Last month I wore a hijab for two weeks. I was in Iran to celebrate New Year with friends from Istfahan. In those 2 weeks I picked up 4lb in weight (Iran is not a place for dieters!), amazing bargains from the bazaar, many, many wonderful memories, and a valuable lesson in Shibboleths.
‘Shibboleth’ is a sociological word used to describe dividing lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’. It can be any number of identity markers: from clothes to food – simple, but profound ways by which we express ourselves through culture. We use them to determine who is in our cultural group – and who isn’t. The new shibboleth I was encountering in Iran was a piece of cloth – a hijab.
It’s illegal for women not to wear Islamic dress in public places in Iran. As soon as our plane came in to land, every woman on board ‘scarved up’. There was a great variety, from the very conservative black-to- the-toes chador, to the young woman in front of me in full make-up, jeans and a tiny strip of cloth covering the back of her head (Iranians have rebellious teens too). What all women had in common was complete covering of their necks, sides and the tops of their heads, as is their custom. The women I spoke to were very proud of their dress-code and said they enjoyed wearing it. Some said that it gave them freedom to move around without unwanted attention. For others it was an important aspect of religious obedience. What would I, as a Western feminist, make of it?
Firstly, attitudes towards hijab reveal the extent of our own prejudices. Would Westerners react similarly to a Catholic sister wearing almost exactly the same dress-code? Unlikely. The hijab then is a marker that reveals our own internal Othering; our own particular prejudice. That said, the Shibboleth for me was not one of religion, but of gender. The veil marks the woman out as something not not to be looked at. My own culture has an oppressive over-sexualisation of women’s bodies. They are used as commodities for advertising and titillation. How much more ‘freedom’ to Western women have compared to their veiled Middle Eastern sisters? Anyone familiar with The Everyday Sexism Project’ will be aware that unwanted sexualised comments harass and limit the lives of girls and women. But I cannot say that, from my perspective, the experience of veiling was freeing. It felt like women were made responsible for the problem of male lust. They must veil so as not to attract men. They needed to comply with modesty codes to protect men’s sensitivity and their own virtue. Is this the right approach? It’s a common one. We often try to fortify our lives by erecting external barriers rather than addressing the root of the problem within us. We blame opportunism for our moral laxity, genetics for our intemperance, the media for our base interests – but maybe WE are the issue.
The plane took off; I ‘unscarved’, arriving home on Maundy Thursday. A day my religion asks me to reflect on the extent of human sinfulness, and the cost God takes upon himself to deal with the internal, rootedness of sin and selfishness. The Cross spoke to me this year as the great ‘stake in the ground’ that breaks shibboleths. If this is what it takes to root out sin, we are all in the same boat; all in need of grace. The ‘us’ and ‘thems’ can be put away. The veil in the Temple tears. God is out of the cultural box and we are all potential targets of God’s astounding, scandalous grace.
*The word Shibboleth has its origins in a fascinating Hebrew story. Read it here https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Judges+12:5-7&version=NLT
**The photo is from a previous installation called Shibboleth from the Tate Modern in London