an essential criteria for any Muslim woman worthy of the name.


Women started veiling massively and generally by free personal choice. A "free choice" of course to put under the aegis of a volunteer submission to an order issued by the majority of preachers - Muslim scholars, who presented this injunction as divine and thus, left no other possible choice for women who, in general, were sincere in their quest for spirituality.


The spread of the "hijab" phenomenon was the product of the cooptation of the veil’s issue by both political Islam and the conservative religious discourse that made this symbol a strategic question in their "dawa" or sociopolitical proselytism.

Here again, as well as in the argument raised during the colonization, wearing the hijab means not only responding to a divine order but also resisting to the globalization, hegemonic policies and amoral values of the West.


The question of the Hijab thus becomes a fundamental element in the "visibility" of the return to a true Islam. In the mainstream Islamic discourse, it will henceforth embody the whole Islamic identity where the female body remains obviously the absolute standard. .


5) The hijab issue in Iran:


The Islamic revolution in Iran has been one of the crucial moments in the contemporary history of the veil and its repercussions on mentalities in the West as well as in the Muslim world. The re-emergence of the "chador" (traditional Iranian dress) with the revolution was initially considered as a revenge of the people on the pro-Western policies of the Shah of Iran who in the 1930s had banned the chador. With the revolution of Khomeini we witnessed the same logic in the opposite direction, in other words the imposition by the law of the veil on Iranian women. The Shah had banned the veil in the name of an abusive reading of secularism while Ayatollah Khomeini imposed it in the name of an equally abusive reading of religion.


It is interesting to recall that the first Muslim women to openly claim Islamic feminism were Iranian women who, as a result of the legal imposition of the veil, developed a new discourse on the veil, designed above all, as a " right " intrinsic to the freedom of choice and not as a law. They strongly criticized the state's policy regarding its mandatory prescription [12].


Let us note that concerning the theorizing of the veil’s policy in Iran, there were several arguments that according to the anthropologist Ziba Mir Hosseynni, could be summarized in two main visions. The first, representing the predominant vision of the Ulemas including Motahari and a second one, rather minoritarian, that summarizes the vision of intellectuals like Ali Shariati.


Motahari's argument basically took over what Fiqh or the Islamic jurisprudence has always demonstrated in terms of the veil's obligation, namely, the argument related to women's bodies. This argument built on two concepts: the "awra" - the woman's body is illegal - and the "fitna" - the presence of women perceived as a temptation. According to this vision, a woman without hijab is helpless and unprotected [13].


This vision redefines, in a way, the classical social construction of the Fiqh, based on considering female sexuality as a danger to social life. It is not so much the presence of women that is at the root of "social disorder" or Fitna but rather "their innate desire to show their beauty" that provokes the sexual desire - impossible to control - in men!

The hijab is therefore, considered according to this vision, as the best way to protect women from men’s sexual aggressiveness in order to maintain intact the social and moral order. Obviously, an implicit logic here puts the entire moral and social burden on the body of women and their physical appearances.

For the Iranian intellectual Shariati, it is not a question of elaborating texts in favor of the Hijab let alone of developing an argument according to the logic of the Fiqh, which he considers outdated and contrary to his vision of Islam. He addresses this question in an indirect way during his numerous conferences, giving an innovative meaning to the Hijab that converts it from the symbol of blind tradition to a major symbol of the revolution against the despotism of the Shah.


Shariati made a distinction between two types of Hijab: the traditional hijab and the revolution’s hijab. The first had no value in his eyes since those who wore it according to him, did so for the cultural tradition and a deliberate choice. As for the revolution’s hijab, it was worn by women who had chosen it voluntarily and who were trying, through this veil, to "recover" their identity and their faith.

Also according to Shariati, with this Hijab of the revolution, this generation of women addressed the Western colonialism and the European culture: "it has been fifty years that you plan and try to convert me to a" pseudo western woman" but with this Hijab, I am telling you NO! With this Hijab, I am in the process of dismantling fifty years of colonialist projects and therefore NO you will not be able to make me change my identity "[14]!


