By ZAINUB RAZVI
I’m often asked what it feels like to observe pardah. “Isn’t it difficult?”…“Don’t you feel hot?”… “Can you breathe alright?”…You could be forgiven for thinking that most such questions come from non-Muslim westerners, who have little or no idea about the practical implications of such a lifestyle choice (yes, pardah implies a lot more than merely a dress code). But in actuality, this question comes just as often from fellow Muslims. Fellow Muslims who either do not practice the same levels of pardah or abstain from it altogether and hence find my choice somewhat difficult to comprehend.
Discussions about this topic within the sub-continental framework tend to be, for this very reason, rather confusing. Many women here who do wear a head covering (hijab), veil (niqab) or outer clothing garment (julabab, abaya or burqa) may actually confirm to you that they do not observe pardah at all. They may just be wearing the hijab to protect them from the sun, or because sometimes it is custom in a family to wear the abaya when leaving the home or when travelling by public transport but okay, and even necessary, to take it off when they have reached their destination. In short, not all women who you may see wearing the hijab, niqab or abaya will be doing it for religious reasons, also explaining why it is also common to see such women cover themselves up on some occasions but not on others.
That term “pardah” usually implies a level of strictness in adhering to either all or at least one of these attires mentioned above, in front of all non-mehrim men (an explanation of what this term means comes later). In addition, pardah also entails a certain level of modesty and reservation in all of a woman’s activities involving non-mehrim men (explaining why it isn’t just a dress code, but a wide lifestyle choice).
For me personally, being someone who has worn a hijab for all her adult life, people asking me why I cover my head or wear an abaya almost seems like asking the obvious; at one time, when I was really irritated by the condescending tone in which I was asked, I almost felt like resorting to ask back, why do you wear clothes? But as I have grown up and come to terms with the complexities of the world (complexities like not all women dress as I do for the reasons that I do) I can begin to understand why and how my attire (amongst other things incurred by the choice to observe pardah) would raise such questions.
For me, the hijab was a natural progression from childhood to adolescence. I had seen my elder sister and my mother wear hijab when I was still a child, so I always knew I was to follow. Of course this social conditioning had a part in making me believe this was a normal and necessary part of life, but growing up, as I began to gain a greater understanding of my faith, as well as the male psychology, I was able to appreciate both the more subtle and palpable benefits of my habit.
But to begin with some of the most commonly asked questions, no, it is not so difficult to wear a head covering all the time. And yes, it gets hot sometimes, but you get used to it very quickly, and once you’ve got used to it, it doesn’t bother you. Besides, you’re not supposed to wear it all the time, only in front of non-mehrims. In Islamic fiqh, non-mehrims include all men a woman can marry. Mehrims hence are the relatively few men a woman can never marry; these would include her father, her brother, her father and mother’s brothers, her nephews, her grandchildren, her father-in-law, her son and her son-in-law. (Hopefully this will also have addressed the incredibly ridiculous query some girls have put to me, that is if I also wear the hijab in front of my husband!)
Admittedly, this list of mehrims in front of whom I’m not required to wear the hijab is a limited one, but as I’ll proceed to explain, the choice to wear the hijab in front of most of the men of the world is more liberating then it is repressive. Let me assure you before I proceed, that only rarely will Muslim women in the sub-continent forcefully wear the hijab. Despite some amount of latent and other manifest conditioning that may initially shape their habits, as young girls grow older, most of them, will observe the hijab under their own free will. In many Middle Eastern counties however, it is illegal for women of any faith to go out in public without hijab, and I will not comment here on that, but certainly in the sub-continent this is not the case.
In many sub continental families in fact, a woman’s choice to wear a hijab within the immediate family circle of non-mehrims, such as in front of your cousins and aunts’ husbands, or after she is married, in front of her husband’s brothers, may invite much displeasure and even censure from other family members. The reason behind this of course is the culture we have adopted, often falsely in the name of religion, from pre-partition India, but that is a separate and lengthy debate in itself so I will not dwell on that for now. But just to reinforce the point, despite what the media might make you believe, the hijab, save exceptions, is normally not forced on to women, in fact quite often, they’re forced to take it off.
