The Unintended Consequence of Headscarves?


A girl with cherry earing
Originally uploaded by Farhang .

Here is something that the holier-than-thou types will be unnerved by: I find that wearing the headscarf makes women look more attractive.

What is more, I suspect that I am not alone in thinking this. In fact, I have checked with a few friends (mostly because I was getting worried if it was the right thing to think) and found out that they share my aesthetics. No, it is not only my demons. This is one of those things that everybody knows and nobody wants to talk about, because… well, because we are talking about Muslim women’s headdress and not the swimsuits featured in FHM’s latest!

But it’s true. And THAT gives a whole different meaning to the phrase “unintended consequence.” Of course the intended consequence of legislating hijab and making the headscarf mandatory is that it makes women modest and keeps the men’s demons in check. This thinking has driven the age old effort in the Muslim world to keep women shrouded in public. To be fair, it has succeeded in some places. The all-black ninja thing that Saudi women wear makes them look scary, and the Taliban’s definition of hijab aimed not only at women’s modesty, but at their total invisibility. Coupled with the generally suffocating social and cultural atmospheres that marked Taliban-era Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia for since I remember, and the violence that they made into a big part of public life, everything would be kept in check, including the people’s very souls.

But I suspect that my fashionable Muslim sisters -especially here in America- have subverted the headscarf into a haute accessory. And power to them! I was recently lunching with a few Middle Eastern friends (men) in a popular hangout location in D.C. and it was the opening weekend of some big movie. The place was bustling with young people from all backgrounds, but the Muslim women stood out -at least for the few of us on the table- in their sophisticated taste as indicated by ethnic jewelry and other accessories, and yes, the headscarves that subtly bore their national origins.

I am convinced that many people wear the headscarf not so much out of conservative religious zeal or parental compulsion as much as out of free choice, a sense of belonging, and the sheer trendiness of headscarves as an accessory. If they were that conservative or under pressure from their parents, many would not be accompanied by dates (trust me, they could not have been siblings) or dressed in otherwise “immodest” clothing such as tight and/or ripped jeans, short-legged capri pants, or that latest craze among girls: short-legged, curve-exaggerating, loose pants that look more like a skirt than pants, but upon closer inspection are really pants…

Naturally, talk of the headscarf dominated our conversation, and though we are all against legislating for (or for that matter against, as the Europeans seem to be so excited about) headscarves, we all agreed that it made women look attractive (“sexy” is how one friend put it) -in some mysterious way that God himself only knows.

Now you tell me if this is all a figment of a handful of homesick, nostalgic, single Muslim men’s perverse imaginations, or that there is some truth to this?

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21 Responses to The Unintended Consequence of Headscarves?

  1. hamesha: says:

    Thanks to Farhang for the beautiful picture I borrowed from his Flickr profile.

  2. Hajar says:

    I have heard Muslim men say they find a covered lady more attractive, but for different reasons than a model in a fashion show etc. I think they like the humility and innocence that a scarf symbolizes…but on the other hand, when the scarf is paired with otherwise revealing clothing, I do not think it qualifies as hijab any more. It then becomes like what you said: a fashion accessory.

  3. Jen says:

    I agree a veil CAN enhance a woman’s beauty, but it depends on how it’s worn (I think India’s got it right). This is the essentially the reason a lot of Western women still wear a wedding veil; not because of any ancient cultural observance, but simply because it’s beautiful. It’s also pretty much the only time we get to wear one. It’s said that before Martha Washington wore a veil when she was wed to George Washington, veils were not being worn in the wedding ceremony. Apparently George thought his fiancee looked so beautiful as she stood behind a white lace curtain that she ended up wearing a lace veil to be married in. It’s been tradition ever since.

  4. Hafez says:

    Today I put a link to your blog on mine. Thank you for commenting
    your Hafez

  5. Slanted Eyes says:

    I belive Marquez said something along the lines: “We men are prisoners to our own prejudices”. Ask a Chinese man a few decades ago and he would probably argue about the aesthetic virtue of small contorted feet. A Samoan would probably appreciate intricate facial tattoos.

