Originally a source of modesty, the hijab, or Muslim head scarf, has become a political tool. Its latest manifestation came this week with the sight of 10-year old Muslim girls refusing to give up their hijab in a Quebec tae kwon do tournament, when the helmets would have served the same purpose of modesty and much more.
All Canadian women have, at some time in their lives, chosen to wear a head cover. In blinding snow storms or freezing rain, the covering of the head, irrespective of what religion one practises, is crucial to one's survival. Halfway across the world, in the deserts of Arabia, whether one was a Muslim or a pagan, the covering of one's head and face was an absolute necessity -- not just when facing a blistering sandstorm, but any time one stepped out of the home in the searing sun. What was essentially attire for a particular climate and weather has been turned into a modern symbol of defiance and, at best, a show of piety by Islamists and orthodox Muslims.
There is not a single reference in the Koran that obliges Muslim women to cover their hair or their face. The only verse that comes close to such a dress code (Sura 24, "The Light," verse 31) directs believing women to let their head coverings obscure their bosoms.
Yet, in the past few decades, Islamists and orthodox Muslims have made the covering of a woman's head the cornerstone of Muslim identity. The head cover been pushed as a symbol of piety and only the Egyptian and Saudi version of the head cover -- the hijab -- is considered worthy of respect. Coverings that originate in South Asia, the sari or the dupatta, have been relegated as less authentic under Islam.
It is true that through history, Muslim women have chosen to wear the hijab for reasons of modesty. Today, however, some wear it for the opposite reason. "Young women put on a hijab and go dancing, wearing high heels and lipstick. They wear tight jeans that show their bellies," 75-year old Nawal Al-Saadawi, Egypt's leading feminist, noted recently. She is bitter at how the covering of a women's head has been misrepresented as an act of piety and the most defining symbol of Islam.
Beyond fashion, however, this supposed symbol of modesty has assumed a decidedly political and religious tenor, dominating the debate on civil liberties and religious freedoms in the West. Any opposition to the hijab is viewed as a manifestation of Islamophobia.
This was the argument when young Asmahan Mansour was barred from a soccer league in Quebec, as she refused to remove her hijab while playing the sport. Quebec's electoral officer recently moved to disallow fully veiled Muslim women from voting, as they would not be able to identify themselves adequately.
The piece of cloth becomes a subject of controversy also because those who favour its use claim it is religiously mandated and regard its use as their Charter-protected right. To dispense with the garment while playing a sport would amount to committing a sacrilege. An inquiry into historical precedent, however, suggests the Koran does not mandate the hijab at all.
It should be noted that the khimar, a head scarf that predated the hijab, was worn by Arab women before the Koran's stipulations on modesty of dress and demeanour. Verse 24:31 did not introduce the garment, but modified its use when it said that Muslim women should "wear their head-coverings over their bosoms" -- previously, they were left bare, although decked with jewellery and ornaments.
The intent of the verse was to exhort believing women to cover their nakedness rather than their hair, which was left partially uncovered even though the khimar was a head dress. Moreover, the khimar was never rooted in religious precept -- it was rooted in custom. Modifications for its use were introduced into Islamic practice when the religion spread into Byzantine and Persian territories, where once again the head dress was prevalent as a social custom.
The khimar was also a symbol of class and distinction rather than of religion precept in pre-Islamic and early Islamic history. Indeed, there existed a hierarchy of sorts where slave women were actually barred from veiling. Omar bin Khattab, Islam's second caliph, for example, ordered harsh treatment to slave women who donned the veil. Surely, if the veil was based on religious precept, its use would not be enforced so selectively.
Therefore, to turn the hijab or khimar into a religious and political issue belies its original intent. Muslim women who so vociferously defend its religious use should consider its history before determining whether they must wear it.
Islamists have turned the hijab into the central pillar of Islam. They consider Muslim women who do not cover their heads -- the vast majority -- as sinners or lesser Muslims. They should come out and debate the issue rather than using young Muslim girls as shields to pursue a political agenda.
Farzana Hassan, president of the Muslim Canadian Congress, is author of Islam, Women and the Challenges of Today.
Tarek Fatah, a founder of the Muslim Canadian Congress, is author of Chasing a Mirage: An Islamic State or a State of Islam, to be published next year.