III Hijab: What do the sources and Founding texts of Islam say?


The terms or concepts used by the Qur'an with a direct or indirect link to the body issue are as follows:


1) Ghad y Bassar and Hafd el faraj (Quran 24: 30-31): Tell the believing men to restrain their looks (ghad el bassar), and to guard their private parts (hafd el faraj)…” “Tell the believing women to restrain their looks, and to guard their private parts…”.

It is about "restraining their looks" and "protecting the private parts of their bodies" for women as well as for men, which is to say that it is a question of keeping a certain modesty of gaze and avoiding the body’s nudity for women as well as for men.


2) Khoumourihina (Quran 24:31) is the plural of khimar which etymologically corresponds to a kerchief or scarf. "And tell the believing women to… not display their charms/attractiveness (zinatohonna) except what is apparent, and to draw their coverings over their breasts, and to not expose their charms except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands' fathers, their sons…”

In this verse, women are specifically requested to fold sides of their veil (khoumourihina) on their breasts and to show some of their charms (zinatouhouna) only to close family members. However, what is described as "charms" is not explicit. There is no more details about the limits of what should or should not appear. The majority of Ulema, thus, have interpreted this verse as the obligation to cover one's head and to show only the hands and the face.


3) Jalabibihina: (Qur'an 33:59): “O Prophet! Tell your wives, your daughters, and the women of the believers, to draw sides of their clothes over themselves (jalabibihina). That is more proper, so they will be recognized and not offended”.

Jalabibihina is the plural of jilbab and it corresponds to a wide and long garment typical of the Arabian Peninsula’s culture. This verse was revealed in a particular context where the first female believers who, following the Prophet’s instructions, used to go to the mosque at night, were frequently assaulted by men. According to the major exegetical interpretations, this was a way to recognize them and protect them as believers.


4) Libass Taquwa: (Quran 7:26) "O son of Adam, we have provided you with clothing to cover your nakedness, as well as adornments, but the best clothing is the reverential fear (Taquwa) from God (libassa taquwa kheyr ) ". This verse clearly highlights the importance of interiority (Taquwa concept) with regard to physical appearances and clothing.


And the Hijab ??

There are therefore four concepts more or less related to clothing and physical appearance. And none of these four concepts refers to the word "Hijab", commonly used to describe the veil or headscarf.

Indeed, in the Qur'an, the word Hijab does not refer at any time to a dress, veil, or any garment. It is used about seven times and always in the same sense namely that of a separation or a curtain [15].

But the verse that was most often used to prove "the obligation" to veil women and in which we once again find the word Hijab is the one that states: "O believers do not enter the dwellings of the prophet unless you are invited .... When you ask the Prophet’s wives for something, do it from behind a veil (Hijab) "Quran 33; 53.

This verse was revealed at the Prophet's wedding with Zeynab Bint Jahch. Indeed, the prophet on this occasion invited a large number of people for a festive meal organized in his small house. Tradition tells that after the meal, three men remained talking to each other very late in the evening while only the Prophet and his bride remained in the room. The Prophet known for his courtesy could not ask them to leave and found himself extremely embarrassed by this situation. This was followed by the revelation of this verse.

This verse was therefore revealed for educational purposes, that of respecting the intimacy of the Prophet who, because of his specific status as a Messenger, was entitled to a special respect for his person and his wives. This incident definitely allowed the wives of the Prophet to attain the special status of "Mother of Believers" and to be respected and honored by all members of the community. [16]


The Hijab here concerns only the wives of the prophet and meets a conjunctural necessity of that period where it was needed to preserve the intimacy of the prophet and his private life. It does not correspond in any case to a model of clothing or a particular dress behavior. The spirit of this prescription was mainly to educate the Arabs of the time to respect the intimacy of people and to introduce them to good manners.


