Monday, July 7, 2008

To Hijab or not to Hijab

Legally, Kuwait does not oblige women, Kuwaiti or ex-pat, Muslim or non-Muslim, to wear the veil, or as it is said, the hijab. By the hijab, I mean one of three things.

Wearing only a headscarf:

Wearing a headscarf and abaya or long robe:

Wearing, in addition to such a total body covering, a face covering to cover either everything or everything but the eyes:

The legality of veillessness is one of the ways Kuwait, while certainly the second most conservative country in the Gulf, is different from Saudi Arabia, its larger, considerably more restrictive neighbour to the south.

Nevertheless, most Kuwaiti women choose to wear the veil – of one kind or another at least some of the time. To an extent, this is because 99.98% of Kuwaitis are Islamic*; and as we know, Islam favours the hijab, especially in its more conservative expressions.

But Islam cannot be the only reason. If it were many Islamic, Lebanese, Egyptian and Syrian ladies in Kuwait, as well as a noticeable minority of Kuwaitis, who proudly and unself-consciously display their hair, would be considered, and would consider themselves, to be making anti-Islamic gestures. But they are not. Nor, I’m sure, would they be allowed to make such gestures if such a semiotic meaning attached to them.

Some Islamic militants, of course, think it’s anti-Islamic if women, especially Muslim women, don’t wear the veil. But this is not a mainstream, Kuwaiti perception. Yes, not wearing one indicates a less than all-consuming religious fervour; yes, it might be thought, ideally, you really should wear one. But that’s not the same as decreeing that if you don’t, you’re rejecting or attacking Islam. For now, despite the advancing rise of religious conservatism in Kuwait - reflected in the recent acquisition of an additional 50 seats in the Parliament by religiously motivated MPs - a perhaps surprising degree of relative freedom, not only in matters of clothing, exists in Kuwait. Especially if one considers the misconceptions some in the West might have about how conservative it really is here. It is very conservative. I would never doubt that. But it’s not that conservative.

Women can drive, women can vote**, women can walk the streets alone, women can sit with men who are not their relatives, and talk to them in public. In private schools, girls and boys can be educated together, and classes are mixed at the State University (though this may change). Freedoms exist that while unremarkable in most of the world, are deprived women just a few kilometers across the border.

Recently, I talked over the question of hijab with a charming, engaging and Islamic, Somali woman whom I’ve recently been fortunate enough to befriend. Outside of work, she does not wear the veil, except occasionally. I’d heard that Somalia was very religious. So I was a little surprised about this.

Actually, I didn’t ask why she, a devout Muslim, doesn’t always wear hijab, as that would have seemed rude. It was she herself who made illuminating remarks about why women, given their freedom not to wear hijab, nevertheless do. Clearly, many women wear it for religious and cultural reasons which they choose voluntarily. As I understand it, the rationale seems to lie with the understanding that a woman’s beauty belongs to her husband. It shouldn’t be devalued by being shared between too many eyes in a circumstance, one supposes, that compromises its scarcity and therefore value. If the woman is not yet married, then her beauty exists for no man, except, innocently, her male relatives at home. The veil is an extension of the home’s walls, formally delineating the private, as opposed to public sphere. On the other hand, and unavoidably related to this, is that a woman’s beauty is understood, reasonably enough I suppose, as an inducement to male sexual covetousness. While Islam is relatively free of the specifically Neo-Platonic, anti-carnal associations that have regularly pitted Spirit against Flesh in frenzies of insanity in the West, Islam does have a keen appreciation of the vigour and zeal of male, sexual lust; and most relevantly, its distracting potential when it comes to the male’s choice between congress and God. Notions that it is the responsibility of the male, inside his own conscience, to restrain and order his lusts, in spite of female fleshly appearances, being relatively unemphasised, it has thus come to recoil as a duty upon women to assist the uncontrollable in controlling themselves and directing their attentions to God, where they belong.

A second reason my friend suggested for wearing the veil was fashion. Some of the headscarves can exude a stunning elegance, especially when set off by the right kind of hypnotic, facial beauty, accentuated by the very concealment that surrounds it. Some headscarves and robes come adorned with precious stones, moreover; while cursory internet searches reveal the many coloured options for headscarves on the market.

The final reason was one that had never occurred to me, but that is striking in its obviousness. Some women wear the veil, they assume the means of legitimate, public concealment, not to minimize but to maximize their freedom of movement and expression. In a culture, like every culture, where, if you are a woman, eyes can conspire to keep tabs on you, a hijab in return, as long as it be sufficiently concealing, can conspire to promote an invisibility of a quite different kind.

* Out of a population of 1.1 million Kuwaiti citizens (figures vary) there are, apparently, only 250 Kuwaiti Christians. These are drawn from a handful of families that converted to Christianity when Kuwait was under British control, whose past choice of religious conversion, a fait accompli as it were, is now respected.

** Kuwaiti women were granted the vote in Kuwait for the first time in April 2006.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When I see a woman in a hijab it makes me think dirty thoughts and gives me the horn. I'm not being facetious. This is because the message sent out by the hijab-wearer is: "You are a man and I must hide myself in order to avoid the possibility of sexual harrassment or rape." This, whilst not only presumptious and highly offensive to the man in terms of the absurd presumption made about his seemingly base motivation, is indicative of the woman's own inner thoughts, which, as the hijab reveals, are evidently fixated upon acts of a sexual nature. Thus, for all its efforts, it is the hijab, paradoxically, that triggers feelings of sexual curiosity. Were the woman *not* to wear a hijab, then the associations with sexuality would not have been made and the likelihood is that male viewer would be far less likely to regard the female with "rapacious" eyes. To take this argument to its logical conclusion, the ultimate form of non-sexual appearance would in fact be that of the entirely naked body - but the human race has quite a way to go in its mental and spiritual development before it arrives at that particular understanding. The most infuriating thing about all of this, however, is that nowhere in the Koran is it stated that a woman must wear a hijab. The practise of doing so evolved as a much later phenomenon, resulting out of divisive tendencies of certain factions within Islam to eke out a group identity. And it's as shallow and as simple as that.