‘Hijab is not a ticket to heaven’

To veil or not to veil?
Kuwaiti women face off

By Chidi Emmanuel

KUWAIT: As the row over the wearing of the hijab, veil, niqab and burqa continues to rage, the Kuwait Times recently talked with some female Kuwaiti students at Kuwait University about the issue. Below are some excerpts of their views about the controversy over the subject. While many Muslims see wearing the veil as a religious obligation for women, some see it as an outdated cultural tradition dating back to the early centuries which is not mandated by the Holy Quran. The request by the women interviewed that their identity be hidden to avoid any backlash demonstrates how controversial the hijab issue is and continues to be in this part of the world.

Women’s dress in the Islamic world is based on a principle of female modesty. A woman’s choice of whether to wear hijab, veil or niqab is based on a number of factors, including location, prevailing dress codes and the woman’s social status. Some options include the hijab – a scarf hiding the hair, generally worn with loose clothing – or the burqa, a robe completely covering the head and body, with only a mesh panel through which the wearer can see. A niqab, meanwhile, veils the head and face, but allows the eyes to be seen.

As the women (one in a burqa and the other in a western-style jumpsuit) interviewed together by the Kuwait Times discussed this controversial debate, they exposed the clash between religion and different cultures as they question some ‘basic facts.’ While Sarah, who is unveiled, sees the veil as a personal choice, Fatma, who wears the veil, sees it as a religious obligation for every Muslim woman.
Sarah argued that hijab is an outdated traditional way of dressing and has nothing to do with religion.
“I don’t think God will put me in hell for not wearing a niqab, hijab or burqa.

What matters most is how clean and sincere your heart is, not how much you cover your body. History told us that some people in this part of the world wore hijab during the pre-Islamic era and moreover it is not even in the Holy Quran. We should not continue to dwell so much on custom and tradition in this computer age. The fact that our forefathers lived in mud houses with thatched roofs back then doesn’t mean we should follow suit,” Sarah argued.

Supporting Sarah’s view, May, another woman who chooses not to wear hijab, said, “During the time of the Prophet (PBUH), there were no cars, no computers etcetera, and people travelled on donkeys and horses, but today we have cars, airplanes, hummer jeeps and other luxuries. We are in another kind of civilization and this is the reality. I don’t have a problem with the hijab but let it be just optional. Many of these veiled women are wearing them not because they like it, but rather, they were forced to wear it by either their parents or their husbands, and that is where the problem lies. There are so many untold truths about this issue. Hijab is not a ticket to heaven”.

On the other side of the argument, Fatma invoked the religious link to the issues in question. “There is nothing to argue in the matter because our holy books (Hadiths) and our religion have spelt it out clearly for every woman regarding the dress code,” she insisted. “I don’t see anything uncivilized in a woman covering her body as approved by our religion. Islam is not only a religion but a way of life. Apart from that, dressing in an Islamic way makes me feel more relaxed and secure in a way. At least I’m less-tempting to a man than you [indicating Sarah],” she suggested.

“I think this whole show is just an attack on Islam. Why is it that when the Catholic nuns wear their headscarves, veils and robes, the West doesn’t see anything wrong in it? When the ultra-Orthodox male Jews grow their long beard, everything seems to be okay, but when a Muslim man grows a beard he is termed an extremist. When a girl wears a mini skirt and goes half naked, people don’t complain but when a girl covers her body, the world cries foul; why? Fatma’s friend Reem queried in dismay. “The way you dress is the way you will be addressed. If you dress like a prostitute, guys will prey on you but you dress respectfully, you will be respected,” she added.

At the Kuwait Parliament
Kuwait’s National Assembly is divided on this issue. Last year four women were elected to the parliament for the first time in this country’s history. Two of these women – Dr Aseel Al-Awadhi and Dr Rola Dashti – do not wear the hijab, and since their election, the Islamists have been demanding that they be required to do so. Moreover, the MPs of the Islamist bloc are insisting on forcing the Education Minister Moudhi Al-Humoud to wear the hijab, “in respect of the Islamic dictates”. Insisting that the request “is not a matter of extremism”, MP Mohammad Al Kandari maintained that “According to Islam and according to Kuwait’s traditions, women must wear the hijab.” Others in parliament, however, responded by stating that “In a democracy such as Kuwait, the hijab cannot be imposed.”

“It is a matter between women and God,” asserted MP Saleh Al Mullah. As the controversy rages, the National Assembly speaker had called for calm, pointing out that the parliamentary regulations do not explicitly mention any obligation to wear hijab. On October 28, 2009, the Kuwait Constitutional Court rejected a lawsuit filed by attorney Hamad Al-Nashi against MPs Al-Awadhi and Al-Dashti in which he demanded that their parliamentary membership be revoked for violating Sharia law by not wearing hijab. The court ruled that “The laws of Islamic Sharia do not have a binding force like the basic laws of the state…The Kuwaiti constitution does not stipulate that Sharia is the sole source of legislation, nor does it preclude the legislator from utilizing other sources of legislation, out of consideration for the people’s needs.”

The Kuwaiti constitution guarantees complete religious and personal freedom and forbids discrimination based on an individual’s religion or gender. MPs Al-Awadhi and Dashti hailed the court’s ruling as a triumph for Kuwait’s constitution, which Dashti said would put an end to the attempts of “those who wish to bring Kuwait back to an earlier era.”

Calls for hijab, veil, burqa ban
Meanwhile, across the globe, opinions vary on the issue. A French parliamentary panel on Tuesday recommend a ban on the wearing of face-covering veils such as the niqab and burqa in public areas from hospitals to schools. The 32-member panel’s report culminated in a six-month inquiry into the wearing of all-encompassing veils that began after President Nicolas Sarkozy said in June last year that they are “not welcome” on French territory.

In Canada, a Muslim group has called on Ottawa to ban the wearing of the burqa in public, insisting that the argument that the right to wear it is protected by the Charter’s guarantee of freedom of religion is false. “The burqa has absolutely no place in Canada,” said Farzana Hassan, of the Muslim Canadian Congress. “In Canada we recognize the equality of men and women. The burqa marginalizes women.” Hassan said that many women who cover their face in public are being forced to do so by their husbands and family. “We are saying this practice has become a political issue promoted by extremists and to counter this trend we are asking for a ban on the burqa,” she urged.

Iran crackdown
The situation in Iran, meanwhile, is quite different. The authorities not only clamp down on westernized dress styles, they also target western haircuts and hijab-less store mannequins. Last October Iranian police in the north-eastern town of Bojnourd launched a new crackdown on attractive mannequins in clothes stores and the main bazaar, confiscating about 65 ‘hijab-less female mannequins.’ “The use of vulgar mannequins - whether male or female - is an affront to public morals and is considered to be a crime,” said an Iranian official, adding that the display of properly veiled mannequins which adhere to the national dress code would not be considered a crime.

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