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Saturday, February 13, 2016

Hijab - when the Muslim headscarf is a symbol and metaphor

Being a Roman Catholic woman and a registered nurse, I have some experience about symbolic headwear.

An article by Elif Batuman in the February 8 & 15, 2016 The New Yorker, describes the author's development as a Muslim woman using the hijab, or traditional women's head scarf, as a metaphor. Batuman writes about how she unexpectedly developed respect for the hijab, as her family's history and culture have been influenced by recent political developments in Turkey and with the rise of conservative Islam. 
Traditionally Dressed Middle Eastern Woman Adjusting Hijab, Looking into Mirror stock photo
My opinion about hijab is - "Mirror,mirror  on the wall...how old am I?" Nothing ages a woman faster than wearing a head scarf. Hijab diminish a woman's natural mane, being our hair, and adds age to our appearance. Yet, to some Muslim women, the scarf is a symbol of acceptance and respect.

In "Cover Story: The head scarf, modern Trkey and Me", Batuman leads the reader to a stage in her development where she's challenged about the traditional role of modern Muslim women, especially given her upbringing in New Jersey into a secular community, where her educated, and professional immigrant parents from Turkey, supported the "Atraturk" position on Islam, established after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. 

Although I'm far from any sort of a scholar about Islam, I certainly have an opinion about the hijab tradition. Of course, I join Batuman in respecting a woman's right to wear hijab, but I'm not a supporter of headwear as being symbolic of anything other than fashion.

Here's why:

1.  Growing up Roman Catholic in pre-Vatican II days, covering a woman's head was a custom practied when a woman entered the sanctuary of a church. When women didn't or couldn't own a hat, for a variety of reasons, the head was often covered with a tissue held in place by an old fashioned ugly bobby pin. There was no point in continuing a tradition when the tissue didn't represent any purpose. More to the point, however, women who couldn't afford fashionable hats often looked poor when they were only able to afford tissue for head coverings. Therefore, the tradition often identified a class differentiation between those who could afford stylish hats and others who were unable to stay ahead of fashion. Today, some women continue to cover they heads when inside the sanctuary of a Roman Catholic church, but the custom never carried outside the sanctuary. In other words, a head covering doesn't identify a Roman Cathlic woman in the secular world unless she is a religious nun. Wearing a tissue doesn't automatically make a woman religious, but a hat can be expensive. Therefore, covering a woman's head in the sanctuary of a church doesn't symbolize anything at all, unless the wearer is a religous nun.

2.  A a Registered Nurse, I've grown through the tradition of wearing "nursing caps". This once standard practice for nursing began when nearly all nurses were religious nuns. In fact, in England, many nurses continue to be called "sister".  I've transcended the "capping ceremonies", once sacred to the nursing profession,  to the practice today, when patients complain because no one in the hospital wears a nursing cap, anymore. Many nurses believed the "cap" represented being subservient to physicians, so they disappeared with the rise of feminism. Other nurses, however, felt the caps empowered them to be better caregivers, because they were recognizable and respected for their authority. Practically speaking, the nursing caps are an infection control risk because nurses seldom washed them; instead, we kept them stiff as boards with copious amounts of starch. In other words, nursing caps would be tabu today, because of the danger of hospital acquired infectons. With the passage of time, the purpose of the nursing cap has been eliminated. Today, a nursing cap doesn't symbolize anything except the past.

On the other hand, the hijab is a symbol of being a Muslim woman. In a secular society, wearing hijab is optional, but it's becoming more common for conservative Muslim womento wear one routinely. Modern scarfs are quite beautiful but, in my opinion, a head scarf ages a woman. Regardless of how pretty a scarf is, given the myriad of designs and fabric colors, there's nothing a woman wears that ages her faster than a head scarf. Even a child looks older when wearing a head scarf. In my mind, this head symbol means the woman is expected to be subservient to males, assume traditional female roles as wives, be less inclined than men to achieve educational success and to bear at least three to five children, so the culture can grow. Yet, I don't understand why a woman needs to wear hijab to aspire to all of the above. Many Jewish and Christian women aspire to the very same traditional values as our Muslim colleagues, without hijab. Besides, a head scarf undermines a woman's beauty and adds age to her years. Consequently, the  purpose of hijab, in my opinion, seems to minimize a woman's intelligence, beauty and enlightenment, regardless of our age.

Batuman describes living in Istanbul "sans hijab", because she didn't accept the inference it represented, being contrary to her Muslim feminist feelings. Yet, when required to cover her head for the purpose of entering a historic religious shrine, her acceptance by other Turkish Muslim women and the respect she received from men became palpable. Therefore, hijab made her life more pleasant, while in Istanbul. Wearing a head scarf gave her a sense of belonging to the history and culture of her parents and ancestors, even though they raised her in a secular, rather than an Islamist, tradition. 

Consequently, wearing hijab began to make sociological sense, even though Batuman still questioned its visual purpose as identifying traditional Muslim women, rather than feminists. (I suspect the label "feminist" is probably caustic to many Muslim women.)

As I've lived through two transitions of cultural traditions specifically related to head wear, the concept of proving feminine identity by wearinng hijab is antiquated, based on my experiences.
Indeed, by finally wearing hibaj, Batuman felt she was helping those around her, in Istanbul, to feel more comfortable. Her awareness led to understanding about how she could respect the hijab tradtion. Unfortunately, the hijab is counter to the progress made by Roman Catholic women and nurses, who have proven this tradition of covering our heads to be useless. I'm still a Roman Catholic woman, regardless of whether or not I wear a hat in church. Yes, I'm still a professional registered nurse, although I haven't worn a nursing cap in decades.  

In my opinion, if a Muslim woman must wear hijab to prove who she is, then there isn't much self awareness about the essential role of 50 percent of the Islam population within the culture. Of course, therein is the purpose of hibab. Until this purpose becomes as antiquated as tissues held with bobby pins or germ infected nursing caps, the hijab will continue to define Muslim women as less than equals to men.  

Hijab is symbolic of nothing other than cultural tradition and, in my opinion, it is a metaphor for subservience. As Roman Catholic women and nursing have outgrown the tradition of covering our heads, the Muslim women are finding it easier to achieve acceptance among peers and with men by regressing to this past custom. Regretably, hijab is differentiating Muslim women from others who do not practice Islam, and thereby contributing to the polarization of the world's great religions.  

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