The Many Meanings of the Hijab

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I wore a hijab for the first time at my 17th birthday party. At that time, wearing a hijab was sort of a symbol of entering adulthood, so I also had to control my behaviour. Although I wasn’t 100 percent sure about wearing a hijab, I knew I didn’t have to be too strict and I could just wear it whenever I felt like it, so there was no pressure at all.

Back then, wearing a hijab was considered a big step. It was a careful decision to take and no one gave anybody any pressure to do it. The responsibility was big. It was more than just putting a piece of cloth on one’s head or being fearful of God.

When wearing a hijab, women had to control their behaviour and restrict themselves from doing things that were considered to be sins. It was a transformation of self, not only in their look, but also in the heart, soul and mind. And for me, the hijab marked a shift of stages in life, from being a teenager to being an adult. Unfortunately, the hijab version of me was short lived, as I grew up to be more of a modernist than a conservative.

In most western countries, wearing a hijab is commonly perceived as a symbol of submissiveness to religion or even patriarchy. Some countries in Europe even ban public use of full-covered veils called burqa as well as the eyes-uncovered veil niqab for security reasons. Hijabs are still allowed, but not in official spaces like schools and government offices.

Unfortunately, most mainstream media I read usually juxtapose the narrative of wearing hijabs with western secular values or even state opinions that Muslims fail to integrate and embrace the western values. Only few media highlight the inequality and discrimination that Muslims are facing as a minority in western countries, and how the hijab is used as a symbol of resistance to secular values.

As a response to the assumption, many Muslim women living in western countries prove that their willingness to wear a hijab has nothing to do with submissiveness. Their decision to wear a hijab is fully based on their own consideration and consciousness, and not under anyone’s pressure. I have stumbled upon some YouTube videos to compare the decisions of women wearing hijabs to my European Muslim friends. Most of them express similar reasons, that by wearing a hijab, they want to be identified as a person who practices Islam. Hijab in this case serves as a symbol of group belonging.

What about in Indonesia?

Historically, the practice of wearing a hijab itself went under restriction during the New Order Regime as an attempt to control Islamic movements that were against the government’s modernist view. This may explain why back then there weren’t as many women wearing hijabs as there are now.

While the practice of wearing a hijab is often linked to politics and hegemony, the media rarely tell the story on the individual level. What does wearing a hijab mean to one person, and how does that practice relate to their social context?

I remember seeing my mum’s photos taken around the end of the 1970s wearing sleeveless clothes. She said that her look was considered trendy and acceptable back then, and no one seemed to be bothered by it, even though her father was known as a respected Ulema in her hometown. She did not wear a hijab until she returned from the hajj in the 1990s. My mum’s decision to wear a hijab was closely linked to her pilgrimage.

For Muslims, the hajj is the ultimate ritual to be taken only when the person can withstand it financially, physically and mentally. Most Muslims see the hajj as an invitation from God, the ultimate goal of being a Muslim. The Pilgrimage is a rite of passage.

A theory from a classic anthropologist, Arnold van Gennep, explains rite of passage as a liminal stage, which should be taken in order to gain a new status in society. In this liminal stage, a person should practice rituals and gain access to a set of values, which grants him or her a new identity. With this “new status”, this person will be able to take a greater role in society and earn respect from others in their newly acquired identity.

The hijab, in this case, is the symbol of this new status.

There shouldn’t be a universal meaning of hijab, so the context of hijab varies from one country to another. It is personal, and it depends completely on the social contexts.

For example, many of my Indonesian friends decided to wear a hijab after passing certain stages of their lives which they consider important. For example, after graduating from college, after entering a marriage, after getting a dream job or even after finishing certain religious rituals like hajj or mini hajj (umrah). In this case, a hijab can be seen as a symbol of a new identity, to indicate which part of society that person belongs to, and to distinguish them from others who do not belong to that group.

Hijabs can also be seen as a form of protection. Most women think that they can avoid attracting inappropriate attention from men by wearing a hijab. Wearing a hijab can make them feel safer and can prevent them from harassment, as they’re perceived to be “good women”.

Unfortunately these days, others who do not wear hijabs must often suffer a negative stigma. A research conducted in 2017 by an Indonesian scholar, Linda Sari Zuarnum, a graduate from the Centre of Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies, Gajah Mada University, reveals that contemporary Muslim women who choose not wear a hijab nowadays experience the challenge of being stereotyped as non-pious Muslims who do not practice the religion.

Those who decide to take it off mostly experience harsh social judgment from family members and social circles. The hijab has become a hot trend spreading quickly all across the country, thanks to celebrities and Instagram. Muslim women wearing hijabs are now perceived as pious, fashionable and trendy, and this has set the new standard for identity and morality in society.

Does it mean that the trend of wearing a hijab will take away a woman’s personal freedom to express herself? And what will happen to them if they decide to go against the decision of the majority?

 

Photo: Siti Juwariyah, Indah Nada Puspita, Lulu Elhasbu (Instagram @sitijwryh @indahnadapuspita @luluelhasbu)

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Intan Tanjung is a contributing writer for national and international publications on the Bali's lifestyle, culture and as a popular travel destination. She loves the beach culture and the fantastic tropical way of living as well as the amazing proliferation of art.