Historically speaking, the “hijab” (or Islamic headscarf) has never represented any form of Islamic dogma, legal obligation or religious symbol, even if today the impression is such.
Jurists during the classical period of Islam – who when Muslim law was first formulated for the four great legal schools of Islam – never presented any theories on the headscarf. The celebrated jurist and founder of the Theological University of Fez in Morocco, Qayrawin (died in 996), spoke about the headscarf only in reference to prayer rituals, when women enter mosques to pray on Fridays. And the word he used was “khimar”, a veil covering women from head to toe. He never used the term “hijab”. It is the same with other authors of the period.
There is indeed an explanation for all this. Classical Islam jurists warned of the need to formulate legal theory concerning the headscarf or veil, simply because a woman’s medieval world was that of a cloister, where she didn’t leave home, leading her life within the borders of private property. And when she did venture out, which was rare, she had to do so with the authorization of a male figure – whether it be her father, husband or brother –and only under exceptional circumstances, as for some formal ceremony or pilgrimage.
The hijab is an invention of the 14th century, and it has no real basis in the Koran. In the Koran, “hijab” comes from the root “hjb”, which refers not to an object, but an action: wearing a headscarf, pulling down a curtain or screen or reducing light so as to prevent others from prying or looking in.
The change to the word “hijab”, from signifying an action to meaning an object, comes in the 14th century. The jurist, Ibn Taymiyya, was the first to use the word “hijab” to mean “headscarf”. It was a headscarf that distinguished Muslim from non-Muslim women. It came to distinguish a woman’s identity and religious association.
Ibn Taymiyya stated that a free woman has the obligation to cover herself with a headscarf, while a slave is not obliged as such. He justified this based on a maximalist interpretation (cf. Koran, verse 31, sura 24), transforming the words of a generic statement into a principle, by giving it a binding or legal sense. Yet all this – and we do well to point it out – was still an interpretation, an interpretation which gave rise to a rule.
This change in language and social interpretation is a sign of crisis within the 14th century Muslim world: the end of the great Islamic empires and the invasion of Baghdad by a foreign power – the Mongols of Genghis Khan. The “ummah” (the community of believers) had to therefore face and struggle with what nowadays we call the principle of “otherness”. This posed the same problem then as it does nowadays: today’s Muslims now must cope with how to be themselves in a society dominated by non-Muslims. The headscarf is a sign of the Muslim community’s defensive reactions and focuses on legal norms not to create leeway for freedom of expression, but rather to establish a form of control – on Islam itself.
Therefore it is no coincidence that Ibn Taymiyya (died 1328) is a daily point of reference in neo-fundamentalist language.
However the decisive change for the “hijab” in terms of meaning and law occurs in the 20th century, especially in its last fifty years. In Muslim countries, following the period of decolonization, the processes of modernization created great difficulties for traditional societal structures and institutions. Two unprecedented phenomena occured: literacy of the masses and women going to school, work and out from their homes. The outside world was added to their main world of reference.
In the face of such social changes, many exegetes in Islam have reacted in neo-conservative ways, creating a legal system legitimizing and prescribing the use of the hijab. The headscarf thus becomes a distinct symbol of Islamic identity and separation between sexes. The headscarf’s introduction and use into public areas indeed favors the creation of a gender barrier, which today is not limited to the headscarf itself, but in some other countries has given rise to an actual division of space, even in public transport vehicles (e.g. some neo-fundamentalist-minded architects have drawn up ideas for separate elevators for men and women). Thus public space, instead of sanctioning a principle of equality, focuses on sexual discrimination.
However, all these changes in the headscarf’s use and practice is joined to that which is a constant in the customs and norms of Muslim society: the dichotomy between the pure and impure, and prohibition as a basis for Islamic law.
The frequent emphasis in sacred texts – that women mustn’t do anything to look at other men and draw attention to themselves, hence covering up their figures – has indeed led the collective Muslim unconscious to associate femininity with lust. In this way women have become synonymous with the chaos and disorder attributed to vice. Hence with women there is always the imminent risk of committing acts of impurity. Due to their reproductive role, women are invested with a certain sacred nature. Therefore, breaking the rule – that is to say, showing themselves off – means contaminating their original purity.
This taboo spells for a puritan society and articulates a legal system of control. Muslim societies are obsessed by issues of impurity; and the headscarf tends to symbolically preserve the bounds between the pure and impure.
Today the headscarf takes on the meaning of an identity crisis. In addition to expressing the widespread malaise found in Islamic society, the headscarf conceals its changes and exacerbates people’s fears. Whoever wears it, especially in the West, does so because they are coerced or conditioned to do so or are claiming their rights and asserting free choices. There are many opinions, but they all defer to a series of unsolved conflicts: between Islam and the West, with Islam itself and between law and culture.