As the relationship between growing migrant Muslim populations and the western nations that host them grows increasingly complex, the controversy over the dress code for Muslim women has taken on an alarmingly central role. The recent European Court of Justice (ECJ) decision, which has ruled that bans on headscarves (and other religious symbols) in the workplace can be legal, is only one in a series of judgements on this controversial matter.
While the ECJ has leaned towards religious neutrality and against the display of religious symbols in the workplace (including, for instance, the Christian cross), the United States Supreme Court, recently ruled to the contrary. In the case of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v Abercrombie & Fitch (2015), the US Supreme Court ruled 8-1 in favour of the hijab-clad employee, despite the employer's claims that her headscarf clashed with the company's dress policy. Only the dissenting judge, Justice Thomas reasoned as the ECJ has, that the dress code was a neutral policy and could not be the basis for a discrimination lawsuit. Even in the United States, however, the outcome of such cases is not always clear. In 2012, for example, a hijab-wearing employee who had sued Disneyland, did not succeed against her employer.
Legal decisions aside, the issue of the hijab seems to have become a bone of contention between those in the West who see the increasing number of headscarves around them as a cultural invasion and those among the often young Muslim population who see it as a symbol of resistance. Instead of an essential religious dictate, however, the hijab is more of a desperate attempt to forge an identity that has largely been displaced as a result of migration.
Women in Muslim-majority countries who veil or cover their hair often do so because of familial, or in the case of Saudi Arabia and Iran, state pressure. Ironically, women who wear the hijab in the West often choose to do so. While women in the Middle East may be wrapping themselves in additional garments to ward off the prying eyes of men dominating the bazaars and workplaces, some Muslim women in the West have told me that they find the hijab liberating and empowering.
As someone who grew up partially in Saudi Arabia and witnessed firsthand the oppression of women that comes through forcing the veil upon them, that is indeed a strange concept for me to digest. The constant conflation of Muslim women and the headscarf in the western media is therefore something that I find quite disturbing. There are countless observant and pious Muslim women who do not cover their hair. On the other hand, there are also those who wear the hijab but aren't particularly interested in following some of the more fundamental dictates of Islam.
For generations we have learned that in order to be true to the Muslim faith one must affirm that there is one God and that Muhammad is his messenger. The Koran repeatedly stresses the importance of being steadfast in prayer and of giving alms to the poor, to feed the needy and to take care of orphans. Not once does the Koran mention the hijab, or headscarf, explicitly as an Islamic necessity.
There are a few verses in the Koran that advise a modest dress code but to borrow a line from the renowned Pakistani film, Khuda ke liye (For God's sake), "How can a religion that is meant for all time and all peoples insist on one particular uniform?"
Certain Islamic scholars from countries as diverse as Pakistan, Egypt and Morocco have affirmed the view that what is modest is subject to interpretation and discretion and does not necessarily include a head-covering.
Paradoxically, at a time when significant numbers in the West are growing resentful of headscarves and most unfortunately some of this intolerance has manifested itself in the form of hostile Islamophobic attacks on hijab-clad women, the fashion industry is rushing to embrace the hijab. Realising the monetary potential of marketing to brand-conscious hijabi millennials, Nike Pro Hijab, priced at $80, is the latest addition to jump on the "modest fashion" bandwagon. Dolce and Gabbana have gone several steps further, with their ostentatious daisy print hijab and abaya collection, aimed undoubtedly at the residents of the oil-rich Gulf Arab states, they accessorise with statement handbags and sunglasses that could set you back thousands of dollars. Modesty anyone?
Keeping the controversy alive, a few months ago, Playboy magazine featured its first hijab-wearing Muslim woman. For her supporters, this was a "bold case for modesty" and perhaps another milestone in breaking barriers for those wearing headscarves. But to me, this was akin to turning the entire concept of hijab on its head. Though the Koran does not dictate a precise form of dress for men or women, it does ask both to be discreet and modest and not to draw unnecessary attention to oneself. An often-quoted verse asks both men and women "to lower their gaze and guard their private parts". Playboy of course has historically been associated with the exact opposite of this philosophy.
The concept of Islamic modesty therefore is not meant to test boundaries or provoke identity clashes with a wider society but simply to maintain decorum, respect and harmony between men and women. As Muslims in the West, we would be better off focusing on the more basic and uncontested tenets of our religion and finding common ground with other Abrahamic faiths based on shared principles, such as providing for the needy and helping the downtrodden.
This article is simultaneously published in Counterpunch.