Monday, December 5, 2011

Sacred Beauty: Exploring Facets of Hijab in the Arab World

Hijabis in Saudi Arabia

            There is something to be said about the allure of the mysterious. A wrapped present, a wayang kulit shadow puppet; Shröedinger's cat sitting patiently in a box, existing in the null space between life and death. In the case of the allure of the human body when shrouded, particularly when it is covered to prevent any kind of sexual magnetism, it only fuels the fire of the human imagination more. This contradiction, for me, was the jumping-off point into a research that like Salome, required the removal of many veils to better appreciate the sartorial icon of both the Muslim faith and of Arab culture and identity. As I explored more about Saudi culture and what the hijab really represents to those that choose to wear it, I found myself questioning how I could have initially found this garment to be opressive; it holds the power for Muslim woman to assert her faith, her cultural millieu, and moreover, her desire to be respected and recognized. When I asked a group of Saudi women if they chose to wear their veils themselves, they assured me that yes, very much did they choose to wear it, and moreover they are proud to wear it, proud to stand out and stand for their country and culture. They told me they wear it because they feel more protected from outside harm. Modesty as a screen against an outsider gaze, and yet, the hijab they wore were not unlovely. Bright colors, and arranged in a way that made me feel jealous that I cannot don my own headscarf. But the incongruities! Beauty and modesty, two ideas that seem not immediately to be compatible, and an underlying misunderstanding of another culture's ideas of privacy.  In order to understand hijab, the Arabic word that literally means “veil” or “curtain”; a palpable screen that creates a space of privacy between the wearer and everyone else.         
Western and Arab Notions of Privacy

            First, to better understand this notion in its Western context, a quick analysis of the etymology of the word “privacy”; from the Latin (adj), prīvus, “single, peculiar” and the Latin (verb), prīvō, “set apart from, to deprive”. So, given this context, the Western understanding of privacy is that of something set apart from others, standing out, but  insofar as in being deprived from the group one becomes singularly manifest; privacy highlights something or someone because they stand out, and because their status as Other, and to be true to that status must be removed or separated from non-Other in a corporeal sense. The gated community in the nice neighborhood, security systems protecting wealthy houses from within, first class seats on an airplane. Its Arabic counter-perspective, according to Fadwa Al Guindi, in the Arabic language (and by extension, the culture), “has no equivalent [to the Western sense of the word] at all, in any form...Indeed a notion of privacy in Arab culture was revealed...its content and meaning, however, differ from its counterparts.” (82)  She explains that the common ground found in Western and Arab ideas of privacy is that of privilege. In the Islamic sense, this privilege is bestowed upon all devout practitioners of the faith.
            Arab privacy is based on a specific cultural construction of space and time central to the functioning of Islamic society in general, in the dynamics of Arab gender identity, and for direct unmediated individual or collective communication with God. Space in this construction is relational, active, charged and fluid, 'insisting' on complimentarities. [italics mine] (Al Guindi, 77)
   Thus, we see the key difference between the two cultural perspectives on privacy: in the Western sense, privacy occurs in a more concrete way, with the individual inhabiting a space that is partitioned off from those without the privilege of privacy, whereas for Arab culture the space of privacy is more abstract and is created in an abstract manifestation, like the veil that is worn by a woman leaving her home going outside. As she wears the veil, the veil envelopes her in a space that closes her off from the outside, which, in Arab culture is not the realm which she controls. “ is clear that men control political decisions affecting the community at large; yet, women also have political power, expressed in their de facto control of domestic life.” (Altorki, 24)
            Once back in the home/familial space, she can remove the veil around those who make up the privacy of the family unit. This same creation of sacred space occurs when the signal for prayer is called, and no matter where the followers of Islam may be at that moment, as soon as they begin to perform their prayers, whatever space they occupy becomes sacred, and thereby private from anyone not part of this group.
            Even in the familial space which constitutes the private realm for Arab women, a sacred space provided by the veil must be utilized when an unmarried woman is in the presence of strangers and men not part of the immediate family. As is stated in the Qu'ran:

