Published in the ‘Behind The Hijab’ anthology, March 2009.
The tension between the extremists within the contemporary religious community is more intense today than it has been in roughly seven centuries. While most individual Christians and Muslims do not agree with the rhetoric of the extremists within their own faiths, many are finding that the divide between the two groups might have an unintended effect on their own daily lives. Muslim women living in Western countries have, in recent years, found this to be the case when they begin wearing the hijab, the traditional head covering worn by devout women of the Islamic faith.
The controversy over the wearing of the hijab happens almost exclusively within a very specific context, that most often being a context involving an institution that requires its members to wear a uniform. Police forces in many cities in the West have had to deal with the question of the hijab, as more devout Muslim women are becoming qualified uniformed police officers. When these women choose to wear the hijab, the question of how this practice can be made to fit into the police force’s standard issue uniforms comes into play.
Those who support a woman’s right to wear a hijab with the uniform of her respective institution point out that the hijab is nonintrusive. It only covers the hair, not the face. (The veil that covers the face worn by some Muslim women is called the “niqab”, and is distinct from the hijab.) The hijab can be made of any sort of fabric, of any color or combination of colours one chooses. In this way, it can easily be integrated into the uniform of any institution, being made to perfectly match the existing uniform.
Muslim women who join the police force or other armed military or paramilitary groups might have other factors, besides the look of the headpiece, to consider when finding a hijab that can be integrated within the group’s uniform. One of the biggest concerns is the safety of the officer. Several models of the hijab have been designed with these needs in mind. The feature most appreciated by many of the women who wear the hijab with their uniforms is the use of a strip of poppers to help the hijab in place. This design allows the hijab to come free if grabbed by an assailant. Unlike the pins used on many other models of hijab, these enclosures minimize the potential for harm to the officer if she is involved in a physical altercation. Adjustments such as this to the traditional design of the hijab demonstrate how adaptable the headpiece can be to the various needs of the women who choose to wear the hijab while they perform their duties.
Supporters of the integration of the hijab into the police force’s uniform point to precedent. Several police, military, and paramilitary forces, as well as schools and medical staff, around the world have successfully included the hijab as an option for uniformed personnel. Similar allowance has likewise been made for other religious groups that require specific adornment for adherents. A notable example of such allowance is the concessions made for Sikhs in the British army and police force, where the turban is an accepted part of the uniform. In fact, turbans are even permissible headgear for motorcyclists on roads in the U.K., instead of the helmets that are otherwise required. This sets a precedent that seems to favour the acceptability of the hijab or other garments required on the grounds of devotion to one’s religion.
Those who oppose a woman’s right to wear the hijab as part of her uniform see the issue quite differently. Many point out that the whole point of a uniform is to make one member of the group as indistinguishable from another as possible. The word “uniform”, they point out, means “not changing in form or character, remaining the same in all cases at all times.” The idea of allowing a member of the group to wear religious emblems that denote his or her adherence to a specific religious group goes against the very purpose of having a uniform in the first place. Many who oppose the donning of the hijab with a uniform take a consistent stand, not allowing for religious emblems of any kind to be worn with the uniform. This includes the displaying of a cross or a star of David as much as it does the donning of a turban or hijab. Some opponents of the hijab, however, fail to take such a consistent stand, and it is this latter view that has most raised the ire not only of the Muslim world, but of many in the West who value tolerance and freedom of expression in an multiracial, multifaith society.
Amongst those who specifically oppose the integration of the hijab into a police force’s uniform, though they do not necessarily oppose the display of all religious emblems, the arguments are not always as simplistically intolerant as they may seem on the surface. For some opponents, the problem does not lie with the hijab, but with the lack of understanding within the community in which the hijab might be worn. In these communities, some fear, the hijab might mean something different to the uninformed than it does to the wearer of the hijab or members of her faith. The reason for the opposition, in this case, is an impetus to protect the officer and the police force as a whole from undue negative attention. The late Dr. Zaki Badawi, Principle and Founder of The Muslim College and chairman of the Council of Mosques and Imams, agrees that, in such a situation, the removal of the hijab might be the wisest course of action. The purpose of the hijab, he points out, is to protect a woman from unwanted attention that might result in her harm. If it, instead, invites the sort of attention that will result in any form of molestation of the woman, then it is ultimately counterproductive.
Not everyone agrees with Dr. Badawi. If the problem actually lies in an uninformed public, they argue, then the solution is to inform and educate. To require the minority group to conform, in this case, results in continuing ignorance within the public. Many believe that the presence of women wearing the hijab or other traditional ethnic or religious dress in positions of responsibility within the community will do much to combat the sort of ignorance that leads to intolerance, and perhaps even violent acting out of those intolerant attitudes.
