October 13, 2009

Islam's Hijab and Mormon Garments: On Clothing as Broadcasting

Hijab typically refers to the Muslim practice of "veiling" for women (in Arabic the word means "curtain" or "covering"). Muslims differ in their application of hijab—ranging from full body coverage to a scarf covering the hair—but the general outlook is that hijab is a form of modesty and religious identification. According to John Esposito, the custom was "assimilated from the conquered Persian and Byzantine societies...The Quran does not stipulate veiling,"1 though it does emphasize the need for women to be modest in dress:
And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty;...that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and display their beauty only to their husbands, their fathers (Quran 24:31).2 
Aside from practical matters, the initial intent of veiling included "the protection, honor, and distinction of women" and hijab was first adopted by "upper-class urban women who lived in great palaces and courts and enjoyed considerable mobility and opportunity."3 It spread more slowly to village and rural women.

In the West, the dominant view of the practice is that it is oppressive to women. Many Muslim women would disagree, but nevertheless the practice is contested even amongst Muslim-majority nations. In a recent Politics and Islam classroom discussion we focused on hijab and watched a film featuring interviews of Muslim women from three different countries. Though it was far from a comprehensive survey, the reactions from the women differed depending on the location. In Iran, women are forced to veil by law; all women in public must be veiled or they are punished. The common reaction of Iranian women when asked what hijab meant to them was that they had simply become used to it, not that it actually meant something to them religiously. When everyone is forced to veil is the religious meaning diminished for the individual? By contrast, women who work in government positions in secular Turkey are forced to un-veil. When Merve Kavakçı (pictured above) was elected to Parliament in 1999 she was shouted down and prevented from taking the oath of office because she wore hijab. It became a symbol of religious and political freedom for Kavakçı, in sharp contrast to Iranian women who are forced to veil. The film also featured women in the United States who explained their decision to wear hijab in terms of religious representation, being set apart from degrading immodesty, and the benefit of not being judged by their looks.4 I sensed a strong pride as well as a hint of separatism.

Strikingly, amidst the comments about politics, culture, and religion, none of the women in the video mentioned wearing hijab because of a command from Allah, or out of a desire to create or participate in a closer relationship to Allah, or those sorts of things. When I raised this point (which is admittedly just as likely to be the result of the editing and direction of the film) a young woman in my class who wears hijab pointed out that she chose to wear hijab for those very reasons, in addition to some of the other reasons mentioned by Muslim Americans in the film. She talked about being a representative of her religion wherever she goes because she wears hijab.

Such talk of religious clothing reminded me of the garment worn by endowed members of the LDS Church.5 Similar to hijab, the garment has been connected to the concept of modesty, but in contrast to hijab, it is worn under the clothing, much less conspicuously. President Boyd K. Packer made the connection:
The garment represents sacred covenants. It fosters modesty and becomes a shield and protection to the wearer. The wearing of such a garment does not prevent members from dressing in the fashionable clothing generally worn in the nations of the world. Only clothing that is immodest or extreme in style would be incompatible with wearing the garment.6
In addition to similar concepts of modesty and religious devotion, thinking of the garment compared to hijab brought up two other points: The idea that clothing is a broadcast and the responsibility that comes along with such broadcasting.

By calling clothing a "broadcast" I mean to say it can be used to send messages to others either deliberately or inadvertently. The injunction against judging a book by its cover is nice advice, but more often than not it is ignored on an interpersonal basis. What we wear and look like sends messages about the type of person we are, whether we would find such messages accurate or not. The young woman who was proud of her ability to broadcast her religion by use of hijab made me think of the heavy responsibility that could entail. For example, I thought of the bumper sticker on my car, the one with a particular political candidate. Every so often—when I make a bad turn, or forget to signal, or fail to let someone merge—I think of that bumper sticker and the message it sends. Will my poor behavior be combined with the bumper sticker in the mind of the driver I just accidentally cut off? Such broadcasting requires much confidence and perhaps more self-conscious hope for forgiveness. But for the most part I turn off that broadcast signal when I leave my car in the parking lot. This doesn't happen for the women in hijab. Still, the garment provides a personal reminder to Latter-day Saints regarding their relationship to God and the promises they've made as part of that relationship. Elder Carlos E. Asay's 1997 Ensign article on the garment puts it this way:
I like to think of the garment as the Lord’s way of letting us take part of the temple with us when we leave. It is true that we carry from the Lord’s house inspired teachings and sacred covenants written in our minds and hearts. However, the one tangible remembrance we carry with us back into the world is the garment. And though we cannot always be in the temple, a part of it can always be with us to bless our lives.7
It's interesting to think that my broadcast-by-clothing isn't as loud and it isn't as obviously received by others as is hijab. It gives me more to think about.

