May 29, 2006

The Hijab: The Pathway to Fame?

I watched with great interest yesterday the weekly program on LBC, الحدث ("The Event"). The program, hosted by Shada Omar, discusses issues of interest to Lebanon and the Arab region including those related to politics, economics, and society at large. Yesterday's show focused on what the producers called a "new trend" on the small and big screen in the Arab world: actresses, singers, presenters, and news anchors donning the Islamic headdress, the hijab. The topic of the show was not whether hijab is a requirement for Muslim women, but whether the decisions of various popular female personalities to dress this way was driven by a quest for more popularity and fame. Without a doubt, it was a heated discussion between the show's guests because the issue involves fame, religion, women, and of course: "the veil".

I'd like to reflect on some of the statements made by the women on the show, and elaborate on the topic of the show without getting into the religious intricacies related to whether hijab is a requirement in Islam and the bigger issue of women & Islam. So please, take this as a disclaimer. I'll try my best to focus on the issue discussed on the LBC show without digressing too much. Also, I will attribute to the guests statements that I recall them making on the show in Arabic and will translate to the best of my abilities in English. This is *not* an English translated transcript for the show, rather my own interpretation of the statements, and I will try to make it clear when I'm putting my own thoughts and when they are the speakers' own words (from my memory).

The show featured three female guests: Khadija Ben Guenna, senior AlJazeera news anchor & presenter; Mona Abdel-Ghani, Egyptian actress & singer; and Iqbal Barakah, editor-in-chief of the Egyptian women's magazine "Hawwa". Khadija and Mona chose to begin wearing the hijab in the past few years and have fervently defended their decision to do so as a personal matter. Of course, women like these two who became "household names" initially gained a lot of media attention for donning the hijab, considered a "controversial" issue for some people. Most female artists in the Arab world who choose to make this decision usually put an end to their acting or singing careers and choose to remain out of the spotlight for a few years, although some return to host Islamic oriented shows or play less scandalous roles in TV series or movies.

Iqbal Baraka, who repeatedly nagged about authoring a new book on the subject, accused Ben Guenna and Abdel Ghani and other popular female figures of choosing to wear the hijab in order to gain attention and fame. She argued that these women represented a "dangerous" trend that "pressured" women across the Arab world to follow in their footsteps and take on this "radical" step, which she believes is not required by Islam. At one point she said, "I don't want to learn my religion from a women who just decided to wear the hijab and who probably knows less than I do about Islam. She's not a scholar, yet when she dons the headscarf, people treat her like she is. She receives offers to host religious programs and is instantly on the cover of popular magazines across the region." In my view, Baraka came off as unprofessional and simply weak in her argument because she resorted to personal attacks (see below) and ignorant generalizations.

Khadija Ben Guenna was the most eloquent of all, as I had imagined she would be. She spoke using sound arguments, and defended herself not by attacking others, but by using pure logic. She wondered why people made a huge fuss about her personal decision to wear the hijab, which she said was rooted in personal conviction and without any desire for fame. She bluntly told Baraka that she was a well-respected and popular news anchor before she wore the hijab, so she didn't need to wear a headscarf to gain attention. Khadija added that she had expected to be faced with a negative reaction and prepared herself for this challenge, but was now being accused of having ulterior motives for her choice of dress. Directing her question to Baraka, Ben Guenna asked "why some women who claim to champion women's rights seek to constrain other women like herself from practicing their religion freely, a right that is guaranteed in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?" She also mentioned that ban on the headscarf that countries such as Turkey and France have in place which cause significant challenges for many Muslim women. This includes herself as she experienced this scrutiny when she was assigned to interview French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin whose country recently decided to ban the hijab in state schools. Ben Guenna added, "In many Muslim countries today, Muslim women wearing the headscarf represent a majority. If television and art is a representation of popular culture, shouldn't these millions of modestly dressed women be entitled to a handful of females on television screens who 'represent' them?! Is it too much to ask for some representation?" I think not.

Mona Abdel Ghani also stated that her hijab was her personal choice and that she did not accept this generalization about the motives of actresses like her who had begun wearing the hijab. She bothered me a little because she kept interrupting the guests and didn't speak as eloquently as Ben Guenna, but then again the latter is a respected and well-educated journalist whose job depends on her ability to speak publicly. (This article gives a better idea of Mona's thoughts on her hijab decision).

