The hijab, is Arabic for ‘barrier’ which represents a headscarf which serves to protect the modesty of Muslim women. The headscarf is worn by many Muslim women as part of their everyday life and culture. In Southeast Asia, the tudung is a version of the hijab prominently worn by Malay Muslim women.
The symbolic significance of the hijab
In Islam, it is a requirement to cover aurah (sensitive areas of body) in public. For women, the hijab covers the head and the neck, which helps to maintain modesty. The hijab is encouraged to be worn by Muslim women who have reached puberty although many wear it after choosing to fully commit to practising Islam.
However in some countries in the Middle East, such as Iran, the hijab is enforced upon all Muslim women. This has been met with some controversy as the Quran does not explicitly detail the wearing of the hijab as compulsory. However, there are several hadiths (the accounts and narratives of Islamic prophet, Prophet Muhammad) which make it a requirement.
The hijab as a fashion statement
What is surprising is how the hijab has transformed into an iconic fashion statement. The hijab was showcased at 2016’s London Fashion Week as part of Dolce & Gabbana’s modest ready-to-wear collection, targeted at Muslim clientele and fashionistas. Other brands like Tommy Hilfiger did something similar by incorporating the hijab into some of their clothing products.
The fashion of elegant tudungs is also gaining popularity in Muslim majority countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. The market for female Muslim fashion was valued at 230 billion pounds in 2014. Some attribute the rise of hijab fashion to the rise in conservatism in certain parts of the world.
Nonetheless, critics have argued that the evolution of the hijab into a fashion statement defeats its original purpose and challenges the very essence of conservatism.
The controversies surrounding the hijab around the world
Although the burqa and niqab (headscarves which extend to cover the face except for the eyes) have been banned in several countries such as Belgium, France and the Netherlands, the hijab is only prohibited in certain situations or places in some countries.
For example, the hijab is banned in French public schools. France, prides itself on a secular and nationalistic government and the hijab is seen as a divisive piece of clothing between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.
In March 2017, the European Court of Justice passed legislation allowing companies to ban their employees from wearing the headscarf. Some viewed this as a form of Islamophobia and an attack on Muslim women in Europe.
The hijab in relation to the Islam faith
As earlier mentioned, it may be interpreted from the Quran that the hijab was not explicitly mentioned alongside verses which encouraged the maintenance of modesty.
Some Malaysian Muslim women have rejected the idea of the tudung or hijab. They believed that they felt liberated after removing the hijab and in some anonymous anecdotes, the women felt spiritually closer to God. In fact, some of them believed that the hijab was being misused as a tool for men to justify oppressing the opposite gender and added that it was not practical to be worn in the “humid weather” of Malaysia.
The hijab and Islamophobia
Nonetheless, the rise of Islamophobia in today’s world will continue bring the hijab into public debate. For some non-Muslims, the symbol of the hijab may be threatening while some will support the freedom to express one’s religion.
Most notable was the travel ban of visitors from a number of Muslim-majority countries imposed by U.S. President Donald Trump, who reiterated that the executive order was to protect U.S. citizens from further terror attacks. It could be argued that his order was justified in order to maintain the security of America. However, a contradictory fact was that several countries which produced terrorists, such as Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates, were excluded from the ban.
Anti-Muslim sentiments are also accumulating in the non-Western world, China, in this case. Netizens from the Hefei region of China voiced their disagreement when the Nangang Mosque was planned to be relocated from the suburbs and into the city. Some netizens online argued that the mosque would compromise the safety of the area. A couple of them even suggested planting pig heads and pouring pig blood at the site to halt construction of the mosque.
Despite the growing phenomenon of Islamophobia in the world, Singaporean leaders have recognised the dangers of Islamophobia on our delicate and diverse community.
In 2016, Minister for Home Affairs and Law, K Shanmugam, pointed out that Islamophobia would only support terrorists in dividing communities. He added that non-Muslims should reach out to Muslims to bridge religious boundaries while maintaining harmonious ties. This will help to dispel any misunderstandings stemming from Islamophobia, in the long run.
A recent gesture made by the National Council of Churches Singapore (NCCS) also showed that efforts were being made by various local communities to dissolve misconceptions about Islam and promote a wholesome climate of respect, understanding and acceptance between different religious groups in Singapore.
Such actions do serve as positive examples to appreciate the Islam faith for what it essentially stands for. It would otherwise be a shame for a piece of cloth to stand between communities within Singapore as well as those in the rest of the world.
Commacon Singapore invites you, Muslim or non-Muslim, to join them for an honest and heartfelt discussion on the issue of the hijab on 29 July 2017, Saturday afternoon, 2-5pm. A central theme of the discussion will revolve around whether the wearing of the hijab is a matter of personal choice, versus an act of conformity to the social norms of the larger Islamic community. Sign up here now.