John L. Esposito, Islam: the Straight Path, Oxford University Press (2005, revised third edition), pp. 98-99. This is an admittedly over-simplified blog post to spur reflection rather than to provide anything close to a comprehensive analysis.

Men are also enjoined to "lower their gaze and be modest" as well, though there is no clothing stipulation (Quran 24:30).

Esposito, Ibid., p. 99.

I believe such individuals are likely still judged by their looks quite often, only for different reasons. The implication is that women can use their beauty to advance or be honored while other qualities of intelligence and so forth are overlooked, whereas hijab makes women more equal, and men more likely to respect their abilities.

For those unfamiliar with the LDS lingo regarding Temples and endowments, see Boyd K. Packer's introductory pamphlet "The Holy Temple" at LDS.org.

Boyd K. Packer, The Holy Temple, Deseret Book (1980), p. 75.

Carlos E. Asay, “The Temple Garment: ‘An Outward Expression of an Inward Commitment’,” Ensign, Aug. 1997, pp. 19-23.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this post. Canadian Muslim folk singer Dawud Wharnsby wrote and performed what I think is a beautiful number about the Hijab. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8f96bGluhss


BHodges said...

Thanks DavidH.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the Quran does not specify hijab--but modesty. Head covering was used by both men and women---the men wearing various types of head-covering depending on region. Today, many men have abondoned this practice except for some places in the world. (Some men still cover their heads during prayer)---For some women,the sense of "identity" from clothing is often a reaction to society--either a rejection of some prevalent notion or a reaction to it. Many women began wearing hijab after 9/11 because of the intense criticism and misunderstanding of Islam. In some countries, hijab became a symbol of disillusionment with things "western" and a "going back" to things Islamic. ---Which is why governments often get involved in womens wardrobe decisions---whatever the reasons women choose their clothing, it is nevertheless an expression of themselves and governments should stay out of it.
I am an undecided muslim woman---a part-time hijabi. I do agree with modest clothing because it promotes self-respect (and the Quran says so) but though the hijab was originally meant to promote self-respect and modesty as well, I am still debating its relevance in today's society---afterall, men have mostly abandoned it without effort and are doing fine......

BHodges said...

Thank you for lending your thoughtful perspective, anon. You effectively highlight some of the political/religious issues involved with hijab.

Forest said...

I have had similar thoughts about the wearing of the cross. That symbol of Christ's atonement to me would be such a serious thing.

I am a high school teacher and sometimes see "unchristian" behavior by students wearing a cross.

I know all of us do not live up to all of our beliefs, all of the time but went such a potent symbol is on display for all to see it seems like your idea of "broadcasting" is relevant.

BHodges said...

Right on, Forest. None of us can perfectly live up to such a symbol. Perhaps we become more aware of our own shortcomings, which can serve to remind us to be lenient and forgiving to others. Our broadcast shouldn't just be sending messages to others, but to ourselves as well.

Anonymous said...

I agree that behaviour that promotes compassion,tolerance and mercy should be encouraged.

With clothes/accessories, we have the freedom to choose---and I may be mixing apples and oranges here---but what about "ethnicity"? (colors/tones of our body) should our behaviour speak about that or is that dangerous stereotyping?

....do we need a more balanced way of looking at things?......or.......?

Don Kauffman said...

Is there other religious clothing that is essentially concealed like the LDS garment? Like hijab, all of the items I’m thinking of are visibly displayed.
Like you alluded to, since temple garments are only visible if you know what to look for (and open display is viewed as sacrilege), they don’t really act as a broadcast. Rather it’s closer to close-circuit television – visible only to the specified audience.
It makes me wonder how LDS culture change if we were asked to wear our religion on our sleeves.

BHodges said...

Right, Don, that was sort of what I was looking for. I forgot to close the thought of broadcasting in terms of garments. Your final sentence restates quite well what I was going for. "It makes me wonder how LDS culture change if we were asked to wear our religion on our sleeves."

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