What Is Traditional?

A few weeks ago, I was putzing about on the internet when I came across an article that upended my mental image of Saudis. I suppose I had never given it much thought, but my image of Saudi Arabia includes men in long white gowns and women in flowing black abayas. It never occurred to me to wonder about the origin of these clothes or whether or not Saudis had always dressed in this fashion. Then I read,

Until the seventies, women here were free to wear almost whatever they wanted. Bedouin women wore bright clothes and burqas, the parting of their hair and their kohl-lined eyes left exposed. The women of the city donned their abayas, the fabric drawn in around their waists. The Arab women wore their colored hejabs, and the non-Muslim women dressed modestly and without a veil.

The women in my father’s village, Tarfa, to the north-west of Mecca, wore bright clothes with pink and white scarves wrapped around their heads and necks. Like the Bedouins, they left their faces and the parting of their hair exposed.

This description, written by Manal al Sharif, a women’s rights activist in Saudi Arabia, led me to some more poking around online, and I highly recommend that you take a look at The Museum of Saudi Arabian Costume Online by the Mansoojat Foundation. It shows some of the varied, and often colorful, clothes al Sharif described.

Al Sharif continues:

This all changed when the state-supported wave of religious fanaticism struck our society. The black abaya and facial covering was imposed on all female government employees, and on schools and universities. And the black hejab was imposed on all non-Saudi women, regardless of their religion or creed.

I had some vague sense that Muslim women were not so heavily veiled when I was a child, but the Muslim population here in the United States was so small at that time, I really couldn’t be sure how representative the handful of people I had met might be. However, the sense that this is a phenomenon that has occurred within my lifetime has received confirmation from people who are more familiar with the subject.

I don’t have the book on hand, so I must report from memory, but in Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s memoir, Infidel, she describes the colorful clothes Somali women wore in her early childhood. Older photographs of Somalia indeed include many images of women whose arms and necks are frequently uncovered. Islam arrived in Somalia in the seventh century and over ninety-nine percent of the country is Muslim, so it can be presumed that these bare armed, and sometimes bare headed, women from the past considered themselves Muslims.

Orhan Pamuk’s novel Snow takes place in Turkey, a country which is officially secular and whose population is mostly Muslim. In the novel, the main character has returned to Turkey to write about a spate of suicides by young women who choose to wear headscarves, which were, until recently, banned in Turkish schools. Obviously from the description of the plot, some women wear headscarves and some don’t. Although the women wearing the headscarves seem to be more religious, beyond simply being devout, they support a political version of Islam. In reality, outside of the novel, conflicts between the officially secular government of Turkey and religiously conservative women who choose to wear headscarves has been increasing since the seventies.

In a description of yet another group of Muslims and their manner of dress in the past, Kenan Malik, in Multiculturalism and Its Discontents, describes how his parents’ generation, first generation Muslim immigrants living in the UK, most of whom came from the Indian subcontinent, “were pious in their faith, but wore it lightly.” “No woman wore a hijab, let alone a niqab or a burqa.” His own generation, he describes as being secular.

So, it seems to me, that the association between the hijab, the scarf that covers the neck and ears and reveals nothing but the face, is not quite as “traditional” as those of us who are not Muslims are liable to see it and that the increase in its visibility is related to the rise Islamic fundamentalism that began in the seventies known as the Islamic Revival or Islamic Awakening and is associated with the political movmement Islamism and parallel social movements known as Islamization or re-Islamization.
It is ironic that the headscarf has become a symbol of Islam for many people because there is a good indication that it arose, not from Islam or Arabic cultures, but from Jewish and Christian cultures. According to Wikipedia:

Veiling, however, did not originate with the advent of Islam. Statuettes depicting veiled priestesses precede all three Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), dating back as far as 2500 BCE. Some scholars postulate that the customs of veiling and seclusion of women in early Islam were assimilated from the conquered Persian and Byzantine societies and then later on they were viewed as appropriate expressions of Quranic norms and values. Elite women in ancient Mesopotamia and in the Byzantine, Greek, and Persian empires wore the veil as a sign of respectability and high status…. Veiling was thus a marker of rank and exclusive lifestyle, subtly illustrating upper-class women’s privilege over women in lower classes in the Assyrian community. …

Strict seclusion and the veiling of matrons were in place in Roman and Byzantine society as well. Between 550 and 323 B.C.E, prior to Christianity, respectable women in classical Greek society were expected to seclude themselves and wear clothing that concealed them from the eyes of strange men…. Like in Assyrian law, respectable women were expected to veil and low-class women were forbidden from partaking in the practice. By the 5th and 6th centuries, societies of the Mediterranean Middle East were dominated by Christian and some Jewish populations. At the inception of Christianity, Jewish women were veiling the head and face. …. The Christian church’s attitude towards sex as shameful was focused most intensely on the shamefulness of the female body, which had to be totally concealed. As the prominent scholar, Leila Ahmed states, “Whatever the cultural source or sources, a fierce misogyny was a distinct ingredient of Mediterranean and eventually Christian thought in the centuries immediately preceding the rise of Islam.”