In conclusion…

We note that concerning physical appearances, the Quran transmits implicitly its ethical guidelines regarding the body by addressing women and men without any particular distinction, apart from the two verses about the Khimar and the Jilbab (Qur'an 24.31 and Qur’an 33.59).


Only these two verses mention a dress code without going into the secondary details that we currently find with a meticulous precision in the books for "Muslim practitioners"!

Unfortunately, nowadays, the whole of Islamic ethics seems to be reduced to women's clothing behavior, and only to that. In other words, to their bodies, to the precise way in which they must be covered, to the color and thickness of the fabric, to the uniformity of the habit ...etc.

Now, since the Qur'an did not insist on specific clothing or a specific external aspect for women and men, it would be very reducing to analyze the few verses on the behavior of clothing while disregarding all the orientations of the spiritual message that provides global ethics of the body, concerning men and women as well.

Hence, the Qur’an invites believers, male and female, to a "decency" and "sobriety" behavior, both physical and moral. With regard to women, the general - and subtle - expression of a certain "external appearance" is proof of the great "latitude" offered by the spiritual message in order to enable them to reconcile their spiritual convictions with their respective social context.

Therefore, the Qur’an does not legislates on the need for a religious "uniform" that would be strictly "Islamic", as we tend to demonstrate currently. The primary spiritual intention was not to determine rigid or static dress standards that would be "fixed" once for all, but rather to "recommend" an "attitude", or rather an "ethic" linked to body and mind.

It is unfortunate to acknowledge that this initial intention of the Islam spiritual message is often omitted, or even completely disregarded, at the expense of a literalist reading that reduces all the Quranic teaching about women to the so-called "obligation to wear the Hijab”!

Nevertheless, the Quran has never imposed any formal dress code obligation. Dictating standardized dress norms goes against the principles of the universal message and its spiritual ethics.

The khimâr or headscarf issue belongs to the morality, the behavior and the ethics of Islam. This falls within the Islamic science of mu'amalat, the social field or the human relations, and not within the 'ibadat, the ritual practice.


A religious conviction that appeals to faith makes sense only when it is lived without constraint. Talking about the Islamic obligation to wear the headscarf or khimar cannot be acceptable spiritually speaking, because the Qur’an is clear: "There shall be no compulsion in religion!”. This is one of Islam’s fundamental principles. It is therefore clear that the main purpose of the Qur'an is to induce men and women to free themselves from all the materialistic alienations and the seduction codes, specific to each period, which are ultimately only the concrete projections of recurring dominant ideologies through the history of human civilization.

The Qur’an invites men and women to take ownership of a culture of decency and mutual respect: "The best garment is certainly that of taqwâ; this is one of the signs of God "... Undoubtedly, this verse sums up on its own, the central teaching that should be kept in mind and be implemented nowadays among this great chaos of ultra-liberal consumption, of exuberance, of the cult of appearance and of arrogance, as the ethic of Islam: libas at-taqwa, the garment of inwardness which inevitably reflects in the externality of acts and actions of every man and every woman. It is this ethic of inwardness, moral rigor and decency that is preferable to the Creator's eyes.


IV - And what does the Fiqh or Islamic jurisprudence say about this?


We find in the various legal manuals some concepts related to the body’s topic (women as well as men) like the "sitr" (in the sense of protecting or concealing the body) and "ghad el bassar" of the ethics of the gaze.

The Fiqh refers to these concepts in the chapters related to the norms of prayer or in those dealing with marital relations.

The norms regarding physical appearance and the covering of the body during prayer are found in the chapter of prayer and are treated in the register of "ritual acts" or Ibadates. The concept of "ghad el bassar" appears in the chapter of marriage where it is considered as part of "social acts" or Mouamalates.