And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband's fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers or their brothers' sons, or their sisters' sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! turn ye all together towards Allah, that ye may attain Bliss.(24:31)

            As Al Guindi notes, the stress in this passage is on the special status of the wives of the Prophets. In the contemporary sense, the privileged status based on piety and the adherence to modesty allows those who practice to become enclosed the sacred space of the veil. Another dimension of this privilege is reputation, which is closely tied to modesty and piety. According to Altorki, reputation is a mutual responsibility for both sexes, and for women, this means “they wear the veil in public...and that they maintain decorous distance in their interaction with men...They meet unveiled only men they could not marry.” [my italics] (54)
 Inappropriate behavior that detracts from reputation includes shunning makeup, excessive exposure of the body, even in the enclosed space of the household, although this has become somewhat more relaxed in the last 20 years or so, is interpreted as transgressive and can damage the family's reputation as a whole.
Descriptions of Sartorial Hijab in Saudi Arabia

            “O prophet, tell thy wives and thy daughters, and the women of the believers to draw their jilbab close round that they may not be recognized and not molested” (Qu'ran 33:59)
   Since the Qu'ran only explicitly mentions jilbab, a general term for a body-covering cloak or coat, the amount of veiling is left to interpretation to the individual woman in reference to her devoutness, so long as it doesn't conflict with national law. A variety of sartorial hijab practices were acceptable up to the Iranian Islamic Revolution, at which point there was an influx of more conservative religious ideals, which affected the very laws concerning hijab practices in Iran, as the veil became compulsory.  In neighboring Saudi Arabia, who had adopted the Qu'ran's Sharia Law as national law, this influence of Islamic orthodoxy, a law was passed that all women are required to don the abaya when they leave their homes.  An abaya is, in essence, a loose, ankle-length, high-necked garment similar in shape to a jacket that a Saudi woman would wear over her regular clothes in accordance to standards of modesty. They are predominately black in color, and are in fact iconic around the Arab world for it's distinctive color and shape as belonging primarily to Saudi culture

Iconic Saudi Style (third down, far left)

   Looking at this cartoon you see the iconic status of the monochromatic ensemble of abaya, niqab, and veil as being culturally grounded in Saudi Arabia and surrounding Gulf cultures. However, contemporary abaya can come in a variety of colors and textiles, and with more eye-catching embellishments, such as sequins, rhinestones, glitter, etc. This contradiction of attraction and modesty will be explored a bit later.
            Other forms of hijab, however, are optional in Saudi Arabia as far as the law is concerned, thus they are adopted at the discretion of the wearer. Naturally, the more conservative in her Muslim beliefs a Saudi woman is, the more conservatively she will dress, with the most conservative ensemble of hijab being the combination of abaya, niqab and veil. (This will be the term I will adopt for the hijab (veil) in this paper, as I will be using the term hijab in the general sense, i.e. a modest mode of dressing in connection with Islamic piety.) This orthodoxy in dressing modestly is not only a personal choice, but can also depend on the geo-cultural context; Jeddah, the 2nd largest city in Saudi Arabia after the capital, Riyadh, tends to be more (relatively) permissive due to its urbanization and especially in part to the multicultural immigrant population, whereas towns and cities in the central provinces tend to be more conservative, and despite only the abaya being necessary to wear, in conservative areas, one finds more instances of women adopting the veil and niqab as well as the abaya. It is also important to note the cultural importance of the hijab as a form of resistance to widespread Westernization in urban Arab areas. Veiling, being as it is, a sartorial practice deeply ingrained in Arab culture long before the advent of Islam, is a veritable symbol of one's cultural background as well as personal religious beliefs.
            The niqab is any kind of garment that covers a majority of the face, save for the eyes; it can appear in multiple shapes, such as the Gulf style, the headband niqab, which has a band around the head attached to the part of the garment that covers the face; the headband is adjusted around the head and altogether the piece covers the head entirely, although a veil can be worn around it. More modern styles can come with different fastenings such as snaps or velcro, but the overall shape remains the same. 