…Veiling gradually spread to upper-class Arab women, and eventually it became widespread among Muslim women in cities throughout the Middle East. It gradually spread among urban populations, becoming more pervasive under Ottoman rule as a mark of rank and exclusive lifestyle. Women in rural areas were much slower to adopt veiling because the garments interfered with their work in the fields.

As someone from the United States, and whose knowledge of history reflects that, it is sorely tempting to make generalizations to try to make sense of this diverse array of cultures and traditions without having to read several history books on each of the many countries with significant Muslim populations. While there are some recurring themes, there are also significant differences which should not be overlooked. Whereas young women in Turkey have been fighting, successfully, to wear a headscarf while at school or in public employment, and many Muslim women in countries where Muslims are not a majority emphasize that no one forces them to wear it, Norhayati Kaprawi, a filmmaker from Malaysia, made a documentary on the subject. In Malaysia, the headscarf is called a “tudung.”

The pressure to wear one is a dominant theme: “I think this conformity is the most dominating factor on why women in Malaysia wear a tudung,” Shamsul Amri Bahruddin, director of the Institute of Ethnic Studies at the National University of Malaysia, tells Ms. Norhhayati, adding that those who don’t can expect to hear from the lady next door every day, saying “you will go to hell or your hair will be burnt in hell.” Often, he adds, the women don’t understand the Quranic verses surrounding the reason for the hijab.

Indeed, at times it seems wearing it has little to do with religion. Nik Aziz Nik Hassan, former head of the Dakwa (missionary) department at National University of Malaysia, tells Ms. Norhayati, “In the late 1960s, Nik Mohamad Salleh, the son of a Kelantanese mufti (Islamic scholar)… was really against the imposition of tudung on Malay women. However he was not against the wearing of tudung. It is up to women’s own taste and style…. He opposed the claim that women who do not wear tudung are not faithful Muslims and are un-Islamic.”

It is so tempting to try to ease our way out of this large mound of facts by imposing on reality a meta-narrative we already know, East vs. West, Men vs. Women, or which ever one makes us the most comfortable, the end of the Cold War, the dissolution of the European Empires, class conflict, religion vs. modernity, and so on. All of those elements are in there, but to become too reliant on any one narrative requires ignoring inconvenient facts.

This was the train of thought I followed when I read about the hashtag illridewithyou. In a post that was critical of hashtag activism, Michael Luciano wrote:

The origin of the hashtag campaign — #illridewithyou — was born of a humblebrag on social media in which “Sydney resident Rachael Jacobs wrote on Facebook that she had seen a woman on the train remove her headscarf and offered to walk with her.” Subsequently, users of the hashtag “offered to travel on public transit with those in Islamic dress who felt insecure.”

Rachel Jacobs told the story herself in The Brisbane Times.

She was on a train in Brisbane looking at her phone to find out information about the hostage situation which was happening in Sydney.

At this point I saw a woman on the train start to fiddle with her headscarf.

Confession time. In my Facebook status, I editorialised.

We’ll skip for the time being that Jacobs doesn’t understand the meaning of the word editorialise.

What she wrote on her Facebook page was:

….and the (presumably) Muslim woman sitting next to me on the train silently removes her hijab (ellipsis hers)

As she makes it clear in her newspaper story, she heightened the effect the interaction in her Facebook update. That the woman was sitting at the other end of the carriage rather than next to her doesn’t change the interaction significantly.

By sheer fluke, we got off at the same station, and some part of me decided saying something would be a good thing. Rather than quiz her about her choice of clothing, I thought if I simply offered to walk her to her destination, it might help.

It’s hard to describe the moment when humans, and complete strangers, have a conversation with no words. I wanted to tell her I was sorry for so many things – for overstepping the mark, for making assumptions about a complete stranger and for belonging to a culture where racism was part of her everyday experience.
But none of those words came out, and our near silent encounter was over in a moment.

Her second Facebook status reported that the woman hugged her for about a minute. If that was her response, then it would seem that her assumptions were probably correct. I confess that I don’t understand how a person can be aware that they are making assumptions, be aware that those assumptions can be wrong and still have the confidence to run after that person shouting at her what she should do. She’s very fortunate she did not make the woman feel mortified.

Strangely, this story put me in mind of a friend of mine who was a theist, not Muslim, but Christian, an Episcopalian of the ecumenical sort. Once upon a time he believed in God but thought that many forms of worship were equally valid. He had the misfortune to witness the collapse of the World Trade Center towers first hand. He felt that if that was what worshiping God could make a person do, he didn’t want to belong to that group of people. During the course of the following year, he would become a flat-out atheist, but it started with feeling uncomfortable being a theist.

Who knows, maybe sitting on the train she had a crisis of faith.

In any case, the story led me to all sorts of thoughts about the assumptions we make.

Manal al Sharif, who wrote the article about the clothes of Saudi women, says that the state supported religious fanaticism “was exported out of Saudi Arabia by the power of the petrodollar. I remember the days of the Bosnian war (1992—1995), when Saudi Arabia sent convoys of aid to those besieged in Sarajevo. The people in charge of the convoys distributed the hejab to the besieged women along with the cartons of food.”

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