The Headscarf Is Not the Headscarf

Headscarves are often considered retrograde and repressive in the western world. However, the significance of the hijab has repeatedly undergone radical change over the years. Sabine Enderwitz provides an overview of the history of the hijab


Woman wearing a headscarf (photo: Frauenbilder Iran)
Women wear the headscarf for a number of different reasons

​​The history of the women's veil in the Near East goes back much further than that of Islam. It was also a familiar part of life in Europe until recent times, albeit in a different form. Hair – and certainly not only women's hair – has been considered a source of vitality, and special powers have been attributed to it since ancient times.

This is illustrated by the biblical story of Samson and Delilah, which has repeatedly been used and varied as a theme for music and painting in Europe. Nevertheless, it has been woman's crowning glory that has solicited the greatest precautionary measures throughout history.

Women's headdress: a long tradition in Europe too

Apart from the 1920s and up until the middle of the last century, no self-respecting woman would be seen in town without a hat. Furthermore, expressions that are now gradually going out of fashion – such as the German phrase for tying the knot (unter die Haube kommen), which literally means "coming under the bonnet" – indicate the strategy of domestication to which women were subjected upon marriage.

Islam was no exception in this regard. In fact, in the form of head-to-foot veils and the institution of harems, it took the threat posed by women somewhat more seriously than Judaism and Christianity. Or was it simply that Islamic society in the Middle Ages had greater economic resources at its disposal and was therefore in a position, so to speak, to indulge in the tremendous luxury of restricting an entire section of the population to biological reproduction?

The veil as a status symbol

Despite being governed by Islam, peasant and Bedouin women neither wore head-to-foot veils, nor were they locked away in harems. Wearing the full veil was a prerogative of city-dwelling women from the upper classes; a status symbol that attracted the envy of those less privileged than themselves.

Egypt – the Islamic country that is most under the influence of the West – was the very first country to consider this luxury to be criminal and self-destructive. In 1899, the reformer Qasim Amin published a pamphlet on "The liberation of woman". Two years later, it was followed by "The new woman": his answer to the protests voiced by the conservative Azhar sheikhs.

The isolation of women puts a strain on economic power

It seemed that both the social waste of doing without valuable manpower and the damage to future generations caused by children being raised by half-educated mothers was too great. In the two decades that followed, the women of the upper classes removed their veils, took part in demonstrations and fought for access to universities.

In the decades that followed, and in particular after the 1952 revolution that made Gamal Abdel Nasser president of Egypt and the hero of the pan-Arabic, -Islamic and so-called "third" world, educational programmes for girls were organised and conditions that facilitated women's entry into the world of work were created. Cairo in the 1960s was a modern city in which a burgeoning middle class did all it could to become like its models in the West.

This all changed radically when Nasser died a few years after his devastating defeat at the hands of Israel in the Six-Day war of 1967, and his successor, Anwar Sadat, simultaneously pursued a policy that favoured the clergy so as to use them to drive back the Nasserite Left, and opened the door to foreign investors.

The headscarf as a reaction to failed modernisation

The existing and rising middle classes, up-and-coming doctors, lawyers and engineers increasingly felt they were being robbed of their future. It was out of this sector, and not the clergy, that the new "Islamist" movement developed. This movement felt that a return to basics, i.e. to the principles and rules of Islam, would resolve the social imbalance.

It was as part of this development that the veil reappeared, not only in Egypt, but also in other Islamic countries; in fact, everywhere where modernisation had begun with such high hopes and ended in such disappointment. The civil war in Lebanon, the revolution in Iran, the postponement of the Palestinian problem all meant that people increasingly saw a return to Islam as their salvation; "Islam is the solution" became the catchphrase.

The veil as a modern phenomenon

Right from the word go, Islamism (or re-Islamisation) was a reaction to the modern age. In other words, rather than being a "return to the Middle Ages", it was a phenomenon of the modern age. The same applies to the veil or the headscarf, which in terms of their appearance are a new invention and have no precedence in Islamic history.

Before then, the veil differed from region to region and from social class to social class. While only one single form is considered to be the "Islamic" standard today, there are actually countless different variants.

Above all, the modern age is evident in the veil and headscarf's modern functions, which do not fit into any retrograde mould. In addition to – and possibly greater than – the religious relevance of the veil and the headscarf is their cultural, political and social relevance.

Outwardly, to the West and within western societies, they symbolise a rejection of the alternative of non-integration or assimilation; they represent the self-confident search for an authentic "third" way.

The headscarf is also a means of liberation

Inwardly, within Egyptian, Syrian or Turkish society, they symbolise the claim to justice, a justice between the classes and between the sexes. This is an aspect that is all to easily overlooked in the West. "Islamic clothing" for men and women liberates its wearers from the pressure of having to compete (hopelessly) with people like themselves by wearing expensive clothes, cosmetics and jewellery.

At the same time, it liberates them externally from a social origin that could possibly be considered oppressive.

Furthermore, such clothing helps women and girls to make their way in the world of education and work by allowing them to exist in a nimbus of sexual unassailability in a public life that is still dominated by men.

From a functional point of view, therefore, it is indeed possible to see the headscarf as the exact opposite of an openly-demonstrative backward attitude, namely as a modern attribute. At the same time, the headscarf remains multifunctional: it is used both as a tool by fathers to deny their daughters higher education and by daughters to wring higher education out of their fathers.

Things become even more complicated when one takes Islamist discourse into account, which has placed the veil at the centre of its fight for authenticity and against westernisation.

It is an absolute novum in the history of Islam that the female body has become the battlefield of an imagined struggle between "Islam" and the (heathen) "West", whereby the former is of the opinion that the latter has put itself in a bad light as a result of its inappropriate behaviour with regard to the sexes, the generations, family and the public.

The opposite of this is an authentic Islam in its "original" purity, which cannot but have repressive traits as a result of the roles that have been imposed by its idealist character.

But these are far-reaching considerations that are of little relevance to a Muslim girl who is searching for her identity in a labyrinth of contradictory claims voiced by her parents, school, peer group, place of work, religious community and part of town.

Sabine Enderwitz

© 2004

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan