Hijab: Cultural dominance over Muslim women or a moral act?

Muslim women clad in hijabs during the National Muslim Covid-19 Response Committee stakeholders meeting at Jamia Mosque, Nairobi on November 11, 2020.

Photo credit: Kanyiri Wahito | Nation Media Group

The Hijab, that piece of headdress donned by Muslim women, has become a bone of contention around the world.

It has led to protests by Muslim women and caused political rows in largely Christian Europe. It has led to protests even within the Islamic Republic of Iran, where Muslim women took to the streets to protest against the rule of wearing hijab in public.

The recent protests even led to the deaths of protesters at the hands of ‘Morality Police’. Some men who supported the hijab protests in that country have since been executed.

I have always been concerned as to the impact of hijab on African cultures. Many African communities such as mine (I happen to be a Borana/Oromo) had belief systems and a way of life that is conservative but still gave women autonomy to dress in a way that fits their hot environment.

The Borana largely inhabit the desert lands of northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia. Their traditional dress code is guntina for women (over-the-shoulder long cotton shawl tied at the waist) and loose cotton pants and shirts for men.

Many other nomadic and pastoral communities wear attires that allow for the free flow of air to help in cooling the body. Covering of hair for older Borana women is by use of a scarf, agogo. They can still plait their hair and let it hang loose without any covering.

The emphasis is on key values that were passed on to generations—such as good manners, living in peace, being just, housekeeping lessons for girls and animal herding lessons for boys—necessary for survival in the harsh terrain.

The advent of Islam into Borana land is now felt through Muslim attires for women, such as hijab and habaya (long, dark loose dress worn over one’s clothes). These items have almost become compulsory. If you are not seen in one, then you are not Muslim enough.

But is it the case? I have always wondered whether one could still be a Muslim or Christian and still be African. But talking to Muslims, this does not seem to be an option: You are either all in or out. 

Core identities

I believe being all in makes African culture and their core identities inferior to Islam. Any ideology that subjugates your culture or identity is not too far from any colonial structure that wants to impose its values on you and dominate you.

This colonial thinking comes through manipulation or the use of actual force to change how you dress, your language, your name and even the food you eat. The other argument is whether Islam is Arabic or not. Some Muslims distinguish the two. I don’t. 

Much of the values of Islam are drawn from Arabic culture. If they then are transplanted across the world as proof of Islam, it still manifests itself as a form of colonialism—as did the French, English, Spanish and Portuguese languages via Christianity in Africa, South and Central America and other parts of the developing world.

Hijab has come with challenges for women across many radical Muslim societies. Afghanistan has gone further and demanded that Muslim women use face covering too. That was followed by an education ban for women. 

These examples, set in conservative Arabic and Middle Eastern Muslim countries, have made their way to Africa with groups such as Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram (which means ‘Western Education is Forbidden’) also enforcing a strict Islamic dress code and education ban for women.

If there is one issue that Islam needs to focus on, it is education for women. Denying education to women is denying half the population an opportunity to take part in developing their communities. “Educating a woman is educating a nation” is considered key hadith (teachings) in Islam.

The focus on hijab and denying education to women cannot then be Islamic per se but patriarchal control exercised by Muslim men over women. I know of Muslim men who insist on female doctors for their wives; where would they find female doctors if they don’t want to educate women?

Africa and its women need to find the version of Islam that helps them to advance and remain competitive without losing their primary identity and culture.

It is possible, I believe, for Africa to have a hybrid cultural relationship with organised religions such as Islam and Christianity without losing their culture and way of life wholesale in order to be accepted.

Empowerment comes in many versions but, for Muslim women, that would never be achieved if men have dominance over what women should wear and whether they deserve to be educated or not. If African communities choose to subscribe to Islam, then they should also have the opportunity to engage with the realities of the world through education and their cultures too.

The dominance of Islam in African cultures is as real as Christianity has been and there is a need to interrogate its impact too on Africans’ way of life.

Ms Guyo is a legal researcher. [email protected]. @kdiguyo