Hanan Turk, one of the most popular actresses in the Arab world today, also appeared on the show via phone as she confirmed rumors that she had decided to wear the hijab in the past few days. Asked by the show's host for the reasons why she had made this decision at this point in time, Hanan confidently responded saying that she had been "considering this issue for years now" and that Allah had finally given her "the strength to take this step." Is this a temporary thing or your final decision? asked the host. Hanan said that she had taken this decision with "full conviction" that it was something she was "required to do by her religion as a Muslim woman" and that she "prayed to Allah to help her remain steadfast and patient." She said that she is not stopping her acting career, and is in the midst of taping the series "Awlad Shawari3" produced by Dubai TV. As soon as the call with Turk ended, Iqbal Baraka began attacking her, sarcastically saying "Thank you Hanan for that wonderfully crafted speech which I can see took you a long time to memorize and practice. Now that you are such a religious and spiritual person, you can keep regurgitating these lines all over television shows and in other interviews." How much more childish could Baraka get?

In any case, I found the discussion to be insightful especially because it was not just another show that attempted to delve into the scriptural details of the obligation of modesty in Islam. This type of discussion usually gets out of hand and defeats the purpose as most guests on such shows loose their temper and begin hurling insults at one another.

My personal view on the whole subject can be narrowed down to a few rather simple points:

1. Women, Muslim or not, should have the right to dress in any way they want without being intimidated or discriminated against. Whether it is a headscarf, yarmulke, or sari, such choices are personal and should be respected especially when they are a manifestation of an individual's religious beliefs. These decisions do not threaten the freedoms of others and therefore should not be scrutinized and/or jeopardized.

2. The decisions of women to put on or remove the hijab is a personal, regardless of whether they are public figures or not. In Islam, the belief is that individuals will be judged for their actions and intentions, the latter of which can only be determined by Allah. Therefore, speculations about the reasons why a news anchor wears a headscarf are simply that: speculations. Whether I agree or disagree with the individual's choice, I should not be allowed to prevent them from making that choice.

3. Feminists and others who's goal is to champion women's rights should be the first to defend a Muslim woman's right to wear a headscarf. As long as it is a personal choice and not one that is forced by any other individual, then there should not be any consternation about it. Islam itself is a religion that does not advocate any compulsion with regards to religious duties, "Let there be no compulsion in religion" 2:256. The idea that women who did not wear it before, especially those who are educated professionals such as Ben Guenna, are forced to wear it is absurd.

4. If anyone is pressuring young girls in the Arab world to dress a certain way it is the dozens of scandalously-clad-cheap-looking-hoe-like "pop stars" who's skirts keep inching higher and tops inching lower. Their images are plastered on billboards and music videos are incessantly replayed across every TV screen in the Middle East. The idea that modestly dressed women on a few religiously oriented programs and possibly a news anchor or two are "pressuring" young girls in the Middle East to dress more conservatively is laughable. The latter are proving to be role models for young girls, empowering them to educate themselves, and decide if that is a step they would want to take. On the other hand, the Haifa Wahbi type wardrobe sits in the windows of boutiques and malls across Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, luring young girls to show as much skin as possible, inevitably turning some girls into the sex-symbols that feminists should be speaking out against.

5. The real pressure is also on news anchors, presenters, and even other singers who choose to remain somewhat descent when they appear on our television screens. Whether they are threatened with losing their job for choosing to wear a headscarf or refusing to wear a tighter shirt and shorter skirt, women in all fields and especially those public ones are losing this freedom of choice. As long as her way of dressing does not get in the way of completing her job, then women should not be harassed to wear or not to wear the hijab or any other article of clothing.

Clearly, this subject is larger than one single post, and I may come back to it because it has been deemed so "controversial" in recent times, an argument I simply don't buy. The root of the issue is freedom of choice, which should be respected by all to avoid discrimination against certain segments of society who wish to fulfill certain religious or moral obligations. Intentions of individuals are theirs alone, and whether we believe they are pure or not, does not entitle us to discriminate against them, especially in the work force and education sector. Preventing women from getting an education because of their dress does not liberate them and will only help to promote ignorance and oppression.

I'd like to see the energy used on debating the hijab focused on more pressing issues facing women in the Middle East such as lack of access to education, discrimination in the workforce, domestic abuse, health problems, lack of political participation, etc. I don't like double standards. A woman's choice is a woman's choice, whether it's considered "liberal", "conservative", "Marxist" or anything in between. Unfortunately, when the spotlight is placed on women's rights in Islam, double-standards, generalizations, and misconceptions are common.

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At 9:44 PM, Anonymous قويدر said...

