Is it really news if an actress (or even a regular woman) takes off her hijab (or tudung as it may be called in Malaysia)? To me it’s not. That’s celebrity gossip mongering and why on earth a so-called newspaper would even waste their time with something so trivial is beyond me.
Yet a Malaysian actress took off her hijab, and Malay Mail Online ran with it. If celebrity gossip disguised as news wasn’t bad enough, read this quote from the same article:
Last June, Muslim women’s rights group Sisters in Islam (SIS) said that the Muslims’ holy book al-Quran does not specifically mention hair as part of a woman’s “aurat”.
SIS told Malay Mail Online then that the interpretation of the “aurat” in Malaysia has become increasingly influenced by Arab culture since the 1980s, noting that most Malay-Muslim women did not wear the tudung during the 1950s and 1960s, including the wife of the then Kelantan mufti and the spouse of Indonesian ulama, Prof Dr Haji Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah, better known as Hamka.
“This very narrow and conservative interpretation of ‘aurat’ has also been directed mainly to women and as a result, the growing obsession with controlling women’s bodies by making wearing the hijab compulsory,” SIS had then said.
This feminist group is actually claiming that, because Muslim women in Malaysia did not wear the tudung for several decades, the fact that people are wearing it now is proof of Arab cultural hegemony.
Viewing history with a very narrow lens to prove something is intellectually dishonest, and it is something I have covered previously. Many Muslim majority countries experienced massive unveilings of women due to Colonial influence. Malaysia is not unique in this regard. Dr. Leila Ahmed writes, in her book A Quiet Revolution:
In 1956, Albert Hourani, the Oxford historian and best-selling author of The History of the Arabs, published a short article in the UNESCO Courier entitled “The Vanishing Veil a Challenge to the Old Order.” Pointing out that veiling was a fast-disappearing practice in most Arab societies, Hourani gives a brief history of how and why the practice was disappearing and why, as he believed, veiling would soon become a thing of the past.
The trend to unveil, Hourani explains, had begun in Egypt in the early twentieth century, set in motion by the writer Qasim Amin. Amin had argued in his book, The Liberation of Woman that “gradual and careful change in the status of women” was now an essential step in the advancement of Muslim societies. The changes he recommended, which included casting off their veils, were, Amin emphasized, “not contrary to the principles of Islam.” While Amin’s ideas had been met with great resistance, Hourani writes, they gradually gained acceptance and spread first into Egypt and then to the “more advanced Arab countries,” among them “Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq.”
…By this decade, Hourani wrote, the veil had virtually disappeared in Egypt, although, he admitted, veiling lingered among the “lower middle class, the most conservative of all classes.” Similarly, he reported, the veil was disappearing from most other “advanced” Arab countries. It was only in the Arab world’s “most backwards regions,” he continued, and specifically “in the countries of the Arabian peninsula – Saudi Arabia and Yemen,” that the “old order” – and along with it such practices as veiling and polygamy – “still persist[s] unaltered.”
Therefore, the evidence that these feminists present regarding the lack of veiling in Malaysia from the 1950s to just about the 1980s, and subsequently reappearing after that, is not proof of the tudungs foreignness, but proof of a society struggling to reidentify itself after Colonialism. SIS is actually calling for Muslims in Malaysia to recolonize themselves by upholding the bigoted opinions of hijab and other aspects of Islam foisted on Malaysia (and indeed, the rest of the Muslim world) by its colonizers!
In fact, the argument that the tudung is Arabized is, frankly, ridiculous. The word tudung itself is not an Arabic word but a Malay word, and the many hijab styles in Malaysia would certainly not be approved of in Saudi Arabia. (Let’s admit, once and for all, that this claim of “Arabization” is almost always code for “Saudification”.)
As to the claims that the Qur’an does not order women to keep their hair private, that is also intellectually dishonest. I have yet to encounter a single, historical statement by a Muslim scholar prior to Colonialism that claims, with evidence, that the Qur’an and Sunnah have been misunderstood for centuries and women are allowed to be in front of unrelated men with their hair uncovered. I have, on the other hand, found historical arguments arguing for and against covering the whole body including the face (Classical Arabic hijab, now often called niqab, burqa, or purdah), but I’ve never seen a legitimate, classical argument against covering the hair.
These sensationalist arguments are literally blameworthy and only promote the white supremacy that former colonies are trying to rid themselves of. Journalists should put sensationalism aside and instead focus on news articles worthy of attention. If one woman in Malaysia decides to cover or uncover her head (or indeed if a man decides to grow or shave a beard), we should leave that decision out of the limelight and instead give naseehah privately.