    I will revise the more general statement that “it made women look attractive” to the more specific “it made women look attractive to some”.

    I would suspect that we don’t have to tickle God to get an answer why it makes a woman attractive. That question is more or less answered by individual taste with the attendant cultural burden.

  6. Hamesha;

    Given the season, I say ask Pele, he is God after all!

  7. Leilouta says:

    If that is sexy, then what is the point of wearing the hijab?

  8. Leilouta says:

    if there is any point to it!

  9. Zak says:

    thats a deep statement and very accurate when you say the purpose of the burqa for the taliban is invisibility and not modesty.

    I wonder what the forced lack of one means?

  10. pumuckl says:

    *lol* let me add my own experience…. I sent a pix of mine in headscarf home, as I wear it here (rather the indian style than the taliban one, I have to add). i thought I would get some critical or curious remarks, but not the one most male friends sent me: “gosh you look sexy!” so, definitely it depends on the individual too, but it is not just muslim men admiring it :-)

  11. Very true! The more a woman reveals the less attractive she is!

    I do not force my wife and daughters to cover up and use burqas; they do it out of choice! Note: my daughters live in Nairobi where women can be very revealing in the way they dress; in that kind of atmosphere, my daughters have become more attached to their headscarves, burqas and such dresses. I some times mention to them that the ‘ninja’ burqas aren’t a part of Islam at all – still, they insist on using them!

  12. You wear it you are damned , you don’t wear it you are damned . Okey, these girls were wearing capris and spaghetti straps but they were trying . Maybe somewhere along the way they would get over their confusion and realize the real importance of the hijab . It’s like saying I lie so why shouldn’t I kill too … I am sinning either way … *rolling eyes*. And looking attractive lies in the way a person carries himself/herself and not what s/he wears . Dunno why anyone should be surprised hijab makes some women look beautiful !!!
    (I am in a mean mood)

  13. Anonymous says:

    Hmmm…I don’t know whether it comforts me or worries me to know that even straight guyz could pay so much attention to jewelry and other fashion items.

    Anyways, a point that is often missed when the hijab argument rises is the reason women wear them in the first place (I’m assuming here that woman enjoys some sort of personal choice). The most cited reason would be the religious one, which also happens to be the most controversial one. Any neutral mind who plunges deep enough into both sides of the argument will soon realize that both are equally valid. Then what are the other reasons if not religious? Here comes a wide range of reasons that extend from political, social, traditional,and a hundred other reasons. Believe me, each one of these are worth at least one of those semester-long Juniata research papers…or maybe she simply feels like having some fun.

  14. mari sanam says:

    i like this post, my sister took of her hijab then put it back on (cuz of the pervs tryin to talk to her)… she says she thinks its sexy a girl covers for everyone except for her husband (or soon to be husband)… i agree… some people actually do look real good, dressed modestly instead of their guts hangin out and their ass showin out of their pants

  15. Janet says:

    Like slanted eyes said, it’s all point of view. Everyone’s perception on beauty is different. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” or something like that, ha.

  16. Ahmad Khalid says:

    Depends on how the headscarf is worn. The one on this picture is really beautiful, but burqas worn under the Taleban in Afghanistan were a disgrace to women’s beauty and dignity.

  17. Abu Zahra says:

    I think most of you (even some Muslim women) have missed the true spiritual purpose of hijab. It is obviously not only about covering oneself from men. Afterall, a woman who is alone in her house must cover when she prays (and no, it’s not because Allah is a man. Allah sees her in the shower and everywhere else). Ask a woman who wears it how her iman (faith) feels when she has it on. It is a spiritual tool.

    Why do some men grow a beard or put on a turban? Why does a judge don a long robe?

