Thursday, July 08, 2004

Scarves, hijab, veil, modesty and the right to choose: PART II

Sometime in February I wrote about the veil promising a sequel about Libya I hope it will be helpful.

Decades ago Libyan women donned the traditional Libyan clothes, these had nothing to do with Islam even though they may cover the head and body. This is just folklore. With the revolution and modernisation, free and compulsory education for all from kindergarten to university and many women entering the working force more and more since the late 50’s our parent’s generation (ie people in their sixties now) have started to wear western clothing be it conservative or modern. In fact my elders tell me that back in the 70s wearing a skirt below the knee was considered backward and oh so passé. Then something happened in the mid 80’s and I started noticing many young women wearing a hijab , veil or scarf whichever version they preferred, by the late 90’s the traditional Libyan women’s dress was worn at ceremonies and by senior citizens only. In this century the majority wear a scarf, but we have it all, the potential Britney Spears look-alikes and the black abaya with everything in between. 100% of Libyan women are wearing a scarf voluntarily, but not ALL Libyan women are wearing a scarf spot the nuance here.

What happened in the 80’s to promote this voluntary action by Libyan women? The war in Afghanistan, and the perceived renaissance of Islam, and the great pride in the Muslim fighters and how they dealt a blow to Russia (let us not forget with the help and funding from the USA). Many Islamist parties flourished with the patronage and blessing of America in the cold war, they were then called gallant freedom fighters etc…In brief, many of these parties had the necessary funding to produce tapes and videos of their various preaching and fatwas and because the majority came from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, ordinary people took these words as law since Saudi is the keeper of the holy shrines. And since Islam does advocate modesty of dress, just like other monotheistic religions, many girls were influenced and started wearing the Saudi- like extreme form of dress code voluntarily (in KSA it is the law). This has nothing to do with the State in Libya it was a people’s thing a mass movement and choice. Wearing a hijab then gained momentum and became a fashion statement; after all you are really freer and more anonymous when you are modestly clad. In the early 90’s the majority of girls in universities were still casual, by mid 90’s we started seeing more and more of them with a scarf. This was a major step in a girl’s life and as I said before we congratulate her heartily. It is obvious that Libyan men nowadays prefer their wives, sisters or mothers or any female relative to be modest and that is why I believe that this phenomenon which started as an Islamic revival has grown into a social/fashion status. Nowadays the modest clothes can be latest catwalk styles but properly adapted ie long sleeves and long skirts + a scarf and you will find a multitude of colours, in fact it’s an art to combine the matching scarf with the shoes bag and jewellery. I went to my class reunion this year at university and I stood out like a sore thumb with my ‘westernised’ look even though I had the impression that my black business suit was sometimes more ‘modest’ than what some girls were wearing.
Bareheaded girls were a minority now.
I want to stress once again that this is their choice which does not hinder in any way their ordinary life as students, workers, producers, managers, teachers, lovers or whatever. Women enjoy great freedom in Libya and they really are grateful for the revolution which took up their cause. We have women in the army, police, customs, law, medicine, social sciences and workers, education, politics, services and all aspects of a society, not forgetting engineers and oil engineers who work in the oil fields for weeks on a par with their Libyan men colleagues and expatriate colleagues and as I said many wear a scarf so it is not a backward phenomenon but more of a freedom of choice thing. I think my American readers would appreciate that it is not a sign of great religiosity or extremism or fundamentalism. Not at all! Many Libyan women are devout Muslims yes but full of optimism and openness to the west, after all we are across the Mediterranean and not too far from Europe. They love fashion, and make up like all females across the globe but some like to add their own personality to it and I believe that is called individuality, a much lauded characteristic right?

Despite all that I will be realistic and say that another dimension has been added to this phenomenon in the last couple of years; some peer pressure. For example, a prospective suitor would much prefer to marry a girl with a scarf even though her dress may be more revealing then a bareheaded woman. I know it is hypocritical but somehow this small triangular piece of cloth changes everything. This is a typically chauvinistic macho Arabic thing and nothing to do with Islam, unfortunately many young girls have also chosen the scarf for the sake of a man and not for the love of God and those are the ones that I despise as they are the ones who usually dare to criticise other girls. In Islam you have a choice; you make that choice knowingly and live with it. Islam is not a rigid doctrine it is adaptable and very easy to follow.

So to recapitulate: Libyan women wear a scarf by choice, for some it is for God, for others it is a fashionable Islamic identity, others yet believe it preserves their privacy and modesty and another group use it to be attractive to men. Now be honest and tell me which woman does not want her lover, boyfriend, husband, partner, flirt or simply man not to get attracted to her? People achieve this attraction in different ways, for some of us it may be a nice sexy little top with a lovely low cut V-neck and for others it may be a turquoise scarf with the matching skirt, shoes and bag. Looking at it this way it ain’t that bad right? We are all fashionistas in a sense!

Personally I think that making the choice requires guts because going back on it is embarrassing in our culture. Some have taken off their hijab also so that’s fine.


I have an update on the girl I used as an example for my rant in PART I, and I am happy to inform you that this struggling bright medical student got a scholarship and will pursue her studies in the US, she also is happily married to an engineer and best of all she has won her case for the right to wear a hijab at work against her foreign boss. I am very happy and proud for her.

Many of you wrote to me about this issue, someone said ( and please forgive me for forgetting your name) that perhaps her management saw fit that it would be more pleasant if she and other female workers wore no hijab in a tourism industry. I would like to thank him and tell him that he may be right but with all due respect to his opinion, that would be sexual discrimination. Being professional at her work she can still wear her uniform with the scarf in her own country, after all the Sikh men get to keep their turbans ( I know I mentioned that in an earlier post). Her scarf will also never prevent her from performing her duties in the ward or operating room would it?

My next post about the subject of women will deal in more details on equality of the sexes.


5 comments:

AlanK said...

libyan

that was an interesting post. This has to some extent been happening in the Uk but in a different way, with some muslim women using this as a way of rebelling against society.

also do you think the incidents in 1986 with US bombing tripoli and lockerbie help to create a anti western feeling that made people want to become more islamist

also has there been any change in people opinion now that gaddaffi wants libya to be more of an african country rather than an arab country

alan

AlanK said...

libyan

that was an interesting post. This has to some extent been happening in the Uk but in a different way, with some muslim women using this as a way of rebelling against society.

also do you think the incidents in 1986 with US bombing tripoli and lockerbie help to create a anti western feeling that made people want to become more islamist

also has there been any change in people opinion now that gaddaffi wants libya to be more of an african country rather than an arab country

alan

AlanK said...

sorry for double comment

alan

Highlander said...

To Alan:

"also do you think the incidents in 1986 with US bombing tripoli and lockerbie help to create a anti western feeling that made people want to become more islamist"

No Alan it did not have that effect.

"also has there been any change in people opinion now that gaddaffi wants libya to be more of an african country rather than an arab country"

change of opinion about which subject? anti west or islamic renaissance ?

AlanK said...

had intended being more islamic renaisance but either now that you mention it

alan