Why Islamic Hijab

With the arrival of spring, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s police have launched this year their traditional crackdown on women’s dress. Such crackdowns have become a regular feature of life for Iranian women. The crackdown is to force women to respect the strict Islamic dress code.

Under Iran’s Islamic laws (Sharia) women are obliged to cover their body from head- to-toe with a black chador or at least long, loose-fitting clothes to disguise their whole figures. The Islamic dress code is severely imposed at this time. Violators can receive lashes, fines or imprisonment.

Since the existence of the IRI, not a day has passed without attack, physical assault, arrest, acid-throwing, harassment and psychological pressure on women in Iran. The IRI has clearly specified that for women no other sort of dress is permitted except the Islamic hijab.

The first question is: why does the IRI since 1979 stubbornly impose Islamic hijab on women of different social backgrounds, ethnic groups, and religious minorities?

The reason why Islam lays great emphasis on hijab is to avoid contacts between women with “non-mahram” men.

“Non-mahram” describes the men or women with whom an Islamic adult person can marry: it means “marriageable”. Considering this definition, for a Muslim person, there are two groups of people in the society: mahram and non-mahram. This principle is the pivotal cause of Islamic hijab.

The first group called “mahrams” are a little group of non-marriageable men or women – parents, grand-parents, children, brothers/sisters, uncles/aunts, grand-children, stepchildren, parents-in-law and stepparents. A Muslim adult woman is not obliged to wear hijab in front of their eyes and a Muslim man is not obliged to lower his gaze.

The second group, called non-mahram, is the rest of society. A Muslim woman should wear hijab in front of all adult males of this group. Any sort of contact between them or being alone together (“Khalwah”), except in extreme cases such as a medical emergency, is banned.

Non-mahram is the most determinant factor of social character formation in an Islamic society. It has created a culture which influenced not only dress code, but also a range of social behaviour. It is cumbersomely present in any Islamic society. For example, we can retrace its footsteps in Islamic architecture:

A typical Muslim house is built around a central, mostly rectangular, courtyard. To respect the dogma, the interior space is important, not the outside. Therefore, a part of the house is separated for females. The men’s reception (or guest) room tends to be located next to the entrance lobby of the house so that non-mahram visitors do not see the females. The windows are inside not outside of the house so that eye contact between non-mahrams does not occur. In the big house, where several generations can dwell together, measures are imposed so that the contact between non-mahrams like cousins or brother/sister-in-law of opposite sex dwellers does not lead to an eventual sexual temptation.

Stricter than a traditional Islamic house, we see marks of the non-mahram culture in the imposition of gender segregation in Islamic palaces; no access to the harem area of palace, except for castrated servants, was possible.

Such palaces had to conform to the rules separating non-mahrams from each other. Woman’s body is the red line of visual and acoustic fields. Therefore, not only the interrelationship between the dwellers but any activity in these places is influenced by the norm of non-mahram. Paintings, frescos, music, theatre, ceremonies…, are all male domains. From these palaces an official, normative style was generated and then extended into the whole society.

Moral words describing red lines of non-mahram were created; words like Namus, Hormat, Khairat, referring to the culture of non-mahram, shaped character development in the popular culture, such that a “good” Muslim man would not permit a female member of his mahram circle (daughter/sister/wife) to be met or seen by non-mahram men.

“Madrassas” (traditional schools) were built mostly for male Muslim children. Such a school had to respect the dogma of non-mahram by imposing gender segregation as a moral requirement. It taught the phobia of sexual temptation to little children.

All of those measures which allegedly lead to the sex segregation are reflected from the dogma of non-mahram, a deep established belief system affecting and colouring many aspects of social life. As a dogma, it is a social phenomenon with stereotyped resonances.

Since in the Islamic view of morality, touching women may lead to temptation and immorality, a Muslim woman should not show her beauty, adornment and dress to a non-mahram. Therefore the form of head-to-foot hijab with a black cloth, which is not transparent, is recommended for Islamic hijab.

Islamic hijab is a red line around a Muslim woman’s body to stop a possible temptation between non-mahrams; therefore it is considered a duty for any Muslim woman to avoid the circumstances that lead to fornication and adultery.

The second question is: what is the origin and reason of Islamic hijab?

One of the main components of Islamic hijab’s dogma is misogyny, which is older than hijab itself. It is a primitive tradition of social hierarchy, when the strong sex had the upper hand.

Woman’s hair has been since considered a source of vitality, and special magic powers have been attributed to it. Long before Islamic interpretation of “Dr” Abol-Hassan Banisadr’s famous confirmation — “the female hair radiates something which acts on the male brain” — the idea was inspired from mythological stories.

King Solomon is said to have had 700 wives and 300 concubines. David had 99. Many early societies had no restrictions on the number of wives or rules for how they were to be treated.

Early Christianity invented the idea that not only Eve herself but also all daughters of Eve were full of sin. Therefore, man was better off not to marry. Since this would be the end of mankind, the same people found apparently a compromise and concluded that only the impious men marry. The myth of malicious Eve, guilty of the First Sin for seducing Adam to eat the apple, is a symbolic inspiration of misogyny in religions.

