Hijab. Al-Amira. Shayla. Khimar. Chador. Nikab. Burka. In the words of the Eaglet from Alice & Wonderland, “I don't know the meaning of half those long words, and I don't believe you do either!”
What forms of Muslim “veiling” exist and how do they relate to rights? Why has clothing taken center stage in discussions of Muslims in the West? As a sociologist researching mosque communities in Berlin and London, I am all too familiar with the symbolic importance of dress for Muslims in Europe and beyond. Many of the women (and to a lesser extent men) in the communities I study struggle with decisions over self-presentation—whether and when to wear a headscarf, identifying long black coats or simply the newest Zara trends that hit at the knees.
Tommy Hilfiger has created a line for Ramadan, as has distinguished wedding dress designer, Monique Lhullier.
Of course it is a renowned (deceased) French sociologist who theorized the importance of clothing for identity. Armed with knowledge from an elite scientific education, as much as firsthand experience at the Parisian spring sales, the peasant-cum-intellectual Pierre Bourdieu emphasized taste as expression of authenticity. You are not only what you eat, but you are what you wear. This is nowhere more palpable than in the Muslim communities of today’s Europe, where one must defend her choices both to other Muslims and non-Muslims. When it comes to the hijab, each woman must account for if she wears it, how she wears it, where she wears it and—most importantly of all—why she wears it.
The hijab (a scarf covering the hair) is, however, in no way a burka (a loose, full-body and face-masking outfit with the eyes covered by mesh, often associated with Saudi Arabia). Nor is the hijab—as a German man expressed to me—a “slippery slope to the burka.” They should not be equated or conflated. And yet we cannot seem to move away from collapsing the diversity of Islam into fewer and fewer categories. Today’s headlines question whether ISIS is equivalent to the Muslim Brotherhood is equivalent to Al Qaeda is equivalent to Islam. For a society that supposedly values diversity, we are here set on perceiving uniformity.
Which is why the opinion piece “Will the Burqa Be Banned in Berlin?” published on July 6 in the New York Times is so sadly typical. Centered on the difficulties of a young woman from the mosque community I research in Berlin, it highlights contemporary clashes over wearing a hijab with civil service (in this case legal) jobs in an increasingly secular society. Why then does the title have burka in it: to be catchy and sensational? To suggest again that seemingly (phantom) “slippery-slope”? To make the skimming reader stop, shudder, and read on?
Drawing a parallel between the burka and hijab is akin to drawing a parallel between foot binding and high heels. One may see both as forms of oppression; one many choose the latter (the hijab, the high heels) for many diverse reasons, whether aesthetic, to fit into certain communities, pressure, individual preference, or expressions of identity. Yet foot binding—and to a lesser extent the burka—clearly (de)limits the female body to a specific, uncomfortable, controlled space. Thus, perceiving the hijab and the burka as naturally linked provides us with an example of a simple mathematical principle: an association fallacy of the first order. That hijabs are Islamic and burkas (supposedly) Islamic, does not mean that hijabs are (part of) burkas or burkas (part of) hijabs. Accepting one does not necessitate accepting the other. Whether or not a woman can wear a hijab to practice law in a civil service position has no bearing on whether the burka “should” or will be outlawed in Berlin.
My own two cents—if we are going to outlaw the hijab for religious reasons, be prepared to toss out your crosses, kippahs, Star of David, and Sanskrit tattoos (among other emblems). And if we are going to outlaw the hijab for feminist reasons, be prepared to say goodbye to your Kate Spade kitten heels and $400 Ferragamo stilettos. As a fat, wise bear (Winnie-the-Pooh) once said, “think, think, think” before you speak . . . or write about sensitive topics.
Elisabeth Becker is a Ph.D. student in sociology at Yale University, where she studies European Muslim communities.