The colonial rulers used all of their powers in this crusade against the hijab, from ridicule to fierce propaganda, to coercion.
In the early 20th century the Rockfeller Foundation sent Ruth Frances Woodsmall on an eighteen month trip to the Muslim World to study the changing state of Muslim women under the influence of colonial rule. Her voluminous report was published by the American University of Beirut in 1936. She travelled to Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Palestine, Trans-Jordan, Iraq, Iran and India. At each place, she put the subjects of her study under the microscope, looking at all signs of westernization, which she called advancement and progress. “Undoubtedly the barometer of social change in the Moslem World is the veil,” she wrote. So she studied it in great detail noting the designs, material and sizes, and practices regarding it. She wrote passionately, cheering those who were fighting to eradicate the “evil of the veil.”
Mustafa Kamal Pasha (1881-1938), the despotic dictator of Turkey from a crypto-Jewish donmeh family in Salonika, had banned and banished the veil along with several other Islamic obligations and was, therefore, a hero in the eyes of Miss Woodsmall. He received glowing tributes from her. Everything he did in this regard was, of course, logical and just. “When Turkish women were granted suffrage, women wearing veils were debarred from voting, a regulation which was accepted as entirely logical.”
In Iran, the puppet, His Majesty Shah Riza Pahlvi declared 8 January, 1936 as the day of “emancipation” forcing women’s “advance.” Along with the compulsory unveiling in schools and elsewhere, it brought the oppressive measure that no veiled woman could receive treatment in Iran at a public clinic or ride in a public conveyance. What did Woodsmall think about this gross denial of a basic human right, the right to observe one’s religious obligations? “These two regulations will doubtlessly for a time work genuine hardship on conservative Moslem women, but eventually their conservatism will doubtlessly be overcome.” She also happily reported, “In the spring of 1935, the Ministry of education in Iran made unveiling practically compulsory through the regulation that no girls wearing the veil could receive school prizes or diplomas.”
Another self-appointed “civilizing” potent, King Amanullah (d.1960) unveiled his Queen Surraiya and set about promulgating the same “spectacular change” in Afghanistan. But his “tragic fall” delayed women’s “advance” in Afghanistan and slowed it in Iran, forcing George W. Bush, forty-one years later, to rain missiles and daisy cutters on the Afghans to bring civilization and liberate their women.
The book is full of condescending comments that betray a typical ethno-centric mindset. One entry in her book reports: “A former young Moslem leader of Beirut who was taking an advanced position there in regard to the veil, after her marriage in Jerusalem has followed the prevailing convention of the veil.” Another gives the good news: “Madame Sharawi Pasha, the leading Moslem woman in Egypt, head of the Feminist Movement, with her niece, Mile Ceza Nebaraoui, the Editor of L’Egyptienne, unveiled in 1923, giving prestige to the whole movement.”
The colonial rulers used all of their powers in this crusade against the hijab, from ridicule to fierce propaganda, to coercion. Hijab was a relic of the dark ages, a sign of oppression, an impediment to economic progress, and an infringement on women’s rights. The campaign has continued in the post-colonial period through a vastly improved propaganda machine as well as through myriad agencies of that surrogate of the colonial powers known as the UN.
There have also been cases of aggressive actions by European officials in Muslim countries. In October 2000, it was revealed that a French run school in Alexandria, Egypt, banned hijab for its students. When a lawsuit was brought against the school administration, the French embassy tried to shield them by claiming diplomatic immunity. In January 2003, it was reported that the Jeddah Prep and Grammar School, operated by the British and Dutch embassies, did not permit its students to wear hijab. Girls wearing hijab were forced to remove it every morning before entering the school. It was only the refusal of one Egyptian girl, Lujain, to take off her hijab and subsequent refusal of the school to let her attend classes that brought the issue to the surface. When contacted by an Arab News reporter, the school adminis-trative secretary said the school policy was a total ban on head scarves. She added, “Any girl wearing a head scarf will not be allowed to enter school.” The resulting public outcry and pressure from the Saudi Ministry of Education finally persuaded the school to change its policy.
And yet for all the sustained propaganda and the putting of impediments against observing hijab, the tide has been turning back. More and more Muslim women, from all social groups, rich and poor, highly educated and not so educated, and from the academies and professions are coming back to Islam. Now the hijab is being observed by even a greater number of women all over the world, including, naturally, in Europe and America.
A century ago, hijab seemed to be on the way out in the Muslim world, today it can be seen in increasing numbers even in London, Brussels, and New York. Further, despite the incessant propaganda about the oppression of women by Islam, western women are coming to Islam in even greater numbers than western men. They have found through personal experience and observation that Islam and hijab is the true liberator for all humanity that brings peace to the mind, contentment to the heart, and dignity to life.
These old and new Muslims in the West represent a change that some narrow-minded and bigoted people view with a certain irrational fear. Phobia and ethno-centric arrogance were two sides of the same coin. If Muslims were not toeing and imitating post-Christian and post-modern cultural norms, then they were a threat to their civilization. Perhaps, there was also a sub-conscious sense of envy or inferiority, while they had long given up their Abrahamic habits and culture of modesty and dignity, Muslims were sticking to theirs. The Muslim girl wearing hijab engendered so much anger in them because she was a reminder that the Emperor had no clothes.
Banning hijab is banning modesty and decency. Those engaged in this crusade out of a feeling of injury may be better advised to simply get dressed up, instead of wasting their time and effort in trying to snatch scarves from the heads of schoolgirls.