Gender segregation was never in Christianity as restrictive as in Islam. Wearing a headdress was a long tradition of European women, a status symbol from the upper classes that attracted the envy of those less privileged than themselves. This is however not comparable with Islamic hijab which is derived from the dogma of non-mahram, with no social privilege or aesthetic reasons for women.

The dominant idea in Islam — not completely different from other religions — considers that women, by nature, desire to be looked at, adored and cherished, while the man is inclined towards non-mahram women. Therefore, Allah warns women about their nature, which may lead men astray if women do not exercise caution and take necessary safeguards.

The rule of hijab in Islam is not unrelated to the Prophet’s bothers with his harem. As described by Ali Dashti in his book “Bisto-Seh Saal” (23 Years), the Prophet used many verses of the Koran (Surah Ahzaab) to consolidate his position against his much younger wives to force them into absolute obedience and chastity. In his demand for chastity no standard of Islamic dress was mentioned. Muhammad’s preoccupations seem to be his personal obsession, especially when forbidding his wives to remarry after his death; the idea of segregation between his own harem and non-mahrams seems to be Muhammad’s human reaction. Although Muhammad banned female infanticide in early Arabia, he kept a part of existing misogynous traditions and institutionalised it through Islam.

Hijab comes from an old Arabic word “hajba” meaning to hide from view. The two sources of Islam, namely Koran and the “Hadith,” could not fix a style of dress as an Islamic standard of clothing for women. However some verses of the Koran quote Muhammad requiring his wives to cover their faces so that men, non-mahrams, would not think of them in sexual terms.

There are speculations about the origin and motive of hijab. The origin could go back to Iranians, its main present victims, to the 6th Century BC under Cyrus the Great and the Achaemenian Empire in Persia. Together with the idea of female seclusion, it persisted under Alexander and the Byzantine Empire, and was adopted by the Arab conquerors of the Byzantines. Its use was revived and finally adjusted to Islam.

It has been believed that Muslim women throughout history had to cover themselves with a variety of Islamic hijabs such as lachak. chador, russari, rubandeh, chaqchur, maghnaeh, burqa, etc. All of them were of clan, ethnic, or other folkloristic origin. They differ from region to region and from social class to social class, with no Islamic standard for a single form. However, they all draw the red line between non-mahrams” with reference to the interpretations of the Koran and the “Hadith” (sayings).

Hijab in its different forms began to disappear with the adoption of Western culture, but the Islamic regime in Iran gave it new life in recent decades. IRI’s propaganda says, “Beneath Islamic hijab, entire woman’s values and respect is upheld”. It is alleged to be the only safe guarantee for the women’s protection against the danger of brazen indecency, which can stifle the Muslim women in decadence; Islamists allege that “the Islamic society becomes subjugated to the non-believing and decadent cultures”. To IRI’s mass media, Islamic hijab represents a contemporary rebirth of an invulnerable Islamic identity.

The third question is: what are the effects of non-mahram?

Effects of sex segregation have left crucial results in social backwardness. Psychological experiments show that a group of mixed-sex performs better than a group of the same sex. Considering the factor of mixture, the first group is more motivated and more efficient than the second one. This finding extrapolated to society as a whole explains one source of backwardness in the Islamic world.

Under the strict conditions of Islamic hijab, work conditions, education, sport, and entertainment are particularly difficult for women. Women’s non-participation in the economy and production of social needs is another reason for backwardness.

Morally, the secluded Muslim mother would not be a symbol of social justice, democracy, and modernity for her children.

The IRI has politicised Islamic hijab in recent decades. While it represents a powerful symbol of dominant Islam in Iran, in the West it symbolises a rejection of integration or assimilation with the modern world. Furthermore in some controversial cases, it provokes racism and xenophobia.

Compared with the population of Iranian cities, the low rate of sexual crimes in Iran’s rural population is an obvious reason to reject non-mahram’s dogma as a factor of sexual temptation. In fact, despite being governed by the IRI, peasant and bedouin women neither wear hijab nor are locked away in the house.

The long-term effects of apathy and ignoring of the secular Iranian opposition to the misogynist nature of the IRI prevented Iranian women from gaining support against the increasing imposition of the Islamic hijab at the beginning of the IRI. Furthermore, apart from some reactions of human rights organisations, the international community has never condemned IRI’s constant violation of the dignity of Iranian women. The systematic violation of women’s rights, along with the brutal suppression of women’s rights movements, have not been strongly protested by the “civilized” world.

Today, Iranian society seems to be so amalgamated with the Islamic hijab that this vision represents an obvious norm for the international community.

Islamic hijab is today an important blockade to woman’s freedom. This outdated, self appointed and obsessive model cannot be applied to today’s Iranian women. Islamic hijab is a blindfold forcing women to remain indoors, reducing them to half the status of a man, pushing them to be footnotes of social life, and condemning them to be alien non-mahram in their own environment.

Jahanshah Rashidian is an Iranian-born German writer in several languages.

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