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HomeExpertsModernity and the Headscarf: A Comprehensive Analysis of Changing Perceptions and Debates

Modernity and the Headscarf: A Comprehensive Analysis of Changing Perceptions and Debates


In the modern era, the number of researchers who argue that the headscarf is not a religious obligation for various reasons, and those who listen to them, believe, and act accordingly, is not insignificant. Indeed, we are occasionally asked such questions. Therefore, we felt the need to revisit a well-known topic to remind of some Qur’anic principles once again.

In the first article, we will explain the reasons why the headscarf and modesty have become subjects of debate in the last century. In the second article, we will evaluate the verses that command the headscarf, in the third we will focus on the general command of modesty in Islam, and in the last article, we will discuss the wisdom behind the command of the headscarf and modesty.

Firstly, it must be stated that up until the modern era, the ruling of the headscarf had probably never been a subject of debate in the fourteen-century history of Muslims. The ruling that the headscarf is not obligatory has likely never even crossed the mind of any scholar, mujtahid, or sect leader. This is because the commands of the Qur’an and Sunnah regarding this issue are clear and unequivocal. Therefore, jurists have focused on the nature, form, and boundaries of modesty rather than debating whether the headscarf is obligatory or not.

In the modern period, even the most established issues of religion have been opened to debate. Verses with definite proofs and evidence were subjected to forced interpretations because they did not conform to modern taboos. Qur’an and Sunnah rulings that were difficult to reconcile with current thought and practices were rejected as historical. Confidence and submission to religious rulings were undermined. Therefore, the headscarf also received its share of this change, and new inquiries and marginal views about it began to emerge. It seems that these debates will continue to intensify in the coming years.

The reason why the headscarf has emerged as a problem in the West, in Turkey, and in other Islamic countries and why it has caused such turmoil is not solely based on religious grounds. The issue has many psychological, sociological, political, historical, cultural, and economic aspects. Particularly, modernity’s self-definition through women, creating a new image of women through fashion, fashion shows, women’s magazines, movies, and advertisements, has been one of the root causes triggering the headscarf debates. Modernity saw modesty as an obstacle to women being free and civilized individuals. In modern times, claims that modesty confines women to home, subjugates them, and prevents their participation in social life were frequently expressed. The withdrawal of religion’s weight from social and everyday life also facilitated the task of modernization advocates.

The social role of women and their dress code also closely relate to the capitalist world order and consumer society. Capital owners, producers, and advertisers have always targeted women as their primary audience. Women dressing in the way Islam prescribes and leading a modest life pose a significant threat to the global capitalist system.

A woman who covers herself, does not wear makeup, is not obsessed with beauty, avoids exhibitionism, stays away from illicit relationships, does not frequent nightclubs and entertainment venues, does not value fashion and catwalks, and does not allow herself to be exploited by others, will obviously be an “undesirable woman” in the modern world. The spread of such an understanding could end the enormous cosmetic, clothing, fashion, entertainment, and prostitution industries.

Another important reason for the endless debates and significant grievances about the headscarf and modesty is the hostility towards religion, whether openly or covertly, under the guise of secularism. Secular and laic circles, through laws they enacted and media pressure, have tried to cleanse the public sphere of any religious visibility, attributing unfounded meanings to the headscarf. They labeled veiled women as “reactionary,” claiming they threatened the principles of the Republic. If covering the head had nothing to do with religion and faith, likely, even one percent of the current debates would not occur. Because what is opposed is not the act of covering itself but the beliefs and lifestyles it reflects.

Likewise, those who criticize the headscarf as a political symbol, find it contrary to modernity, think it restricts women’s freedom, associate it with male tyranny, see it as contrary to gender equality, or believe it leads to neighborhood pressure are also numerous. Especially liberal and feminist groups have viewed the headscarf as a relic from the Middle Ages and a symbol of being reactionary, claiming it restricts and oppresses women, hinders women’s socialization and practicing various professions, and they have mercilessly criticized veiled women.

