The Many Mean­ings of the Hi­jab


It was more than just putting a piece of cloth on one’s head or be­ing fear­ful of God.”

Iwore a hi­jab for the first time at my 17th birth­day party. At that time, wear­ing a hi­jab was sort of a sym­bol of en­ter­ing adult­hood, so I also had to con­trol my be­hav­iour. Although I wasn’t 100 per­cent sure about wear­ing a hi­jab, I knew I didn’t have to be too strict and I could just wear it when­ever I felt like it, so there was no pres­sure at all. Back then, wear­ing a hi­jab was con­sid­ered a big step. It was a care­ful de­ci­sion to take and no one gave any­body any pres­sure to do it. The re­spon­si­bil­ity was big. It was more than just putting a piece of cloth on one’s head or be­ing fear­ful of God. When wear­ing a hi­jab, women had to con­trol their be­hav­iour and re­strict them­selves from do­ing things that were con­sid­ered to be sins. It was a trans­for­ma­tion of self, not only in their look, but also in the heart, soul and mind. And for me, the hi­jab marked a shift of stages in life, from be­ing a teenager to be­ing an adult. Un­for­tu­nately the hi­jab ver­sion of me was short lived, as I grew up to be more of a mod­ernist than a con­ser­va­tive. In most western coun­tries, wear­ing a hi­jab is com­monly per­ceived as a sym­bol of sub­mis­sive­ness to re­li­gion or even pa­tri­archy. Some coun­tries in Europe even ban pub­lic use of full-cov­ered veils called as well as the eyes-un­cov­ered veil for se­cu­rity rea­sons. Hi­jabs are still al­lowed, but not in of­fi­cial spa­ces like schools and gov­ern­ment of­fices. burqa niqab Un­for­tu­nately, most main­stream me­dia I read usu­ally jux­ta­pose the nar­ra­tive of wear­ing hi­jabs with western sec­u­lar val­ues or even state opin­ions that Mus­lims fail to in­te­grate and em­brace the western val­ues. Only few me­dia high­light the in­equal­ity and dis­crim­i­na­tion that Mus­lims are fac­ing as a mi­nor­ity in western coun­tries, and how the hi­jab is used as a sym­bol of re­sis­tance to sec­u­lar val­ues. As a re­sponse to the as­sump­tion, many Mus­lim women liv­ing in western coun­tries prove that their will­ing­ness to wear a hi­jab has noth­ing to do with sub­mis­sive­ness. Their de­ci­sion to wear a hi­jab is fully based on their own con­sid­er­a­tion and con­scious­ness, and not un­der any­one’s pres­sure. I have stum­bled upon some YouTube videos to com­pare the de­ci­sions of women wear­ing hi­jabs to my Euro­pean Mus­lim friends. Most of them ex­press sim­i­lar rea­sons, that by wear­ing a hi­jab, they want to be iden­ti­fied as a per­son who prac­tices Is­lam. Hi­jab in this case serves as a sym­bol of group be­long­ing. What about in In­done­sia? His­tor­i­cally, the prac­tice of wear­ing a hi­jab it­self went un­der re­stric­tion dur­ing the New Or­der Regime as an at­tempt to con­trol Is­lamic move­ments that were against the gov­ern­ment’s mod­ernist view. This may ex­plain why back then there weren’t as many women wear­ing hi­jabs as there are now. While the prac­tice of wear­ing a hi­jab is of­ten linked to pol­i­tics and hege­mony, the me­dia rarely tell the story on the in­di­vid­ual level. What does wear­ing a hi­jab mean to one per­son, and how does that prac­tice re­late to their so­cial con­text? I re­mem­ber see­ing my mum’s pho­tos taken around the end of the 1970s wear­ing sleeve­less clothes. She said that her look was con­sid­ered trendy and ac­cept­able back then, and no one seemed to be both­ered by it, even though her fa­ther was known as a re­spected Ulema in her home­town. She did not wear a hi­jab un­til she re­turned from the hajj in the 1990s. My mum’s de­ci­sion to wear a hi­jab was closely linked to her pil­grim­age. For Mus­lims, the hajj is the ul­ti­mate rit­ual to be taken only when the per­son can with­stand it fi­nan­cially, phys­i­cally and men­tally. Most Mus­lims see the hajj as an in­vi­ta­tion from God, the ul­ti­mate goal of be­ing a Mus­lim. The Pil­grim­age is a rite of pas­sage. A the­ory from a clas­sic an­thro­pol­o­gist, Arnold van Gen­nep, ex­plains rite of pas­sage as a lim­i­nal stage, which should be taken in or­der to gain a new sta­tus in so­ci­ety. In this lim­i­nal stage, a per­son should prac­tice ri­tu­als and gain ac­cess to a set of val­ues, which grants him or her a new iden­tity. With this “new sta­tus”, this per­son will be able to take a greater role in so­ci­ety and earn re­spect from oth­ers in their newly ac­quired iden­tity. The hi­jab, in this case, is the sym­bol of this new sta­tus. There shouldn't be a uni­ver­sal mean­ing of hi­jab, so the con­text of hi­jab varies from one coun­try to an­other. It is per­sonal, and it de­pends com­pletely on the so­cial con­texts. For ex­am­ple, many of my In­done­sian friends de­cided to wear a hi­jab af­ter pass­ing cer­tain stages of their lives which they con­sider im­por­tant. For ex­am­ple, af­ter grad­u­at­ing from col­lege, af­ter en­ter­ing a mar­riage, af­ter get­ting a dream job or even af­ter fin­ish­ing cer­tain re­li­gious ri­tu­als like hajj or mini hajj (um­rah). In this case, a hi­jab can be seen as a sym­bol of a new iden­tity, to in­di­cate which part of so­ci­ety that per­son be­longs to, and to distin­guish them from oth­ers who do not be­long to that group. Hi­jabs can also be seen as a form of pro­tec­tion. Most women think that they can avoid at­tract­ing in­ap­pro­pri­ate at­ten­tion from men by wear­ing a hi­jab. Wear­ing a hi­jab can make them feel safer and can pre­vent them from ha­rass­ment, as they’re per­ceived to be “good women”. Un­for­tu­nately these days, oth­ers who do not wear hi­jabs must of­ten suf­fer a neg­a­tive stigma. A re­search con­ducted in 2017 by an In­done­sian scholar, Linda Sari Zuar­num, a grad­u­ate from the Cen­tre of Re­li­gious and Cross- Cul­tural Stud­ies, Ga­jah Mada Univer­sity, re­veals that con­tem­po­rary Mus­lim women who choose not wear a hi­jab nowa­days ex­pe­ri­ence the chal­lenge of be­ing stereo­typed as non-pi­ous Mus­lims who do not prac­tice the re­li­gion. Those who de­cide to take it off mostly ex­pe­ri­ence harsh so­cial judg­ment from fam­ily mem­bers and so­cial cir­cles. The hi­jab has be­come a hot trend spread­ing quickly all across the coun­try, thanks to celebri­ties and In­sta­gram. Mus­lim women wear­ing hi­jabs are now per­ceived as pi­ous, fash­ion­able and trendy, and this has set the new stan­dard for iden­tity and moral­ity in so­ci­ety. Does it mean that the trend of wear­ing a hi­jab will take away a woman’s per­sonal free­dom to ex­press her­self? And what will hap­pen to them if they de­cide to go against the de­ci­sion of the ma­jor­ity?


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