    The way a person dresses is not always about what other people think. Haven’t you ever heard a woman say that she wears a certain garment for herself and not for others? It’s true. How you dress affects how you feel and, in some cases, the way you act. A man who wears a business suit to a meeting feels a little more in control and confident than if he had gone in jeans. Granted, a lot of it is psychological conditioning, but it is still relevant.

    When speaking of spirituality, hijab certainly has focussing properties. The power of concentration (himma) is undoubtedly stronger. I’m a man, but I know when I pray in a full length african garb, I feel much more comfortable and focused than in western clothes. And it is not cultural for me because I was not even raised Muslim.

    If you’d like more information about this topic, you might read: The Tao of Islam: A Sourcebook on Gender Relationships in Islamic Thought by Sachiko Murata

    And always keep in mind, women are beautiful no matter how they look. Haven’t you ever heard men say they love the way pregnant women look? Yet somehow women have the perception than men only like thin women. In reality, men (well most men) like anything feminine.

  18. Elizabeth says:

    I’m a little late on this, and I’m neither Muslim nor a man, but I think a lot of men think the scarves are sexy. When I wore scarves and lose clothing in Tajikistan, I got *more* whistles than when I wore my regular jeans and clothes. Since that was not the reaction I wanted- I thought I could do a middle-eastern kind of modest-but-chic type thing- I stopped that experiment pretty quickly.

    Another thing: when worn the right way (or… wrong way, I guess, depending on your point of view), the hijab does the same thing for the face that long hair does. It frames it. So it’s not surprising whatsoever that men find it attractive.

    (Incidentally: Burqas / chadri are not hijabs, they are something else, and they are damn ugly. You have to hunch over and shuffle to walk in them. They are truly effective in terms of modesty.)

  19. […] While still connected to the blogiverse, I often read the “Unwilling Self Negation” blog by Ali Eteraz. The new Eteraz in WordPress is a pleasure to rediscover- in particular a fantastic post on a theme that I struck upon on an earlier occasion in Safrang- “The Unintended Consequence of Headscarves?”. Eteraz’s piece “To My Dear Hijabi Sisters” is many times wittier and certainly bolder, and though I will maintain that I was the first to strike on the subject, his is more poignant nowadays in light of the pronouncements from the British government about Hijab (which is really an attemp to emulate the French -an age-old game of catch-up that the Brits have played with their more sophisticated and no less xenophobic continental peers). Appropriately, Eteraz blogs from the UK, I think. […]

  20. Humeirah says:

    Honest blog!

    As a lady who donned the hijaab for more than a year now, I can’t help agreeing with what was conveyed above.

    I used to ask myself when putting on colourful scarfs to match my clothes whether it didn’t make me look more attractive than my tidy and modest poney tail I used to show before.

    Yes indeed. With the hijaab, I still got attention. I could feel how the gazes got more pronounced. But then, there was a difference: it was the muslim guys who looked more than ever perhaps because they knew this time there was no doubt I was muslim too! Ironical, isn’t it. The hijaab for me, always denoted some symbol of giving up on worldly things and focusing more on God and ‘more important things’. The usual two hours spent before the mirror, putting on make up and looking good were supposed to be substituted by reading time, for example. But nothing had changed much with the hijab. Perhaps the two hours were just reduced by 15 minutes.

    I have reached the conclusion that there are interpretative difficulties with the hijaab being compulsory according to the Quran. (http://humeirah.blogspot.com/2006/08/hijaab-compulsory-or-not.html) .
    But I still spend 15 minutes every day picking the right colour and typing it up with an appropriate brooch. I’ll explain why.

    Prejudices are part and parcel of our lives. Most people are prejudiced about girls who dress very scantily… and most people are prejudiced about girls who cover themselves.

    I am just exploiting a prejudice for my own advantage.

  21. umm sokoto says:

    I say power to the hijab. It gives me control over my body (hair) of who gets to see it or not. their are guidelines in the religion of islam which help us to make the right choices. for the most part I feel most empowered when wearing the hijab.

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