Headband-style niqab
   A more severe iteration of the full niqab may even include a  mesh screen across the eyes for a more devout woman to expose even her eyes, which can, by some ultra-conservative Muslims, still seem too immodest. An example of this is the Egyptian-style niqab, which comes with a string that holds the portion of the garment covering the face up and over the nose, with the string resting between the eyes. According to the blog, “Old School Hejabi”, the blogger herself in accordance to her own interpretation of modesty, finds the Egyptian niqab “too exotic and strange in the west and it tends to accentuate your eyes in an inappropriate way.”  
Egyptian-style string niqab

   The half-niqab is a rectangular piece of fabric outfitted with an elastic loop that goes around the head, and the veil is worn over it. This is the ideal niqab for those that wear glasses and allows for more ease of movement when eating or discreetly lifting when the situation calls for it. The half-niqab leaves a majority of the face covered, but unlike the full niqab, the eyes and the bridge of the nose are exposed, as opposed to the eyes alone.
Half niqab

     The veil itself can also be arranged into a niqab shape, and in fact, is worn in an innumerable multitude of modes, each depending on the personal devoutness of the wearer. The mode of veil that is known generally as hijab is a square piece of fabric, tied in such a way around the head and face so that the hair and neck are covered, but leaving the face bare.  

      The al-amira style consists of two pieces, a close fitting cap that encloses the hair, and a tube-shaped scarf that encloses the top of the head and around the neck. 

Al-Amira Style

   The shayla style veil is a rectangular piece of fabric, wrapped around the head and kept in place with pins, either inconspicuous or decorative, and the remainder rests around the shoulders. The hijab shaped scarf and the shayla shaped scarf can be wrapped in different styles in accordance to personal choice and current fashions.


The Paradox of Compromise: Beauty and Modesty

            There is a great deal of debate amongst hijabi(women who choose to adopt sartorial hijab) about wearing the veil in a manner that is aesthetically pleasing, after all, with the Western fetishization of the veil, where can one draw the line between beauty and physical attraction? Can the line be drawn at all? This can be problematic for hijabi, as they see the veil as “transform[ing] the assumed sexual gaze of men into a look of recognition and respect” (Tarlo,  75), but also want to overcome the negation of individuality and personality that the veil can sometimes cast on the wearer. The wearing of different colors and methods of tying hijab in accordance to current fashions is a way of presenting both the wearer's culture and religion while at the same time presenting her sense of identity. The difficult philosophical question this presents is, are beauty and stylishness mutually exclusive from modesty? Can one be beautiful and modest at the same time?  And how can one  express their personality sartorially, on your sleeve, so to speak, without being overtly conspicuous?  An example of a hijabi coming to terms with this paradox can be found in the interviews of Tarlo with two British-Jamaican rappers Sukina and Muneera (known collectively as Poetic Pilgrimage), and their discovery of Islam and the practice of hijab that came with it:
Muneera: I remember one time shortly after we came into Islam, and I remember I'd never been so clothed in my entire life—never ever had so much on, and we were coming back from the mosque and this brother comes up to us and says 'Look, I could give you a lecture on how you're dressed, but I'm not going to...But really, you are dressed too bright!'...And I just thought you can't please everybody. Even if you have got a [veil] and a jilbab on, then someone will say you should be wearing niqab.
Sukina and Muneera, Poetic Pilgrimage

So, despite the contradictions inherent in modesty and how it can be employed sartorially, only the beliefs a hijabi holds within truly dictate what in what manner and how much she covers in regards to hijab. In the end, as with all other religions, a hijabi's devoutness isn't necessarily only shown in how one wears it through hijab, but in their actions and relationship with God. The rest is left up to them.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Sacred Beauty: Works Cited

                                                      Works Cited

Altorki, Soraya. Women in Saudi Arabia: Ideology and Behavior Among the Elite. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

El Guindi, Fadwa. Veil: Modesty, Privacy and Resistance. Oxford, New York: Berg, 1999.

Tarlo, Emma. Visibly Muslim: Fashion, Politics and Faith. Oxford, New York: Berg, 2010.

Ibrahim, Umm. Old School Hejabi. Wordpress, March 2009. Blog.