The Crusade Against the Hijab: Then and Now

By Khalid Baig
Posted: 19 Zul-Hijjah 1424, 10 February 2004

In the early 20th century the Rockfeller Foundation sent Ruth Frances Woodsmall on an eighteen month trip to the Muslim World to study the changing state of Muslim women under the influence of colonial rule. Her voluminous report was published by the American University of Beirut in 1936. She traveled to Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Palestine, Trans-Jordan, Iraq, Iran, and India. At each place she put the subjects of her study under the microscope, looking at all signs of Westernization, which she called as advancement and progress. “Undoubtedly the barometer of social change in the Moslem World is the veil,” she wrote. So she studied it in great detail noting the designs, material and sizes, practices regarding it, and cheering those who were fighting to eradicate the “evil of the veil.”

Mustafa Kamal Pasha, the autocratic and apostate ruler of Turkey, had banished veil along with other Islamic obligations and was therefore a hero and received glowing tributes from her. Everything he did in this regard was, of course, logical and just. “When Turkish women were granted suffrage, women wearing veils were debarred from voting, a regulation which was accepted as entirely logical.”

In Iran the puppet His Majesty Shah Riza Pahlvi declared 8 January 1936 as the day of “emancipation” forcing women’s “advance”. Along with the compulsorily unveiling in schools and elsewhere was the oppressive measures that no veiled woman could receive treatment in Iran at a public clinic or ride in a public conveyance. What did Woodsmall think about this denial of basic human rights on the basis of religious observances? “These two regulations will doubtless for a time work genuine hardship on conservative Moslem women but eventually their conservation will doubtless be overcome.”

King Amanullah with his unveiled Queen Suriyah was set to introduce the same “spectacular change” in Afghanistan but his “tragic” fall delayed women’s advance in Afghanistan and slowed it in Iran.

The book is full of condescending comments that betray the colonial mindset. One entry in her book reports: “A former young Moslem leader of Beirut who was taking an advanced position there in regard to the veil, after her marriage in Jerusalem has followed the prevailing convention of the veil.” Another gives the good news: “Madame Sharawi Pasha, the leading Moslem woman in Egypt, head of the Feminist Movement, with her niece Mlle Ceza Nebaraoui, the Editor of L’Egyptienne, unveiled in 1923, giving prestige to the whole movement.”

The colonial rulers used all of their powers in this crusade against the hijab from ridicule to fierce propaganda to coercion. Hijab was a relic of the dark ages, a sign of oppression, an impediment to economic progress, and an infringement on women’s right. The campaign has continued in the post-colonial period through a vastly improved propaganda machine as well as through myriad agencies of that surrogate of the colonial powers known as the UN.

There have also been cases of aggressive actions by European officials in Muslim countries. In October 2000 it was learnt that a French run school in Alexandria, Egypt banned hijab for its students. When a lawsuit was brought against the school administration, the French embassy tried to shield them by claiming diplomatic immunity. In January 2003 it was reported that the Jeddah Prep and Grammar School, operated by the British and Dutch embassies, did not permit its students to wear hijab. Girls wearing hijab were forced to remove it every morning before entering the school. It was only the refusal of one Egyptian girl, Lujain, to take off her hijab and subsequent refusal of the school to let her attend classes that brought the issue to the surface. When contacted by an Arab News reporter, the school administrative secretary said the school policy was a total ban on head scarves. She added, "Any girl wearing a head scarf will NOT be allowed to enter school." The resulting public outcry and the pressure from Saudi Education ministry finally persuaded the school to change its policy.

And yet the tide has been turning; the Muslim women are coming back to Islam and hijab in greater numbers both in the Muslim countries as well as in the West. A century ago hijab seemed to be on the way out in the Muslim world; today it can be seen in increasing numbers even in London, Brussels, and New York. Further, despite the incessant propaganda about the oppression of women by Islam, western women are coming to Islam in even greater numbers than western men. They have found through personal experience and observation that Islam—hijab and all—is the true liberator for all humanity that brings peace to the mind, contentment to the heart, and dignity to life.

These old and new Muslims in the West represent a change that some view with apprehension because of that old resistance to change or because of a colonial mindset that they cannot get rid of. But the reaction is far from uniform. While in the US and UK a wise multicultural policy is accommodating this genuine demand for freedom of religion, France is still living in the past century, and buckling under the White Man’s Burden.

Banning hijab is banning modesty and decency. There is no doubt that those behind it in France have the fervor of a crusader. But the crusades—despite their bloody toll—were a failure. Will this one succeed?