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The politics of the `jilbab'

  • Mohamad Abdun Nasir


| Tue, August 18 2009 | 12:59 pm

The jilbab (Muslim women's headscarf) has rarely been free from political debate, and is often closely related to sharia-inspired regional ordinances.

The jilbab has multiple meanings and purposes. It may convey messages about the religiosity or piety of the wearer, but can also imply a glaring personal statement that the body is a very private domain that cannot be exposed to anyone, anywhere.

The jilbab may also be part of modern fashion trends - the choice of well-educated women studying at colleges or universities, for example. Within this view, the Islamic headscarf echoes urban lives and social classes, rather than a village phenomenon of female headscarves worn by lesser-educated people.

For women of Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia, the jilbab signifies their rejection of westernization and support for the restoration of a caliphate system and sharia law, and is thus a highly political symbol. In contrast, other women choose to wear the jilbab but their behavior does not necessarily conform to what others would expect from those who wear it.

In short, the jilbab hallows a wide range of symbolic meanings - from religiosity, modernity and social class, to the politics of anti-westernization.

Based on such expositions, it is perhaps no exaggeration to argue that the jilbab largely represents a cultural symbol, despite the religious elements it is associated with. From this we can infer that adopting the jilbab is not merely a religious choice, even though it is obviously part of Islamic teachings.

The fact most Muslim parties lost significant support in the last parliamentary election suggests that making religion, including its paraphernalia and symbols, the basis of our political ideology and framework is not a very successful strategy, and is less convincing for the majority Muslim constituency.

Conversely, the majority were more interested in giving their votes to parties that cogently addressed their basic needs, such as education, the economy and legal enforcement. Why then do Muslim parties still insist on employing religion in politics? Religion should be a moral guide for politics rather than its ideology.

Here, what is difficult is not how to interpret the jilbab, but rather the consequences of the broader population wearing it. It is easy enough to buy headscarves since they are available almost anywhere at affordable prices. However, the jilbab is not easy to put on consistently since it entails lengthy psychological preparation.

Those who understand the fundamental meaning of the jilbab will not take wearing it for granted, or simply wear it to follow a meaningless trend. If a woman only wears the jilbab at certain occasions or with particular aims, for example to show her political inclinations, but not other times, this is not ideal, and can lead to hypocrisy, which all must hope to avoid.

But I am not against the headscarf. I just argue that using it as part of a political agenda or for political propagation violates the essence of it.

It is true that the commandment of this covering is sanctioned by the Islamic scriptures, such as those in the Koran and the teachings of the Prophet Mohammad. The Koran mentions three different phrases regarding Muslim female dress, namely hijab (a curtain) in Sura al-Ahzab ( 33 ):53; khumur (sing. khimar, meaning shawl), in Sura al-Nur ( 24 ):31; and jilbab (a long outer outfit) in Sura al-Ahzab ( 33 ):59. It is interesting to note how different phrases and the contexts of revelation are involved in this regard.

According to Said al-Asmawi, a former Egyptian grand judge, these various verses indicate the complexity of the issue of female covering in Islam. While believing that the veil aims to protect women's chastity, he is not trapped in the formalities of religion, spurring adoption of the jilbab but neglecting its true meaning.

For al-Asmawi, the core of Islam should not be overlooked or superseded by its formal symbolism. He contends that the essential or substantial meaning of the jilbab is to establish self-control over any religious deviations and to create a psychological barrier to avoid sacrilegious attitudes.

Unfortunately, many Muslims are more interested in the formality, as they are also more interested in the slogans of Islam such as "political Islam" and "Islamic government," without understanding the meanings or purposes of such slogans.

The wide practice of covering mentioned in the Koran indicates that this issue is not a simple matter. While interpretations vary, it is clear that no commentators connect those texts with any political context. And they certainly do not encourage women to adopt the jilbab for political purposes either.

Furthermore, in reality, the practice of Islamic female head covering might be not as simple as those texts expound. Muslim women are dynamic and active human beings, following the rhythms of changing times and space, and making their own decisions without necessarily losing their religious conviction.

The writer is lecturer at the State Institute of Islamic Studies (IAIN), Mataram, and a PhD candidate at Emory University.


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