Some even accuse those who speak about the religious ruling of the headscarf and modesty of interfering with women’s freedoms and pressuring them, saying things like “leave these women alone.” Especially when men speak and write on this subject, it is not possible to see these critics as justified.

Because, as the verse clearly states, there is no compulsion in religion. (Al-Baqarah, 2/256) Everyone is free to do what they want. Some choose to uncover their heads, others to cover them. Expressing the view that the headscarf is a definitive command of the religion can discomfort the consciences of open Muslim women. However, if one were to oppose speaking about the religious ruling of modesty on this basis, then there would be no religious ruling left that could not be opposed for the same reason.

Those who do not pray may oppose discussions about the obligation of prayer, and those who drink alcohol or gamble may oppose discussions about their prohibition. Thus, the duty of religious scholars is to clarify the religious ruling of a matter; whether to practice it or not is left to the individual’s free will.

In addition, there are those who accept that the headscarf is a religious duty but oppose presenting it as if it is the first and most important command of religion, complaining about the distortion of the hierarchy among religious rulings. They argue that religion is being sacrificed to formalism, criticize those who are not sufficiently diligent about morality, chastity, and inner purity for being too harsh when it comes to modesty, and claim that the headscarf and modesty are not used in accordance with their meaning and purpose. These criticisms are not entirely unjustified.

Finally, there are marginal views put forward as religious opinions by those who research religion. This is precisely what we aim to address. Yes, some say that the verse commanding the headscarf (An-Nur, 24/31) is advisory, not mandatory; some argue that the term “khimar” mentioned in the verse does not mean a headscarf but a shawl, scarf, or any cover; some claim that the command of modesty (Al-Ahzab, 33/59) was to distinguish free women from slave girls and that this distinction is no longer necessary today; others approach the headscarf command historically, explaining it within the socio-cultural conditions of the Prophet’s era.

It is difficult to say that the different views about the headscarf presented in the last half-century are solely based on scientific, intellectual, and religious motives. They are more likely views emerging under the influence and pressure of social, cultural, and political conditions. In other words, the reason that has made broad public segments and many scholars more tolerant of the headscarf and modesty is social change and transformation. Unfortunately, such a coercive and imposing atmosphere has been created around certain topics that it has become very difficult to discuss and debate them objectively. Various issues concerning women are at the forefront.

There are entrenched prejudices regarding women-related matters. Many truths are sacrificed for ideologies. There is fear of contradicting the accepted norms of modern life and societal conscience. Therefore, verses and hadiths related to the topic can be easily distorted with unnecessary force and interpretative tricks. When we cannot live as we believe, we start to believe as we live, seeking to justify our existing lifestyle from the scriptures.

Discussions about modesty go back to the second half of the nineteenth century. However, these debates gained momentum after the Second Constitutional Era and have intensified to the present day. In women’s magazines, women’s associations, and other magazines and newspapers of the Ottoman Empire’s last period, heated debates on the subject were conducted. Although the criticisms at that time were mainly directed at the veil and chador, the command of modesty gradually began to face criticism. In the Republican period, the idea that women should be freed from covering was more loudly expressed. Turban and headscarf debates flared up after the 1980s.

It should also be noted that the changing perspectives and practices against the headscarf and modesty are not unique to Turkey and Muslim countries. Covering, in fact, is as old as human history. It is not a ruling specific to Islam. Islam has merely regulated an already existing practice.

For example, the laws of Hammurabi commanded women to cover their heads, and covering was a common practice in Sassanian, Byzantine, and Indian civilizations, as understood from religious and historical texts.

Similarly, Judaism and Christianity, being Abrahamic religions, commanded the headscarf, and women belonging to these religions covered their heads until modern times. However, with the social and political changes of modern times, perceptions, thoughts, practices, and applications regarding the headscarf have also changed.

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