The Hijab: A Symbol of Liberation

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As a Western woman, I felt out of place walking down the streets in Morocco. It’s not because of what I was wearing, it was what I wasn’t wearing that made me stand out: the hijab. The majority of the women I saw were wearing this traditional headscarf. Culture shock overwhelmed me during my first few days in Morocco and all I could see was women with their heads covered, but after settling into my role as the exotic foreigner I noticed the differences in the headscarves. Walking down the street on our second day in Meknes, I encountered two extremes within twenty feet of each other. The first was a tall woman with a full body veil. It was all black and the only parts of the woman I could see were her eyes and hands. “Who is this woman who has become a mystery behind her veil?” I wondered. As I passed this first woman, my eyes landed on the next group of ladies. These women were different because you could see their faces and there were patterns on their headscarves. The first woman had a baby-soft pink scarf with darker pink polka dots sprinkled throughout. The next wore a paisley scarf with sea-foam green and sky blue twisting within the pattern. The last woman was more conservative with a plain lavender hijab, but it brought out the beautiful smile on her face. How could walking twenty feet on one road in Morocco show so much diversity with one piece of clothing? Does this variety represent different divisions within the Islamic community? I knew there was only one person to bring a question of this magnitude to, one person who might have an answer that satisfied me. Fortunately, we were going to meet him the very next day.

Our visit to the Imam was full of openness and understanding. He was the perfect host, serving us mild and dates himself all the while telling us we deserved much more. When he opened the floor for questions, he was patient for the translation and gave unexpected, insightful answers. During a pause, I raised my hand boldly: “Do the differences in the way women wear the hijab represent different factions or sects within Islam?” The Imam’s answer showed me that this issue was not about community, but about the development of the individual. He explained that the hijab had to do with jihad within the self. Women who are more modern with the hijab are still fighting a personal jihad while women who, for example, only show their eyes and hands have reached an “extreme jihad.” They have totally denied themselves and any claim to worldly beauty that they have. They resist the desire of the flesh to take pride in physical appearances. They have given up beauty of the body for beauty of the soul.

What an inspiring explanation of the hijab. Fatema Mernissi clarifies jihad in her novel Scheherazade Goes West in a way that could have come straight from the Imam. Mernissi explains that jihad against the enemy is the minor jihad. The major jihad is the war against the selfishness within us. It is a jihad of the soul. It seeks to change the individual on the inside to become a better human being. With these ideas in mind, the hijab transforms from a symbol of the oppression of women to a symbol of liberation from the beauty ideals of this world. This light transforms the Western woman into the slave; the slave of make-up and clothes and all of the ideas that men have made up about female beauty. The woman wearing the hijab is the empowered woman. She is the one who can stand up and proclaim that she is not a slave of the body image of the Victoria’s Secret model. She is the brave and liberated one.

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