Lovely ..... I enjoyed reading this A LOT! Well said and well summarized

Really, Really, great job.

At 9:50 PM, Anonymous Nas said...

excellent post. it really comes down to religion and what God says. there are many obligations which God lays down in the Quran and offers the freedom of choice, it's basically "this is what I want you to do, but you're free to make that choice".

and on top of that is the fact that it's no one's business and indeed it's sinful to judge people's personal religious actions and intentions.

At 10:41 PM, Anonymous tommy said...

Tell that to Swedish Muslims. Somebody I know who went to Sweden says that in Malmo, Muslim women rarely ever wore a hijab or a veil a few years ago. Now that the fundamentalists have exerted their influence, the overwhelming majority of women wear the hijab and many wear the veil.

Of course, these are the same Swedish Muslim organizations that recently demanded that Sharia be implemented among the Muslim community of that country.

At 10:45 PM, Anonymous tommy said...

Of course, as this article points out, some women wear Islamic dress because of pressures that are more extreme than simply the sense of religious obligation or trendiness:

At 11:00 PM, Blogger الفلسطينية said...

another wonderful post as usual :)

At 1:53 AM, Anonymous hareega said...

Men are all behind this controversy behind the hijab. Although it's stated in Islam that women wear hijab, if men were more respectful and less judgmental towards women less women would feel the need to wear the veil.

At 1:58 AM, Blogger Durra said...

Thanks MOI for this wonderfull post, i enjoyed reading it, i wish i attended the show.

At 3:21 AM, Blogger Roba said...

Well said Moi.
Although I personally don't understand hijab, as you said, the most important thing is choice- people should have the complete right to practice whatever they believe in.
About the feminist issue, I definitely agree with that too. And honestly, as a grade A feminist, I think that sexualizing women is the real crime.

At 5:27 AM, Blogger Fatima said...

Hey moi, Very well put and insightful. Interesting side point: Mona Abdulghani is now hosting a show on the new channel 'Resalah' called 'Hur al Dunya'. She actually hosted Hanan Turk a couple of months ago, before she wore the hijab. I was surprised at the time, as its a relatively 'religious' channel, but maybe she knew at the time of Hanan's intentions.

At 11:34 AM, Blogger Natalia said...

I think the issue is more of a damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don't.

Muslim women are being pressured from both sides.

At 4:24 PM, Anonymous queenie said...

It completely baffles me when feminists argue against women who wear the hijab by choice. Isn't freedom of choice what the movement is always striving for? The freedom to able to choose to work, or become a stay-at-home-mom, get married or not, have children or not. In feminism, since when is one choice better or more accepted, when women have options, and the freedom of choice is available?
Great post :)

At 4:52 PM, Blogger Christopher Brown said...

Excellent post Moi. I have had this discussion with many friends in places as conservative as Al Khalil (Hebron) to Ramallah. Although I am not Muslim, the reasons for why or why not a woman would wear the hijab are her own and should be respected regardless of whether one agrees with them or not.

At 7:30 PM, Anonymous kinzi said...

I add my applause, MOI. I didn't realize they were presenters more than actresses, and had wondered what they then do with taking roles that require uncovered hair and revealing clothes. To keep the convictions only in real life, but not on-screen, would seem to me to be a bit hypocritical.

Now if only Nancy and shuismha would wear 10% of a hijab across their ample bosoms so my kids can go to MacDonalds without their full frontal assault on their innocent boyhood. :)

At 8:30 PM, Anonymous f.d. said...

Jazaaki Allahu Khairan for the wonderful post, Moi.. I wish more people would understand that wearing the hijab is actually more freeing.. instead of following all the trends on television and in magazines, we create our own image.. we don't try to be slaves to men.. wearing what would please them, instead, we decide to please God and ourselves. I'm not saying that we don't wear whatever we want underneath the hijab and jilbab (dress that covers the body).. God knows a lot of Muslim women look better than the most beautiful models out there, but they choose to keep it to themselves and their families instead of going on display to the public. Women these days say that wearing tighter fitting clothes make them feel better about themselves, well.. yeah, sure.. but it doesn't mean go make yourself feel better about yourself in front of the whole world..(that sounds weird, I know) but it just really depresses me how modesy is so incredibly lost these days. *sigh* I wish I could lecture all women across the globe.. look, you're beautiful.. without wearing that micro-skirt or a low-cut halter top! *sigh* I'm so fired up now .. but yes, thank you once again for your ever-so-lovely post. :o)

At 9:47 PM, Anonymous f. d. said...

dagnabbit.. I just realized I mispelled modesty.. hate it when that happens... apologies..

