Last Sunday I came across a most awkward sight. Just outside the big fast-food joint near Karachi’s Jinnah International Airport, I saw at least three separate middle-class families with daughters in hijabs wrapped around their little heads. The girls couldn’t have been more than four years old.
Watching the young girls bop about in their hijabs (around their moms who were all in burqas), a question popped in my mind: What exactly were the parents thinking when they decided to wrap scarves around the heads of their little daughters?
Think about it: Did they believe that without their hijabs these little girls would attract immodest stares from men?
This is a rather disturbing thought. But as much as I wanted to, of course, I just couldn’t walk up to the parents and ask them.
Nevertheless, I too belong to a large clan where most women adorn the burqa. So I’ve had ample opportunities to interact with both the hijab and burqa phenomenon up-close, enough to develop at least some understanding of it. Incidents of urban middle-class women opting for the hijab and/or the more cloaked burqa is nothing new in Pakistan. It’s been on the rise for the past twenty-five years or so.
Apart from the blanket fact that correctly describes this happening as a symptom of the growing social and religious conservatism among the lower-middle and middle-class urbanites, unfortunately not a lot else has been said or studied in this respect.
Whose decision it is that a woman should wear a hijab or a burqa?
To understand this I’ll bank on the findings of a rare study undertaken by Professor Sadaf Ahmad on the workings of the Islamic evangelist, Farhat Hashmi’s Al-Huda organisation; and on my own observations during the time period I was growing up with girl cousins most of whom opted for the burqa.
Women who take up the more conservative burqa usually do so because it is a tradition (as is the case in my extended family).
However, though it is a tradition that is willingly followed by the women, its importance is largely emphasised by the male members of the family.
On the other hand, the young middle-class women who have decided to adorn the hijab mostly seem to have done so of their own accord.
In fact there have been cases (and some are even related in Ahmed’s study and book), in which, certain young members of the Al-Huda and other Islamic outfits for women, had become so conservative in their habits and beliefs (again, of their own accord), that it actually became a problem of sorts for their parents.
Mostly this is due to the fact that such young women are coming from families that did not have a tradition of women adorning the Islamic attire.
For example, in her book, Ahmad is told by one young woman at Al-Huda that she was shocked to see how women of her mother’s generation dressed (in the 1970s).
A large number of both religious as well as secular scholars of Islam agree that Quranic verses on the matter of women’s dressing are open to a wide array of interpretations.
Then there are also well-known Muslim intellectuals and authors such as Ziauddin Sardar, Irshad Manji, Muhammad Arkhun, Raza Aslan and even the more restrained Akber S. Ahmed who suggest that the observance of the modern hijab/burqa largely remains to be an extension of a tradition shaped by the dictates of men.
They say that the practice is an outcome of laws and social mores constructed and imposed over the last many centuries by judges, clerics, and lawmakers who were all men.
But contemplating the theological part of the topic is not the purpose here.
Simply because I personally believe that the practice in this respect within the lower-middle and middle-class Pakistani women has major economic and non-religious reasons attached to it as well.
More than a religious practice, both the hijab and the burqa, is a social statement. And a defensive one, as opposed to being defiant.
This is especially so in societies (such as Pakistan) where faith has increasingly been advocated as a way to judge one’s character not through his or her actions in the modern context of nationhood, law and order; but on how frequently a person exercises religious rituals that now also include adorning correct Islamic attire.
So, for example, a hijab-clad woman may be interacting with a number of secular-materialistic situations, her hijab here becomes a statement suggesting that she has not lost her Islamic identity in the amoral commotion.
She believes that her moral character will be judged more harshly (especially by men) if she did not adorn the hijab in non-religious surroundings.
To me, this notion is what makes her act of wearing a hijab more defensive in orientation, in spite of the fact that she is likely to explain it as liberating and being faithful to holy scriptures.
There’s also an economic factor involved here. But this factor has more to do with women who prefer the burqa.
A majority of Pakistanis before the 1980s were associated with a more pluralistic and permissive strain of the faith directly linked to the region’s Sufi shrine culture. But that began to change when, from the late 1970s onwards, a number of Pakistanis started to travel to and work in oil-rich Arab countries.
Those returning to Pakistan or sending money back from these countries gave birth to Pakistan’s first major batch of the nouveau-riche.
In the Arab countries not only did they make a lot of money, they also came into direct contact with denominations of the faith that looked suspiciously at their beliefs.
Thus, many Pakistanis who returned richer from these countries almost at once began to peel off their old interpretations of the faith, replacing them with the more puritanical ones that they’d come into contact with in Arabia.
In fact, since the old strain of the faith that they were born into now reminded them of their less well-off past, the newly adopted denomination became a badge announcing their new-found economic prosperity and status.
The resurgence of the burqa (especially the kind worn in the oil-rich Arab world) among urban middle-class women in Pakistan whose husbands or brothers have done well in oil-rich Arab countries is at least one obvious sign flashed to exhibit one’s raised economic status.
Another reflection of this is the way the burqas have evolved, becoming more stylised with their own accessories, such as sack-like handbags that are usually shiny gold and silver in colour.
Indeed, a show of 'modesty' has never been so stylistic (or expensive). Or for that matter, imposed on very young girls who might already have begun to denounce Dora for running around with Diego without a head scarf!