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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

Whose hijab is it anyway?

A conversation for and by Muslim women on what has caused this rise of head-coverings in Bangladesh? What does it mean for the religiosity of our community? Is it about religion at all, or is it culture instead?

Update : 14 Oct 2023, 11:02 AM

The hijab and chador are examples of daily implementations of the parda principle in Bangladeshi life, and have especially seen a rise in popularity over the past few years. 

In Dhaka, it is now commonplace for one to see women wearing the hijab or burqa, though this was not always the case. What has caused this rise of head-coverings in Bangladesh? What does it mean for the religiosity of our community? Is it about religion at all, or is it culture instead?

Hijab is the Arabic term for a concept that was around long before Islam became associated with it in the 7th century. Across the Mid-East or Central Asia -- even in Europe, well into the medieval era -- women specifically would wear head coverings that were regularly interpreted as a sign of their class or social rank. 

A level of respect was associated with a woman who would cover herself while walking through the market or meeting family in public spaces; this relationship between the head covering and respectability is one that continues to thrive today. 

When I ask my mother about her childhood experiences with the hijab in Dhaka, she tells me that there was a much smaller visible population of women who would wear the hijab out and about. “Growing up,” she explains, “the word hijab was not even used. What people would say is parda. You’d see women in more rural areas once in a while with a flowy, black burqa on. [But] Dhaka was much more cosmopolitan.” 

Though my family did not have much money at this time, we were well-educated and had a reputation for artistry, activism, and political ambition in our community. Even in this social circle, the extent of the head-covering would not surpass the typical loose orna-around-the-head, in the style that activist and writer Malala Yousafzai has popularized in Western recognition. 

“[It seems that now] everything is much more stylized,” my mother observes. “People find fashionable head coverings, wear accentuating makeup…at that point, the only thing it’s doing is concealing black hair.” The difference seems to be in the intention behind it all. “As a Muslim woman, I [sometimes feel like] it’s a double standard. [For example, the hijab of girls who work in garment factories] feels different because there’s no pretense. [A factory worker] has no money to buy a designer hijab and clips to go with it.” 

And what about the inevitable male influence in it all? “[What frustrates me is that] sometimes men will take credit for their daughters and wives wearing hijab and brag about it to others. What is the intention there?” 

This is where it can especially become a problem; the moment when a woman’s choice becomes construed by men who are inherently unable to have the same experience as a woman in our society. 

Seema, a family friend slightly older than my mother, describes what she notices to be a change in the ‘typical woman’ who will wear a hijab. 

“[When I was young] the minority who would wear the burqa were not considered “fashionable.” The fabric was black [and was] worn in a way that would invite little attention. [It would send a signal to others to] automatically give that person space. But now, it almost feels like it’s intended to draw more attention, with the heavy eye makeup that is becoming more popular in Bangladesh. I wonder, if I’m truly closer to God, why do I need to make people notice?” 

I remember seeing a hijabi friend of mine posting a photo of herself to Instagram with a completely sheer top on with a black bra underneath -- her underclothing entirely visible. I found it surprising at the time, never having seen anything like it before. The parallel between a change in popular intention is evident, even across age groups.

However, it’s important to acknowledge the necessity for nuance in this situation; God knows that the last thing Muslim women need is another generalization about why we wear or don’t wear the hijab. 

“I have seen many younger people, in this generation, who really educate themselves,” Seema clarifies. “They come to that conclusion of wanting to wear a head covering on their own. They’re not trying to follow a trend.”

Wanting to widen perspectives, I reference my cousin, Luna, who grew up in Bangladesh in the 90s and moved to the States years ago. 

“Once you start to wear the hijab, it’s a big responsibility. I have respect for people doing it with the right intentions. But it has to represent an internal change. It can’t be about showing others something.

“To me, it feels like a lot of [Bangladeshi attitudes are] more culture than religion. If you’re wearing the hijab, are you treating those around you right? I’ve known so many people who wear the hijab (...) yet gossip about others all the time. 

“As a little girl, I didn't know any Shia or Sunni differences. I didn't know about hijab. I just knew about parda [as a general concept]. When I moved to the States, Americans would ask me, “Bangladesh? Don’t they beat up women there?” But I grew up seeing a woman prime minister. Americans can’t say that.” 

The feeling of the “new wave of hijab” coming from an outside-in perspective is one that resonates with me, I share with Luna. “A lot of women are wearing hijab because they think they have to,” she notes. “But it shouldn’t be something that oppresses women.”

Perhaps what should be at the centre of the inevitable changes in how we interpret our religious values over time is that the hijab is more than simply a piece of clothing. 

It is a complex concept that connects to a wider ideology about modesty and a relationship with God. “Always educate yourself,” Auntie Seema concludes, looking off into her own thoughts as I thank her for her time with me. “Come to your own conclusion, no matter your age.”

Deya Nurani is a freelance contributor and a high school student based in the US.

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