At 12:26 AM, Blogger moi said...

Qweider--thanks for reading the long post, glad you enjoyed it!

Nas--I totally agree. I can give my friends advice, but to force anyone into something defeats the whole purpose of it, especially any form of worship.

Tommy--As I said, freedom of choice is the key. Whether it is a father forcing a woman to wear the hijab or an employer forcing a woman to remove the hijab, both are equally reprehensible. The article you mentioned is in my view irrelevant b/c it refers to a situation where a woman is in prison, and she is not even Muslim. I wouldn't really expect much from any male criminal in a prison.

Falasteniyah--*blushing*, thanks :)

Hareega--And if men wouldn't act like they've fallen head over heals when they see a woman with some skin maybe less women would feel the need to dress more provacatively. Too many women today are lacking the self-esteem needed to survive in a world where public pressure is so strong. Thanks for your input.

Durra--Try checking the link in the post to see if the show will be rerun anytime soon. Either way, this issue will continue to be discussed I'm sure on other channels and in the press. Thanks for stopping by!

Roba-- The sexualization of women, although a huge problem in our world today, doesn't appear to be on the top of most feminists' priorities (maybe you could make some phone calls, Ms.grade A feminist? ;)). It really needs to be addressed in a comprehensive way, beginning with educating more women and raising their self-esteem (I really believe that confidence plays a huge role in this).

Fatima--Thanks; maybe she'll host her again soon to discuss the 'aftermath' of her decision :)

Natalia--It really is, but I believe we need to empower Muslim women to do what they believe is right and not succumb to pressures of any form as long as they are making this decision independently.

queenie--I think the problem is that there are so many "feminisms" that are out there today, so it is no longer a coherent movement per se. For more on this check out Reorienting Western Feminisms: Women's Diversity in a Postcolonial World by Christina Bulbeck. Welcome to my blog :)

Chris--Exactly. Thanks for your input!

kinzi--Thank you. I think with presenters it is a bit easier, that is, if they are allowed to continue their job after wearing the hijab. For actresses, it's more challenging, but as Hanan pointed out to some other media outlets, why not create roles with women wearing the hijab? This would seem reasonable since millions of Muslim women find that the women who appear on their tv screens do not represent them.
LOL@ your boys; maybe you can blindfold them with a hijab to avoid the Nancy/Haifa virus :P

f.d.--You are an example of such a woman who chooses to wear her hijab freely, and one that is knowledgeable about the reasons why she does. You are lucky to be able to have that choice, the knowledge, and insight into what it means to wear a hijab. Thanks for your comment.

At 2:42 AM, Anonymous tommy said...


I'd have to object to your comments about the story I posted. It is demonstrative of something: she was treated with much greater respect (i.e., not made a potential target for rape) after putting a burqa on.

It doesn't state in the story if the individual who attempted to rape her was a guard or a male prisoner. It does say that another female prisoner was being "taken out regularly" to be raped. This indicates that, whoever it was, it was being done with the express consent of the authorities at the prison. Furthermore, if it was a male prisoner acting independently and of his own accord, a burqa alone would not have stopped such attempts. Anyone who believes otherwise is being naive.

As for your repeated comments about France. What can I say? France has a long history of enforced secularization of the school system, unlike the US or the UK where freedom of religious choice is pivotal. Obviously, Islamic dress is a lot more conspicuous than the dress of most Christians or Jews in such a society so, of course, it has become an issue. If Muslims don't like it, they can always leave. I'm sure with the rampant crime, violence, and disorder that have been the result of taking in so many Muslims over the years, in France, few citizens of that country would object if the Muslims packed their bags and got lost.

Frankly, I'd be a little more concerned about the inability of even the more moderate countries in the Middle East, such as Jordan, to tackle things like honor killings, a much more pressing issue than French dress codes. Who likes the French anyway? ;-)

But that is just a westerner's perspective. Who knows? ;-)

At 8:29 PM, Anonymous Hasan said...

tommy, "I'm sure with the rampant crime, violence, and disorder that have been the result of taking in so many Muslims over the years, in France,"

Where do you get these facts? Did you forget the large riot for the employees right to fire?

You are so blind. You only see things one way.

What about the crime in the US? is that caused by muslims too? So what makes US crime different than France's crime?

Who are you to judge our culture? you are an oxident, you can't tell us whats best for us.

