The past three and a half months in the heart of the Islamic world have blasted my preconceptions on the hijab straight out of the water(or sand). When I arrived, my view was simple: clearly it represented a form of patriarchal, Arab-Islamic oppression that ought to be fought at every turn. You might know me as a cynic about many of the manifestations of modern feminism, but this was my own personal line in the sand firmly on the side of feminism. These weeks with literally hundreds of women who wear the hijab in all its forms have complicated my opinion, in multiple directions.
First, a little vocabulary exercise. Hijab is a complex word and concept. Basically, it is the Arabic word for "veil" or "cover" and more broadly represents the concept of modesty. Colloquially, it is usually used to refer to the head or head-and-neck most often associated with Islamic women. Abaya is the long, shapeless black overcoat worn by conservative Muslim women and a legal obligation in Saudi Arabia. Burqa is a single-piece head-to-toe cloth peculiar to Afghanistan and that region, with a thin mesh for vision and breathing. A chador is a Persian garment similar to an abaya. Niqab is any of a number of forms of face-covering veils, usually with a vision slit.
There are all sorts of other terms, variants, and subtleties to these terms peculiar to Arabic, its various dialects, and all the regions of Islam, but I am neither qualified nor interested in discussing this. Basically, before I came I didn't know and didn't care about the difference - the Islamic requirement of "modesty," however it might be interpreted, was sexist and wrong.
Now, having met a large number of hijabis, whose interpretation ranges from a simple head-wrap to the full neck-covering shawl, I've pulled the proverbial 180. Their reasons range across a broad spectrum: modesty, piety, a desire to fit in, social pressures, family orders, and simple tradition. The most insidious examples are of those girls who said, as one of my friends did - "If you don't, they call you a slut and spread stories" - or something to that effect. This is a social problem in the Arab world, as prevalent among women as men, and it needs to be addressed. Many girls just want to be protected in some measure from the leering eyes and comments of the men on the street, another social issue which will take time and energy to remove - if it indeed it ever can be. From personal experience with months in a mostly-veiled nation, the sight of a woman's hair is enough to turn my head every single time. Needless to say, I developed a severe neck sprain in Lebanon!
Nevertheless, the religion of Islam - or an interpretation thereof - saying that women's hair needs to be covered is not particularly harmful in and of itself. I used to object on the grounds that men had no similar restriction, but that's not strictly true(although the men's rules are far less stringent). But anyways - men don't have to cover their chests on the beach in the West, and we're not allowed to wear skirts and dresses in an social setting(Eddie Izzard notwithstanding). Norms will always be different for the sexes, and although I don't think the Islamic ones are a particularly good idea, I respect the difference of opinion. I love wine and might die without pork, but its fine if you want to declare it haram - just let me keep it!
A note, however - going to Turkey and Lebanon was incredibly refreshing for me, to see all of the women walking around looking, happy, healthy and mostly uncovered. Even the covered ones appeared more at ease, smiling, talking, and generally seeming better-adjusted than all but the must affluent hijabis in Egypt. Whether this a function of religion, society, or something else - I have no idea. Of course there was no self-interest at all in this observation...:)
Yet with regards to the niqab and the burqa, I've become if anything more radically opposed. You don't know the meaning of hypocrisy until you've seen an Arab man in full Western suit being trailed by 1 (or more) woman wearing a head-to-toe black garment with only a thin mesh to see and breath. It drives me berserk and I want to scream from my lungs every time I see the poor women struggling to walk, wear glasses, or even eat. It is a horrible, disgusting practice and no amount of cultural relativism will change that. Maybe its their choice, I don't know, but I think it does so much more harm than good that it becomes irrelevant.
Humanity is manifested in the face. Hair and skin and revealing clothes are a vanity. The face is where our inner selves manifest, how we greet the world. To hide that, to be told that God and Men demand that you hide that, is dehumanizing in the extreme. Can you imagine living your whole life without ever feeling the sun, the wind on your face? Worse yet, to feel it until your first period, and then be denied it ever again?? It is beyond cruel, and I cannot condone it in any circumstance whatsoever. The niqab and its various forms do irreparable damage to society, to freedom, and to individual women.