In France, the issue of the integration of the hijab into the uniforms of various institutions, most notably state sponsored schools, has served to strengthen the nation’s commitment to secularism. The high profile cases in France have led to much discussion across the world about religion, culture, and tolerance. To some, the move toward secularism is a positive step, preventing the primacy of any one religion over others. To other observers, secularism itself functions as a sort of state religion, equally stifling the expression of adherents to all more recognized religions. The French policy of excluding the display of all religious emblems by any uniform personnel certainly does not seem to speak of free religious expression, particularly when compared with the progress toward religious equality made in countries like Britain, where more open expression is being allowed to people of all faiths, even when donning a uniform.
This is not to say that Britain’s police force is a perfect example of religious tolerance. In recent news, we have seen reports of complaints of bigotry based on both race and religion made against individual police officers, and even against the police force as a whole. Yasmin Rehman, the director of partnership and diversity for London’s Metropolitan Police, resigned her post in October 2008, saying that she had consistently been the victim of sex- and race-discrimination. In an even more disturbing development, the West Midlands Police Force faced charges of race-inspired harassment of a Muslim woman, Mrs. Mahfooz Bibi. Officers arrested Mrs. Bibi at least four times without cause. She finally filed a complaint when male senior officers insisted that she remove her hijab, even though this violated her religious commitments. The officers’ lack of understanding about the hijab’s significance was the subject of much discussion during the investigation into Mrs. Bibi’s complaints.
Even so, great progress has been made within the police force in the U.K. Twenty-three year old Rukshana Begum, a special constable in Cambridgeshire, has recently seen her choice to wear the hijab become a matter of public concern when it was featured prominently in the news. When she began wearing the hijab on duty, the general public responded very positively, even approaching her to wish her well. Rukshana’s experience, she says, gave her more confidence and helped her to feel more solidarity with the community. Besides this progress for Rukshana and the police in Cambridge, the Metropolitan Police in London has made allowance across the board for the wearing of the hijab and of ankle-length gowns as part of the uniform for Muslim women. Additionally, Muslim on-duty officers are now allowed to pray, to demand halal food, and to have altered meal schedules during Ramadan. Scotland Yard’s official policy has allowed the wearing of the hijab as part of the uniform since 2001. All of this speaks to Britain’s commitment to freedom of religious expression for adherents to all faiths, making her a more truly multiracial, multifaith society.
Rukshana’s case in Cambridgeshire is instructive to those who fear that police officers who wear the hijab will face undue negative attention. Her request to wear the hijab was often highlighted in the media up until the day she began to wear the hijab as part of her uniform. When she was seen in public with the new addition to the uniform, many strangers approached her, not with negative comments, but with positive words of support and encouragement. According to Rukshana, this creates a feeling of solidarity with those she meets on the street, regardless of what their own religious affiliation may be. Her choice to stand by her own convictions has earned the respect of the community around her. Furthermore, by choosing to wear the hijab, and by having her case garner so much attention, she has actually helped combat the uninformed stance that might lead some to react negatively to seeing a hijab as part of a police uniform.
Muslim women living in the West have often been surprised by the misperceptions some of their neighbours have of the hijab. Asna Kadir, a nurse working in Norway’s Stavenger University Hospital, wears a hijab to work as part of her uniform. The hospital has integrated the hijab as part of the uniform for all who choose to wear it. Kadir reports that when she began wearing the hijab, she did not receive any negative reaction, but many patients were curious and asked her questions about it. The most common question, she says, was whether or not she was forced to wear the hijab. She always answers this question with a firm “no”.
The two most common misperceptions about the hijab, as reported by a number of Muslim women who have discussed it with curious Westerners, are that it is compulsory (perhaps even that women are made to wear the hijab by force), and that it is a sign of oppression. Both of these notions, however, have nothing to do with reality. The wearing of the hijab is strictly voluntary. There is some debate in the Muslim world about whether the hijab is required in the Koran, but most today agree that it is a woman’s choice whether she will wear a hijab, and when she will wear it. There are some, in fact, who wear the hijab in their private time, but not in the work environment. This is what Rukshana was doing before she requested permission to wear her hijab on duty.
The notion that the hijab is a sign of oppression is strongly denied by nearly all Muslims, both men and women. The hijab is, rather, a sign of a woman’s devotion to her religion and her commitment to modest living. For many Muslim women, as Dr. Badawi has pointed out, wearing the hijab is a way to avoid attracting undue attention from men to whom they are not related. This is one expression of a Muslim woman’s depth of devotion to her faith. And, as many Muslims like to point out, it is not very different from practices that have only relatively recently fallen out of favour in both Jewish and Christian communities.
A better understanding of the purpose of the hijab, and a woman’s freedom to choose whether or not to wear it, will help change the perception of the Islamic faith and the women who adhere to it. Such understanding, it is hoped, will make it much easier to navigate through the controversies that will inevitably arise, such as those surrounding the integration of the hijab into the uniforms of police forces throughout the Western world, perhaps even helping Rukshana’s experience of support from her community to become the norm. In the volatile times in which we live, finding peaceful solutions to such controversies can only be seen as a positive move. Perhaps proper handling of these controversies with mutual respect and understanding will even point the way for us to address the larger-scale controversies and prevent negative, polarized rhetoric from carrying the day.