One thing you can do is stop the US from supporting all the dictatorships in the middle east and keeping them in power so people can be free.

Its funny how they complain about us not wanting democracy while at the same time they are supporting the Saudi monarch. Where 15 of the hijackers were saudi's.

Stop with all the bullshit man, wake up and stop opening your mouth. You denouce agression when infact you are the one who is aggressive.

IF everyone would just shut the hell up, no one would have to hear anything to get angry about.

Instead of wasting your time replying to every post about Islamic culture, why don't you go read Islamic history that isn't written by jelous midevil europeans.

Read the middle eastern history from the Sykes Picot Agreement to see how foriegn intervention have is responsible for this mess today.

Read about the overthrow of Musadugh in 1953 which casued Irans path to fundimentalism (even though its the most democratic nation in the ME, people can vote there."

Just because the Christian Church basicly fucked up europe and declared the world was flat doesn;t mean all religions are gonna push people backwards.

Arabs were nothing but stinky sweaty insect eating nomads who only knew how to drink and fight, until Islam came and made them into a glorious civilization with arabic as the scholarly language.

Islam elevated the Arabs, and now that they have forgotten Islam, we are back to our lowest form. Stupid, ignorant and fools.

Thats the difference. Based on History and the effect Islam had on Arabs, I think its safer to have Muslims relearn Islam and practice it once again.

And do read the history of the arabs before Islam. Oh wait there isn't any as we were nothing.

At 5:56 PM, Blogger Edward Ott said...

True story My wife and i were in a store waiting in line when a small christian child started staring at my wife and then announced rather loudly to her mother, "look mommy, she is dressed like Mary" out of the mouths of babes.

At 3:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know I had a simmiar thing happen. I was leaveing my apartment wearing my white thowbe and hat and a little boy left his fathers side and started following me. The father called the boy back but the kid replied "look daddy it's Jeuses". He tried to follow me but the father held him back. Any how I thought I might tell my story.
Mohammad B.

At 6:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really loved the way u were discussing such an important issue 'HIJAB', this is one of the greatest articles i've ever read about hijab on the net, u were talking rationally and logically and in a convincing way away of any emotional defendings or things like that, i wish everyone can understand things the way u do and can talk about such sensitive issues in this rational way.
GOD Bless You, wishing u all the best

At 9:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

در اجرای طرح ارتقای امنيت اجتماعی که از ابتدای ارديبهشت‌‏ماه آغاز شده, برخورد با مالکان خودروهای حامل افراد بدحجاب در دستور کار پليس قرار گرفته است، بر اساس اين طرح خودروهای حامل فرد بدحجاب يا خودروهايی که زنان بدحجاب راننده آن هستند، توسط ماموران اجرای طرح امنيت اخلاقی يا ماموران راهنمايی و رانندگی توقيف و به پارکينگ منتقل می‌‏شوند.
به گزارش خبرنگار ايلنا, نيروی انتظامی با اين توجيه که حضور فرد بدحجاب در خودرو از جرائم مشهود محسوب می‌‏شود، نسبت به برخورد با خودروهای حامل فرد بدحجاب اقدام کرده و راساً به توقيف خودروها می‌‏پردازد.

ماموران زنا زاده پلیس راهنمایی رانندگی ایران بجای اینکه هزاران راننده که مانند حیوانات با سرعت غیر مجاز، عبور ممنوع و صدها مورد جرایم مشهود خطرناک را پیگیری کنند در برابر این جرایم سکوت می کنند و ماشین افرادی را که موهایشان پیداست توقیف می کنند!

آی کیر خوک و خر و سنده خوک و خر تو کس حضرت زهرا بنت رسول الله چون ملایان می خواهند ایرانیان مثل این فاحشه قریش باشند.
سنده سگ تو کس ننه و زن و دختر رسول الله به خاطر این قوانین مسخره و حیوانی قرآن.
سنده شیطان تو حلق محمد قرآن شد.

At 3:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We will have every Hizbollah women fucked by dogs.
We will send Phallus of ours into ass of All priests moslems.
We will have Khamenei and Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad and Khatami and Akbar Ganji fucked by a great penis Of donkey and whale .
We will fuck all foreign government which help mullah.
کیر سگ تو کس ننه سید اولاد پیغمبر و کس ننه خود پیامبر اسلام.
کیر خوک تو کس ننه امام حسین.
کیر خر تو کس ننه شیعیان.
صلوات: الله و کیر خر تو کس ننه محمد و آل محمد.
This is a beautiful cultural message for you.

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