Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

In 1962, a gentleman asked the then Egyptian President Gamal Nasser to make veiling compulsory for women. Nasser replied that for this he would need to wage a battle with millions of Egyptians.

In her book A Quiet Revolution, the Egyptian scholar of Islam Leila Ahmad writes that, by the early 1960s, veiling in the Muslim world had receded so much that Nasser took for granted that only a handful of Egyptian women practised it.

The tradition of veiling in most Muslim regions had begun to decline from the 1930s. According to Ahmad, by the 1960s, even women belonging to the ‘conservative lower-middle classes’ had begun to discard it.

The British historian Stephanie Cronin, in her book Anti-Veiling Campaigns in the Muslim World, writes that unveiling was the result of a ‘modernist gender discourse’ in the Muslim world. The discourse was triggered by the impact of European modernity in colonised regions. Local intelligentsias began to investigate the reasons behind the decline of their civilisations and the rise of the one that had colonised them.

Illustrations of girl-child students in textbooks accompanying the Single National Curriculum imply that the hijab is a normal part of Pakistan society. But is it really?

Science, modern education, integrated economies powered by industrialisation, and religious reform were identified as the main drivers of Western ascendency. According to Cronin, Muslim nationalists wanted to provide the same to their communities. They immediately adopted economic and social ‘modernisation models’ developed by the ascending Western powers. One of the learnings that had emerged from the modernist gender discourse in the Muslim regions was that economic progress in the modern world required an educated workforce which could not exclude women.

This meant women had to attend educational institutions so they too could become part of the workforce, alongside men. This is one reason why the tradition of veiling began to recede. Cronin writes that modernist-nationalist governments in many Muslim countries posited that Islam was a progressive faith and that the idea of veiling in it was a metaphor for upholding modesty by both men and women. Between the 1920s and early 1970s, regimes in Muslim-majority countries such as Turkey, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and Albania actively discouraged veiling.

In most other Muslim-majority nation-states where veiling was also in decline, regimes had left it to the women to decide, even though the need for them to get a modern education and enter the workforce was greatly emphasised.

According to Ahmad, things in this regard began to change from the mid-1970s. Military defeats and the distributive failures of projects built on the pillars of the economic modernisation model in various Muslim countries, saw sections of their population turn towards forces that had been marginalised for being ‘anti-progress.’

These were Islamist groups that had been sidelined by the modernist-nationalists. But now, they had wealthy allies, such as oil-rich Arab monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia had often crossed swords with Nasser in its bid to replace Egypt as the most influential power in the Muslim world.

In the immediate aftermath of the third Arab-Israel war in 1973, the Saudi monarchy created an artificial oil crisis that saw billions of dollars pour into its coffers. The power elites in Muslim-majority countries quickly shifted towards the expanding orbit of Saudi influence as a way to salvage their positions eroded by social strife. Ahmad writes that the Saudi monarchy had built a university in Riyadh where young Islamist dissidents from various modernist Muslim regions were trained and then returned to their countries to preach the ‘Saudi version of Islam.’

Ironically, leaders who were once denounced by this version as being ‘irreligious’ but who were now rushing to the Saudi side, were provided millions of dollars by the Saudis. But with this largesse came certain conditions: all manifestations of ‘Western’ and ‘communist’ ideas needed to be dismantled; mosques and seminaries were to be built, controlled by Saudi-approved ulema; and the once-marginalised Islamist groups were to be integrated into policy-making institutions.

The mainstreaming of Islamist groups first began on college and university campuses. Islamist youth organisations grew in influence in Muslim countries. They had a new message: Islam alone could fulfil the peoples’ political, economic and spiritual aspirations. The rejuvenated Islamists shamed the people for becoming ‘slaves of the West’ and spiritually weak.

Campaigns by Saudi-backed organisations also ventured into cultural spaces. For example, hijabs were distributed among female students on campuses. All forms of veiling became identifiers of a new generation of young Muslim women who, according to Ahmad, ‘were affirming a different way of practising Islam’ (in contrast to the manner in which their grandmothers and then mothers had done during the three decades of the ‘era of unveiling’).

The new veiling trend was compounded by the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and furthered by the increasing influence of Saudi culture, first in the Middle East, then in non-Arab Muslim countries and, finally, among the Muslim diaspora in the West. The era of unveiling began to be pushed out from collective memory, as if Muslim women had never discarded the veil.

But resistance to the hijab continues to emerge from some Muslim women’s groups. They remind those enforcing it that the hijab was part of various pre-Islamic cultures as well, and its physical enforcement was not Divinely ordained, as ‘misinterpreted’ by its (largely male) enforcers. According to the women’s groups, it should be a choice, and not an order.

The hijab trend can also be seen as a product of hyper-Occidentalism (an exaggerated perception of permissiveness in Western societies) and of self-Orientalism (dressing up to signal ‘Islamic piety’, as perceived by Western onlookers). The supposedly ‘spiritually bankrupt’ West is still the audience.

Recently, when textbooks accompanying the Single National Curriculum — launched by the centre-right government of PM Imran Khan in Pakistan — contained illustrations of girl-child students in hijabs, many women activists were quick to ask in what century did such young Muslim girls ever wear the hijab? As one critic correctly pointed out, the practice of making young female kids wear the hijab is a recent trend.

It is naive to believe that such images will encourage widespread piety. Instead, they can actually trigger a rather warped understanding of veiling. This was experienced by one of Pakistan’s ace cricketers Hasan Ali. When he posted a photo of his toddler daughter on Twitter, a man replied (rather advised) that Hasan should ‘properly’ cover up the toddler so she could get used to wearing the veil early. Not normal at all.

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 26th, 2021

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