Besides, we find in the Fiqh’s literature the notion of Hijab as "women’s confinement". This idea relies on the different legal constructions that have defined women's bodies as the place of all temptations and as a source of "disgrace" (Awra) that definitely needs to be covered, hidden and concealed from all angles. Since their bodies are a source of temptation, women had to be confined (behind a hijab) in their homes to avoid social "disorder" (Fitna).


IV- The contemporary speech on the hijab:


Today, there are different speeches on the hijab. The mainstream discourse remains the one held by - almost – all the ulemas, which is basically a re-adaptation of the classic argument of the "hijab" as an affirmation of the "protection" of women’s body in the public sphere. For others, mainly the political Islam activists, the hijab remains a strong symbol of Muslim identity and a resistance to the westernization of morals.

Thinkers from the Reform movement (a minority) consider that the wearing of the hijab should not be included in the "obligations" range (wajib), but rather in the "advisable" one (mostahab). What remains mandatory - for both men and women - is to cover their intimacy, but again the latitudes of this intimacy are not determined and no consensus exists regarding the limits of this "intimacy" or (awra) and if women’s hair, as most of the Ulemas claim, falls within the scope of this intimacy to be covered.

Others, a smaller minority, consider the hijab as neither an obligation nor a recommendation [17].


We can assert in summary that the contemporary notions about the hijab range from imposing the wearing of the hijab considered a pillar of Islam and therefore an Islamic obligation, to considering the hijab a recommendation and leaving it up to women to dress accordingly to their conscience and religious belief.

It is important to note that some Ulemas or thinkers speak of a religious obligation to wear the headscarf or veil, while pointing out that this should not be compulsory and must arise freely from women. Yet there is a contradiction in this kind of discourse because the mere fact of affirming that the veil is a divine obligation, no more choice is left to those who faced with such an obligation feel "guilty" by not fulfilling this religious requirement.


 The most important here, in my humble opinion, is not about the plurality of interpretations. This should actually be the case, since it opens up the field to freedom of interpretation and from there to the true freedom of choice. What is questionable though is having reduced all the ethics of the Qur'an regarding the body, to this veil or hijab and from there to the women’s body that inexorably tuned to be the battle place of all ideologies. By means of ideological brainwashing, this "veil" or khimar, mentioned in the Qur'an, went from contingent spiritual symbolism to an image of pejorative oppression that is difficult to redress today.


 V Conclusion:

For Muslim women today, the real challenge is to regain the liberating spirit of the spiritual message of Islam and the veil is not a spiritual goal per se but one way among many others ...

Some feel the need and the spiritual necessity to wear it and live this experience as a deep intimacy and inwardness with God, and this is their most absolute right ...  Others do not sense this need and do not feel the necessity to conform to certain dress codes, considering it extrinsic to spirituality. These women are also free to choose to live their spirituality as dictated by their conscience towards God and this is their most absolute right too. In both cases, it is a matter of living one's spirituality in the same process of liberation and deep conviction.

The headscarf is part of ethics, and is above all a women’s right ... They knowingly must have the right to choose to wear it or not, since the right to wear it is inevitably linked to the right not to wear it.


There is a need to step out of the binary vision that has always accompanied this topic and stop using this scarf as an evaluation criterion of Muslim women. According to each one’s ideological vision, some consider it as a criterion of oppression, meaning a woman not wearing a hijab is considered as necessarily emancipated. Whereas for others, it is an indicator of the degree of faith, and not wearing it is indicative of a lack of conviction or weakness of faith.

 However, it is essential to reiterate that faith cannot be measured by these appearance criteria, and we cannot make value judgments on people according to their clothing behavior.

It is therefore a question of giving women the freedom of expression and the right to reclaim freedom of choice as a fundamental right and not to reduce the whole spirituality of Muslim women to their way of dressing.


It is also important to recall that Muslim women have to choose without having to tolerate or accept the simplistic discourses of neo-orientalism as well as those of radical preachers of the extremist Islamic ideology. .