Coming back to the benefits of the hijab though, for starters, the hijab becomes a physical manifestation of one’s faith. It automatically gives the other person at least some idea about you. Unfortunately, negative stereotyping by the media and other social institutions in several countries, means this “idea” people get about you from the hijab isn’t always a positive one, but in the least, the hijab becomes synonymous with a Muslim women’s identity. This accounts for one of primary reasons why the practice was introduced in the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)’s time in the first place, i.e. to distinguish the believing women from the non-believing ones.
Secondly, for a modest man, a women’s hijab is a sign of her being off limits. Unfortunately, this breed of men is becoming rarer and rarer, but even for the more promiscuous type; the hijab is usually a sign to keep their distance. For instance, I have been involved in situations in the workplace where male colleagues have just exchanged handshakes with several other women in the room, made friendly, sometimes even suggestive small talk with them but in their conversations with me, refrained from shaking hands or getting overtly friendly, let alone think of flirting. This exemplifies another reason why the practice was first introduced: to provide women a safeguard from unwanted attention from other men. So the hijab is unique in the way it gives Muslim women both a separate identity and yet makes their presence less conspicuous amongst a crowd.
Thirdly, and this is especially true for fashion indifferent people like myself, it is immensely easy to just put on my abaya and stroll into any social gathering without having to be conscious of whether I’m dressed too formally or informally.
The media and fashion industry combined have created an enormous invisible monster of desires that pressurises women to keep abreast with the all the latest twists and turns of fashion. One season, it is high hem lines that are “in”, next season, it is back to low, for all you know, a fashion trend can be anything a so-called fashion guru whims it to be. The society we have constructed puts pressure on women to keep up with these whims. Everywhere you cast your eyes you will see glamorous women in the media observing the latest fashions. Their ubiquitous presence is designed to make women who refuse to participate feel like outcasts of society.
Hence, it is not uncommon to learn of women spending extravagantly on updating their wardrobes with one just arrived trend, and by the time they have barely used up their newly acquired collection, it is already time for a new upgrade to keep up with the latest whim of the so-called guru. So out goes all the expensive clothes of last season, and in come more new clothes of the new, latest fashions, sustaining the viscous cycle of consumerism that is rapidly engulfing out society.
I’m not at attempting to imply that Muslim women who observe hijab are style defunct, for style is a much broader term then fashion, but I like to think that to a great extent they are immune to this hidden pressure generated by the fashion industry, that seeks to exploit a woman’s inherent desire to “look good” (which the media has exploited to the effect of looking better than all the other women in the world). The hijab, in essence, keeps a woman’s innate desires “to look good” within bounds, serving as a reminder to the pious Muslim woman that she is indeed a thing of special beauty, but beauty that is best preserved and protected, not showcased to every passerby.
For me personally, realizing this as a young teenager, that my dress code gave me and my body a special status that only “few” select people had the right to see, made me feel immensely empowered. It made me feel special. This coupled with the promise of reward for fulfilling a divine decree, of emulating the very best of the Muslim women of all time, and I was moulded for life.
Fortunately, at a time when I had just turned into an adult and starting wearing the hijab, the world was still in pre 9-11 stage, so wearing the hijab didn’t have any obvious political meanings. It was just a religious practice, just like the five daily prayers, or the fasts. Some Muslims would observe all these more vigorously than others, but the labelling and stereotyping as “Taliban” or “extremist” or alternatively “oppressed” wasn’t as immediately an added bonus as it seems to be today.
I was asked to write this article for Deadpan Thoughts because I was told “the western media” had requested editors here for a realistic perspective about the issue of hijab versus the picture of oppression they see. My contention of course, is that the picture of oppression is their created. Hopefully, in writing this I will have dispelled the myth that the hijab oppresses women. It does not, if anything, it empowers them by giving them a stronger sense of their distinct feminine and religious identity and by giving them the right to prevent the objectification of their bodies.
The writer is a former blogger, aspiring journalist and International Relations student at the University of Karachi