Colombo, Religion and faith

Hijab whereforth dost thou commeth?

The other day I was driving outstation and saw a big bill board advertising national unity. There was a Sinhala girl wearing a lama sari, there was a Tamil girl with jasmine in her hair and wearing a pottu, there was a Burgher girl wearing a dress and then there was a Muslim girl wearing a white hijab! When I expressed surprise to my fellow companions, they wondered why? And I gathered that for them (all in their twenties) there was nothing remarkable about this feature.

I do not wear the hijab. My mother does not wear the hijab. My grandmother does not wear the hijab. My great-grandmother did not wear the hijab. Neither do my aunts, or my grandaunts etc. But in recent times I see Muslim women in nothing but the hijab. In fact it is the younger women who wear it most. Why, just the other day I came across a mother who did not wear a hijab but her daughter did. Why am I telling you all this? It’s just to show that the hijab is a new costume for the Muslim women in Sri Lanka. But the way we are going, soon, we will not remember this fact and assume that whenever we have to represent a Muslim woman on a big billboard together with women from other communities, we would show a Muslim woman in hijab. To me that is a dangerous trend for it is entrenching the outward appearance of a Muslim woman in a particular way, and actually why should we? For Muslim women come in all forms of dress, shapes and sizes.

We are Sri Lankan Muslims and we do have our own cultural form of dress. In traditional Muslim villages, you will see adult women wearing the sari, in the Muslim style, with the potta covering their head. In this dress, they till the fields, carry water on their heads, carry firewood under their arms, and do their daily chores. I have not seen a hijab clad woman doing all this. So perhaps the hijab is ALSO an indication of class under the guise of religion. And I qualify religion here to mean a seemingly blind following of anything Saudi.

Many young women who wear the hijab have no idea that there is an alternative dress for them. They may not be religious, they may not pray, they may not fast, they may not give charity, but they will wear the hijab because that is what the women of the household wear, that is what they are told to wear, that is what they see other Muslim women in their environment wear. They do not even realize that there are lots of other Muslim women who don’t wear the hijab but that doesn’t detract from them being any less Muslim.

My mother says that when she went to school the Muslim girl children after they attained age, simply wore white trousers under their normal school uniform and had a neatly folded shawl they wore over their shoulders and covered their breasts. Today, you read in the newspapers of Muslim girls being presented an extra two metres of cloth for their school uniform by politicians. The extra cloth being for the nun like garb that shrouds their face and shoulders exposing their faces. This is an innovation. But today, every Muslim school has this costume for their female students uniform. Why and how did this happen? If someone knows perhaps they can tell me.

Another point I have noticed is that those who wear hijab have a set of assumptions about others and there is a set of assumptions that others have about them. This is an interesting point, because it is a visual that makes the assertion. If a hijab wearing Muslim woman meets a non-hijab wearing Muslim woman, I wonder what the assumption is. That only they can tell me. I once met a group of young hijab wearing Muslim women who refused to believe I was Muslim purely because I didn’t wear the hijab. I was wearing a shalwar kameez with a duppata but was not covering my head. Obviously according to them, I was not dressed like a Muslim woman.

The set of assumptions that I have about hijab wearing Muslim women based on personal encounters are these:

a)    They think that they are better Muslims than the non hijab wearing Muslim women.
b)    They think that they can preach, pass judgement and advise other non hijab wearing Muslim women.
c)    They think by wearing hijab, they are proclaiming to the world that they are pure, modest, and good and have a straight ticket to heaven.

To me hijab is actually a state of mind. If a woman has to be modest, she can be modest without wearing hijab. All my female relatives are extremely modest and none of them wear the hijab. If the hijab is to announce the wearer is a Muslim, then firstly why is it only applicable for women, secondly it is my firm belief that in this day and age of ethnic discord and ethnic segregation, the hijab serves to accentuate difference and alienation rather than signify modesty or Muslimness. This does not mean that I want all of us to look alike, but I certainly don’t want the Muslims of Sri Lanka to feel they belong more in Saudi than in Sri Lanka by adopting a new form of dress when we had a perfectly good cultural dress before.

Reactions, anyone?