When I wore the hijab: Power and the headscarf

The ‘hijab’ is a very complicated piece of cloth. Since its inception a few millennia ago it had carried with it many meanings

Abdullah Hamidaddin
Abdullah Hamidaddin
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The ‘hijab’ is a very complicated piece of cloth. Since its inception a few millennia ago it had carried with it many meanings. It was an expression of male dominance, an act of religious piety, a manifestation of female oppression, a limitation to a female’s power of seduction, an icon of cultural pride, a slogan of resistance to colonialism imperialism and globalization, an indicator of a worthy wife, an evasion of feminine competition, a marker of otherness and a discouragement to harassers. Different meanings constructed in different epochs for different social and political reasons by different actors with different motivations.


If anything, this makes it quite difficult to speak of the ‘hijab’ rather one ought to speak of ‘hijabs’ each using a ‘cloth’ but each assigning to it so many meanings that renders it impossible to make any generalization no matter how mild it may be. And every generalization I make here has multiple exceptions. Yet despite all those many differences there seems to be one constant about the hijab: it is about women and for women; only women. Men do not put on a hijab. They may cover their heads even their faces, but that is another thing. The hijab is not the cloth that covers a head, or hair, or even the face. The hijab is something else altogether.

Just over a week ago I was engaged in a discussion about female sexual harassment. My argument was that harassment – as well as many sexual crimes – was not a function of natural seduction, rather a pathological expression of power (in a way most expressions of power are pathological.)The hijab thus cannot function to protect women from the violence of men’s sexuality. The hijab was most likely incepted as an expression of men’s power over women. To sum up my argument I tweeted: “A world in which women rule, men shall wear the veil.” And to drive the point home I put on my daughter’s abaya, took a picture of myself, and used it as my profile picture on Twitter and Facebook. My intention was to remind us that the hijab is originally an expression of power, and had females ruled, things may have been different.

The comments I got were revealing. Some women and men interpreted it as a stance of solidarity with women. Some thought I was objecting to the very idea of hijab. Some even flirted. There were also angry comments. It was as if I was posing nude in Times Square. I tend to think that what angered some is that I, for a fraction of a second, may have blurred the gender differences between men and women. I may have reminded men and women of the dominance one has over the other. Both are disconcerting. Maybe that is why in some religious traditions it is sinful for a man to dress as a woman, or for a woman to dress as a man. That is, it is sinful to blur the constructed gender differences.

The hijab is a very old practice. The Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans all had certain forms of veiling. So did the Jews and the Christians. So though people associate it today with Muslims, in reality Muslims had inherited the practice and its meanings from other cultures.

The hijab also developed more mundane pragmatic meanings. Power and politics are not in the top of mind of many women who wear the hijab. Most women are not even aware of its original and new social/political meanings

Abdullah Hamidaddin

In the beginning the hijab was mainly about class. Women of upper classes had to wear it so as to be distinguished from lower classes. She belonged - in a literal sense - to the noble class and the hijab branded her. By being branded as such she was also protected. Men would tread carefully before they harassed a woman who belonged to an upper class. To keep the class function of the hijab laws prohibited it on women of lower classes. If such women wore it, they were punished. In some traditions the veil explicitly signified the woman’s belonging to a husband. In others it signified the authority of the male. And there were those who blamed Eve for bringing men out of heaven, and thus demanded that a woman hide her allure. So when Muslims came into the scene they already had a very rich reservoir of meanings associated with the hijab which they incorporated with some modifications. Muslim women wore the hijab to show that they belonged to the class of new believers. In the early years of Islam, this protected women. A woman also wore the hijab to preserve her beauty for her husband who owned her and her seductive capacity. And hijab was not a universal practice nor was it to diminish seduction in public space. Slave women - who were many - were not obliged to wear a hijab. They could even walk in the streets with their breasts out. Hijab was mainly a class issue amongst Muslims, in the same way it was with previous communities.

Political and pragmatic hijabs

The historic meanings of the hijab dominated till the late 19th and early 20th centuries when some colonizers decided that it was their duty to free women of their colonies. One of those was Lord Cromer who considered the hijab as an epitome of women’s oppression in Egypt. Interestingly, back in England Cromer was a part of “The Women's National Anti-Suffrage League” which was worked to stop women from full voting rights. Cromer practically ruled Egypt from 1878-1907, thus the discourse generated by his opinions and positions vis-à-vis the hijab greatly impacted the way many Westerners and Muslims/Arabs viewed the hijab. He contributed to the birth of the view that the hijab was a symbol of social oppression and backwardness. In return, local Egyptians – and then other Muslims - reconstructed the hijab an emblem of identity and a sign of resistance. The hijab transformed to a cultural identity for communities whose sense of self was lost due to the violent disruption of colonialism. It also became a way to assert rejection of the colonizer. The hijab developed related meanings when some Muslim elites and rulers adopted the view that the hijab was a sign of backwardness and fought it in their own countries. In addition to its new meanings for identity and resistance, now it also broke away from its class origins. Instead of being a dress for higher classes and imposed by higher classes, it now became a dress for the common people, and sign of social modesty. Furthermore a new meaning was created when Islamic parties were set up as the hijab would become a sign of belonging to the party, and the wide presence of the hijab would be an indication of a party’s communal authority. The most recent important development in the story of the hijab was when France banned its use in public places. It did not add new meanings to those that had already existed in the past one hundred years, but it deepened old ones.

The hijab also developed more mundane pragmatic meanings. Power and politics are not in the top of mind of many women who wear the hijab. Most women are not even aware of its original and new social/political meanings. Some women wear it because, according to them, it protected them from harassment. Others said because it reduced the need to purchase varieties of clothes and to compete with other women on fashion. There are those who said it gave them better marriage opportunities. Men, they say, might like to flirt with pretty unveiled women, but when it comes to building a family they prefer women who are modest and compliant. Other women say they wear it because God commanded them to.

Forward to the past

In the beginning there were humans. They had different physical features. That difference generated different expectations. Some humans were able to bring children to this world; a very important asset for survival. Other humans had stronger bodies and were better in fetching food. Through a social process, which no one knows anything about, humans decided to become male and female. Males provided food and protection. Females provided children. Then, as society developed and became more sophisticated another difference was created. Females had to belong to man and to act in certain ways. Males had to belong to other males but also act in ways different to female and to other males as well. Now we had man and woman; we had gender. Expectations were set. Roles were fixed. Characteristics were divided according to male and female. And borders between both were erected. Individuals who sought to breakdown that barrier - such as homosexuals - were ostracized.

It may not be possible in any near future to go forward to our previous pristine state of nature, where gender did not exist. But it is important every now and then to be reminded that our current state is in no way natural, nor healthy. It is vital that we cross the constructed boundaries between men and women. There are many ways of doing that in Western and Eastern communities. A man wearing the hijab is one of them.


Abdullah Hamidaddin is a writer and commentator on religion, Middle Eastern societies and politics with a focus on Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He is currently a PhD candidate in King’s College London. He can be followed on Twitter: @amiq1

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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