Uncovering the truth behind traditional Muslim hijab

    In the tempestuous climate of the West’s relations with the Muslim world, brought so strikingly to Western attention in the last eight months, one American servicewoman is fighting a battle that typifies the many shades of gray in this arena.

    Nearly a decade ago, Lt. Col. Martha McSally, the top female fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, brought a lawsuit against the Department of Defense for mandating that servicewomen at U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia garb themselves modestly from head to toe when they travel off base.

    McSally alleged that the military should not be able to require American women to adhere to the religious customs of another culture and country. The Department of Defense retorted that the requirement protects women traveling off U.S. military bases. Wearing the “”abaya”” — a head-to-toe covering that is a form of the “”hijab,”” or modest dress in Islam — demonstrates cultural sensitivity, the department argued. However, after a time, the department loosened its restrictions and changed the wording of the requirement so that it would no longer be required, but “”strongly advised.””

    Last week, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would dissolve any such restrictions on what servicewomen wear in the desert kingdom when not on base.

    The issues up for debate in this case are nontrivial and touch on soft spots for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

    First of all, McSally’s contention that the requirement was unconstitutional seems a fair enough judgment: Neither the U.S. government nor its operatives should be able to force its citizens to adhere to the dress code of another country. When they join the military, Americans understand that they have entered into a sphere the dictates of which are different from the public arena. Uniformity and hierarchy are imposed in the armed services in a way that does not exist analogously for private citizens, and soldiers understand this implicitly as being part of the system.

    But control over soldiers’ normative dress and behavior can only extend so far before First Amendment rights begin to be infringed, and it is the responsibility of the Department of Defense — and the courts that arbitrate — to ensure that these rights are not trounced.

    It’s interesting to note, on the other hand, that it was a U.S. commander in Saudi Arabia who originally imposed the requirement to follow the hijab — not a Saudi. According to an interview with Salon.com, McSally said she discovered that “”Saudis aren’t officially asking for [U.S. servicewomen to follow the hijab].”” While military officials cited “”host nation sensitivity”” as the reason for the dress code, there does not appear to have been any call for it from Saudi officials.

    This discrepancy leads directly to the crux of the matter, which is the difference in understanding of the hijab between the Muslim world and the West. The West has demonstrated time and time again that it does not have a good grasp of the precepts of the hijab, calling it “”oppressive”” and “”antifeminist.”” In the Salon.com interview, McSally said, “”The problem is that the people who came up with the [Department of Defense] policy are not women.”” In saying so, she demonstrated that she perceived the issue not as one concerning respect for a foreign culture and custom, but through a very Western-slanted take on what women’s freedom should encompass.

    If the issue can be represented as one about the oppression of women, it is actually about the U.S. government’s misrepresentation of a Muslim tenet, not the Saudis’ religious customs.

    I hope that my Muslim readership will indulge the attempts of a Colombian Catholic to represent her perception of the purpose and intent of the hijab in Islam, keeping in mind that such perceptions come not from religious experience but from interaction with Muslims, the Holy Quran and scholarly tractates on the subject.

    It seems that McSally perceives her fight against following the hijab as a fight against the oppression of women. It seems also that the U.S. government authorities who ignored her for so long felt likewise, exploiting the nuanced issue as an opportunity to prevent women’s discourse on the subject through the imposition of a unilateral mandate.

    Neither position appears to have much regard for how the majority of Muslims perceive the hijab. Far from being an instrument of oppression or the exclusion of women from society, following the hijab is a mark of love and respect for the self and for the Quran. Muslim women extol the experience as a visible commitment to leading a life of goodness and nobility as the Quran instructs. And, lest there be any confusion, the twenty-fourth Quranic Surah, Nur, instructs men and women alike to garb themselves modestly: During the obligatory “”Hajj,”” or pilgrimage to Mecca that all Muslims make at least once, this is particularly apparent because millions of men are seen clad in simple white garments that strip away the distinctions of class and ethnicity.

    American Muslims also speak of the hajib’s practical viability in what is, frankly, an often denigrating and superficial cultural climate: When one dresses modestly, one cannot be judged against the rat race of people clamoring to be the first to wear the latest Gucci, Armani Exchange or Banana Republic goods. Instead, judgment comes through one’s own merits, accomplishments and intelligence. The hijab returns the focus to the individual, partially circumventing the all-too-convenient American instinct to make dismissive generalizations based upon appearance alone.

    However, do any of these things mean that servicewomen in a foreign country should be required, or even encouraged, to follow suit? It’s not likely. All the same, they do demonstrate that the West’s misperception of the purpose of Islam’s modesty in dress has resulted in a knee-jerk reaction to Muslim custom. And unfortunately, that knee-jerk reaction has created gross generalizations, along with the exploitation of the precepts of the hijab in the West’s own quibbles concerning feminism.

    Interestingly, Muslim perceptions concerning the hijab advocate in and of themselves, perhaps, that women such as McSally ought not to be required to wear the abaya: If Muslim men and women dress modestly out of love for and belief in the Quran, then for nonbelievers to do so would be misleading and inappropriate.

    In the end, it is important to realize that American arrogance cannot be extricated from the issue of McSally’s case before Congress and the Department of Defense. The Americans stationed in Saudi Arabia are guests, not squatters and new rule-makers. They should treat the culture surrounding them with the respect that should be accorded to any host. McSally’s victory protects the sovereignty of servicewomen in the face of an exploitative, hierarchical military, but nobody should project the West’s own internal struggles with feminism onto a religious tradition that, many would argue, created feminism over 1,400 years ago.

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