The Economist has come out with an article on reactions around the world to the hijab and niqab. The article initially focuses on the wife of Turkish foreign minister Abdullah Gul, Hayrunisa Gul, who has provoked pro-secularist Turks by having the unmitigated gall to wear a hijab. < /snark > The article then turns into a quasi-review of which Muslim countries wear what (no covering, hijab, burqa, etc.), and mentions a few incidents in various countries relating to high emotions over hijab. As usual, The Economist tries to be balanced (which is more than one can say for many American periodicals).
Is this all because of me? At once bemused and indignant, the potential first lady of Turkey demands that her compatriots stop judging her, and her spouse, on the basis of her appearance. “My scarf covers my head, not my brain,” insists Hayrunisa Gul, whose husband Abdullah is foreign minister and aspires to be president.
Yet if there is one big reason why the candidacy of Mr Gul—whose elevation by parliament has been vetoed by a court, triggering a political crisis and an early election—sparks strong emotions, it is the silk fabric that frames Mrs Gul's expressive features. “I am a modern woman, I can hold my own with foreign leaders and their spouses,” Mrs Gul (pictured above with Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands) told your correspondent this week. Nor does the tall, loquacious mother of three—a more lively figure than any of Turkey's recent presidential spouses—favor a draconian regime of the Taliban kind. “I used to drive Abdullah to work and the children to school,” she says. “So I couldn't imagine living in a country where women cannot drive.”
But the challenge which Mrs Gul's apparel poses for Turkey's strict secularism is more than imaginary. Until now, neither she nor the wife of any other top politician in the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party has been welcome in the chamber of parliament, the presidential palace or any military premises—because as devout Muslim ladies, they cover their heads. The idea of a scarved mistress of the presidential residence, guarded by soldiers trained to uphold secularism, delights some Turks and enrages others.
In almost every other part of the Muslim world, controversy over female headgear is growing. Turkey and Tunisia are at one end of the Muslim spectrum; both ban female civil servants, as well as students in state schools, from covering their hair. One Turkish judge was nearly assassinated after decreeing that teachers could not wear scarves even on their way to work. But in Saudi Arabia and Iran, the rules go the other way. No woman may appear in public with more than face and hands exposed.
Not even that was allowed in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime, which mandated the burqa, the most extreme form of female covering. In today's Iraq, meanwhile, a big fissure in the Sunni resistance movement pits al-Qaeda-minded thugs who want women to wear gloves and the niqab (which differs from the burqa only in having slits for the eyes) and milder sorts who allow the simpler hijab, which covers hair and neck.
A clash over female attire is intensifying in neighboring countries too. Just now, police in Iran are busy with their annual spring campaign against “bad hijab”, prowling parks and stopping traffic to enforce dress codes. This year's drive is the strictest for a decade. Thousands of women have received warnings; police cars have been parked outside shopping malls, scrutinizing every customer; vehicles with improperly clad ladies at the wheel have been impounded. The crackdown, which also targets men in short sleeves or with extravagantly gelled hair, marks a reversal in a relative relaxation of dress codes which had occurred under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime. The manteau, or coat, which women are supposed to wear to hide the shape of their bodies has been getting shorter, as have the trousers underneath; and some women have sported jeans and lipstick under chadors covering their upper body.
Whether the current campaign will have any enduring effect on the determination of Iranian women (and fashion designers) to interpret the rules creatively remains to be seen. But there are many Muslim countries where rows over headgear have already taken a toll in blood.
In Pakistan last year, an assassin shot dead a provincial government minister, judging her gauzy head covering not Islamic enough. In January a clash between Tunisian police and Islamist rebels left 12 dead. The rebels said they were “defending their veiled sisters against oppression”, a reference to the fact that Tunisia's president dismisses the hijab as an alien form of “sectarian dress” and has sent police to toy shops to seize dolls with scarves.
Among most Muslims, who live between such extremes, two broad trends have emerged. One is a general movement towards more overt signs of piety, including “Islamic” attire. Within the past two decades, modern forms of head covering have become standard fashion in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Malaysia, Morocco, Sudan and Yemen, replacing both traditional country scarves and the exposed coifs that were inoffensive to an earlier generation of city dwellers.
On the streets of Cairo, the Egyptian capital, headscarved women form a very visible majority. In the Egyptian countryside, where women used to work the fields uncovered, veils are now universal. Even gloves are not uncommon. Wearing the hijab is now so popular that it has ceased to be a statement, says Hania Sholkamy, an Egyptian anthropologist. “In fact, it is getting hard to shop for what used to be ordinary clothes,” she says. “Islamic dress is cheaper and more available.”
The other trend is an undercurrent of rebellion against sartorial rules of any kind. Trendy women in Saudi Arabia have taken to sporting slimmer-fitting abayas, while embellishing the traditionally black over-garment with bold strips of color. The fact that Iranian authorities must still, 27 years after the Islamic revolution, forcibly impose dress codes suggests a persistent urge to challenge them. In cities as far apart as Damascus, the Syrian capital, and Casablanca, Morocco's commercial capital, some women accompany perfunctory head-coverings with heavy make-up, while others compete with the skimpy attire that is often seen in Arabic pop videos.
Yet the stern secularism of Turkey and Tunisia also meets resistance. Veiling, which a decade ago was confined largely to the tradition-bound poor, has made a middle-class comeback in both countries. In subtle defiance of a ban on scarves for official identity photos, some Turkish women erase their hair digitally and replace it with a wig-like substitute.
In less rigid Egypt, pious women have filed lawsuits against anti-veil rules imposed, for example, by state-run television networks. One judge overruled the ban applied by a private university against the face-concealing niqab, on the grounds that personal freedom counts more than the university's right to ascertain the identity of its students. When Egypt's culture minister casually told an interviewer that he personally considered veiling a backward practice, the ensuing public outcry forced him to recant. When its minister for religious affairs, who pays the wages of mosque preachers, stripped niqab-wearing employees of the right to preach, provincial bureaucrats declined to obey.
Different views on female apparel reflect differing readings of Islam's holy texts. One passage in the Koran, cited in support of the hijab, reads as follows: “Enjoin believing women to turn their eyes away from temptation and to preserve their chastity; not to display their adornments (except such as are normally revealed); to draw their veils over their bosoms and not to display their finery...”
A minority of Muslims would argue that female modesty does not necessarily imply covering one's head. Another school cites oral traditions from the early Muslim community to insist that an ordinary hijab is not sufficient covering.
Egypt's grand mufti, under pressure to clarify the issue, obliged recently with two rulings. One stated that modest dress, including hair covering, is an Islamic duty. The other fatwa declared full-face veiling to be permitted—but not obligatory. That may satisfy some people, but it will not please either those zealots who think establishment clerics are too soft—or those devout believers who think God does not mind very much about their hairstyle.