A hijabi reading this will be the first to object to my title: An American Hijab. There is no such thing as an American hijab, as opposed to an Arab or a European hijab. Hijab is Islamic, and it should be recognizable as such, no?
No. Muslim women can be identified and categorized according to how they wear hijab, and that’s been true for decades. Nationality, culture and degrees of self-determined religiosity are all made evident in a woman’s style of hijab. Obvious examples are the cornflower blue coverings of the Afghan women, with their mesh facial screens, or the all black coverings of the Saudi women, with full or partial face veils. Apart from those two examples, many variations exist, and all are considered appropriate by those who wear them.
The root of this variation is in the generality of the admonitions within the Qur’an. No where does the Qur’an say clearly, “Cover your hair, arms, and legs loosely, and don’t wear make-up. Cover these parts in plain, black cloth.” The most that can be determined is that the breasts must be covered, extending to the parts between the navel and the knee. Only the Hadith address how and what to cover. Here is where we find the idea that only the face and hands can be visible while a woman is out in public. Most Muslims regard Hadith as more authoritative than the Qur’an, though they’d never admit to that.
I need not cite evidence for any position here; it is well-documented. I do want to draw attention to the fact that differences in style and fashion of hijab lend testimony to the flexible requirements regarding it within the literature. Many Muslims do not want to grant leeway or liberal interpretation of their texts, yet look around. The very fact of hijab’s variability is proof that its expression is of spirit, more than of concrete specification.
When I first converted and started wearing hijab in Saudi Arabia, I was advised to stop wearing make-up on my face. The idea of hijab is to cover one’s beauty. The hair is covered by the scarf, and the facial beauty should not be enhanced with eye shadows, mascara and lipstick. In practice, however, few women refrained from make-up altogether, though no one piled it on as if they were going to a party, but if they were going to a party, they did pile it on. Then, they covered their faces as well as hair, in obedience to the spirit of hijab. All women wore the black abaya while out in public. Once they arrived to their home or place of the party, the outer covers were left at the door.
The Saudi model took hijab to an extreme. Even amongst each other, or at work, no Saudi woman wore sleeves that did not reach her wrists, nor skirts that did not reach her ankles. Expat women followed suit. The feminine awrah– the sexual parts that needed to be covered in the spirit of hijab– included everything except the face and hands. Religiosity could also be expressed by covering the face, hands, and ankles, as well. Neighborhood madrassas often required students and teachers alike to wear face veils, gloves and black socks to and from the school, and in the mosques. Modesty is a requirement from Allah, written in the Qur’an, and no one did it better than the Saudis.
I’ve always believed that the Saudi model of hijab was a bit robust, but I became accustomed to it and regarded it as normal. Imagine my surprise, when I visited Syria (back in the days before Syria was raped and pillaged) and saw a different sort of hijabi “uniform.” The women wore headscarves, not always black, and an overgarment, not always an abaya, and often not black, but their skirts ended just below the knee, and their lower legs and ankles were visible! Moreover, they all dressed like this in public, so I realized that the lower leg was not part of the awrah in Syria!
In Egypt, women’s dresses displayed even more variation in both style and color, while many women didn’t even wear the headscarf. In Malaysia, the scarves and long dresses often matched, in plain pastel shades, sometimes with beaded decoration.
Only in America, however, many years later, did I see the concept of hijab stretched to its fullest limit. American Muslims wore face make-up, and patterned scarves. The wore belts, and tight jeans, and blouses that showed the outlines of their breasts, yet their hair was thoroughly tucked under scarves or turbans. Many of them took pride in wearing this “hijab”, making it fashionable with color, design and style.
For some years after my repatriation, I tried to accept this model, in keeping with my belief in the old adage, “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” I never did wear a head cover in America, though, except when at the mosque. My Saudi indoctrination with respect to the spirit of hijab always reminded me that arms, legs, waists and shapes could be just as sexually stimulating as hair, and therefore should not be accentuated. American Muslimahs seemed to think that as long as every strand of hair was tightly constricted under their head coverings, their limbs and shapes could be enhanced.
Lately, I’ve seen photos of hijabi fashion shows, believe it or not! There is even a Facebook page called, “Haute Hijab.” While a hijabi need not be dull or dreary while observing the spirit of hijab, the term “fashionable hijab” is a contradiction in terms. Let’s remember, however, that within the spirit of hijab, variation is not only permissible, but expected, according the cultural aspects of each Muslim population. What doesn’t make sense is that hijab be recognized as “beautiful” or “fashionable,” because those concepts do contradict the spirit of hijab.
(I might add a personal inclination. I’ve always seen men’s hair, shapes and muscles quite attractive, especially when uncovered, or covered tightly. Shouldn’t the spirit of hijab also extend to them? Well, it does, but it stops short.)