Hierarchy Of The Hijab

Alina Choudhry prefers real virtue to a show of piety.

I am a Muslim but I choose not to wear any kind of face or head covering. Sitting in a café the other day I got into an interesting conversation with a woman wearing the hijab (Islamic head covering). I had been reading a newspaper article about an Arab woman being kicked out of a French theatre because of her niqab (face covering). ‘I wonder why she wears that. It’s not compulsory,’ I muttered – thinking out loud.

Picking up on my thoughts, the woman replied:  ‘No, it isn’t. From my experience even in Saudi they ask you to take it off in places.’ And so we got into a discussion of why women chose to cover up – and how much.

Neither one of us even bothered to talk about the usual stereotypes. Coming from similar Muslim backgrounds we knew there weren’t always abusive husbands and controlling fathers forcing the hijab and niqab upon anyone and everyone wearing them.

Instead we decided that it was more to do with piety – or at least a show of piety.

Many Muslim women believe that the more they cover up, the higher their level of piety goes. In this way of thinking, there is a kind of tariff to be applied:

If a woman doesn’t cover up she needs guidance or she is headed straight to hell.
If she covers her head but dresses in Western clothes then she’ll do a quick stint in hell.
If she’s fully covered she gets a pass into heaven. At the top of the chain the niqabis are so pious they think they’re already chilling with God.

Talking to the woman in the cafe made me realise that it isn’t only non-hijabis like me who feel we are being judged by other Muslims. All the way up and down the hijab chain, women at every level are judged and assessed by those above and below them.

Intrigued by this, I spoke to a Syed girl (Syeds are descended from the prophet himself), who confirmed that women are ranked by how hijabi they are:

‘Some hijabi girls think they are so much more religious because they’re covered up. I don’t wear a hijab but there are lots of other good things that I do,’ she declared. ‘I might wear a hijab but it would have to be a personal choice, not because I feel that others expect me to wear one.’

It just goes to show that even Syeds are not free from the judgement of supposedly pious sisters. As my Syed friend said: ‘they can’t see their own sins and can’t see the good in others.’

Some hijabis take so much pride in what they are wearing that they forget Islam does not allow pride and lose sight of the distinction between real virtue and a show of piety.