We should also try to understand that many women wearing the veil today do so, in order not only to respect religious norms, but also with the purpose of a self-quest and life ethics according to their personal choice. More precisely, this connection between religious practice and the positive personal self-quest contradicts the Manichean vision opposing modernity to religion, in this case Islam.

In conclusion, it is a matter of reaffirming that it is legitimate for today's Muslim women to question concepts such as modernity and emancipation, and their respective instrumentalisation by a so-called universal hegemonic ideological discourse.


Likewise, it is also legitimate for these same women to question the unique, consensual and patriarchal interpretation of sacred texts by a male scholar elite that has marginalized the contribution of women throughout history.


This is about claiming the right to interpretative diversity and its democratization. We can no longer tolerate that issues of meaning, life choices and spirituality be monopolized by an institution or a group of individuals, usually men - who speak in the name of a divine authority!!


As Muslim women, we can also revolt against our own misogynistic traditions without dissociating from the good causes of one's community of faith, nor endorsing the Eurocentric myths of emancipation, humanism and feminism.

Initiating Muslim feminist critical thinking from the "periphery" of the world from where we speak, where we live and where our own women's struggles unfold.

Our specificity as Muslim women should not be marginalized by what Stuart Hall calls "old universalism" but we cannot continue accepting that in the name of these same specificities, we are forced to submit to discriminatory logics that are specifically cultural.

 We no longer want to be anthropological victims of international feminist studies and institutes of geopolitical strategies; we want to be free of our choices. Hence, this can only be done, and we must be aware of it, if the re-appropriation of the values of freedom and emancipation is done through new paradigms drawn from both our own reference and that of the human diversity. This is the only way to overcome this eternal logic of confrontation ‘modernity versus tradition’ which is today at the heart of the debate on Muslim women. 


* Translated by Houda Zekri


1] Rifaat Atahtawi: "Takliss al briz fi talkhiss bariz", 1872; El Cairo.


[2] The Hijab of the time was in fact the dress that veiled the whole body of the woman and that left only his eyes, the equivalent of the burqua of today.

[3] Charles Francois-Marie Harcourt (Duke); "Egypt and the Egyptians" Editions Plon, 1893.

[4] "Tahrir el mar'aa", Quassem Amine, Dar el Maarif, Soussa, Tunisia, 1990.

[5] This is what Spivack Gayatri Chakravorty said in "Can the subaltern speak? (white men are saving the brown women from brown men)

[6] See article "Lord Cromer: Le colonialiste par  excellence": http: //

[7] Felix Boggio Ewanié Sword and Stella Magliani Belkacem in "White Feminists and the Empire" Editions La Fabrique, Paris, 2011.

[8] References supra.

[9] According to the book by Frantz Fanon: "Algeria is revealed" in the white feminist and empire, the factory, Felix Boggio Ewanje Sword and Stella Magliani Belkacem.


[10] References supra.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ziba Mir Hosseynni, "The Politics and Hermeuneutics of Hijab in Iran: From Confinement to Choice," Muslim World Journal of Human Rights, Vol 4, Issue 1, Article 2, 2007


[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid,  Ziba Mir Hosseini.

[15] The verses in which we find the term Hijab: Q 7; 46, Q17; 45, Q 19; 17, Q 38; 32 , Q 41; 5, Q 42; 51 and Q 33; 53


[16] Atahrir wa Atanwir, Ibn Achour, tafssir of the verse.


[17] Like the Egyptian Jamal al Banna, the Sudanese Hassan Tourabi or the Tunisian Mohammed Talbi.



À propos de l'auteur


Native de Rabat (Maroc), Asma Lamrabet, exerce actuellement en tant que médecin biologiste à l’Hôpital Avicennes de Rabat. Elle a exercé durant plusieurs années (de 1995 à 2003) comme médecin bénévole dans des hôpitaux publics d'Espagne et d’Amérique latine, notamment à Santiago du Chili et à Mexico.

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