The headscarf is the battleground for legal, political and cultural conflicts worldwide. In Beirut, however, as Firas Zbib writes in his personal account, some women are wearing it lightly, not feeling the ideological ballast of the hijab at all
The veiled woman who entered the sweet shop with an unveiled friend seemed to be displaying her beauty more than she covered it up. The hijab covering her hair framed her pale skin and black eyes and only added to her appeal.
Her hijab hid nothing and she seemed completely unruffled by the glances cast in her direction by the other customers. Not only was she unruffled by the attention, she seemed to invite it.
For some women the Islamic headscarf, or hijab, no longer functions exclusively as a symbol of modesty. Nowadays, veiled women in Beirut are no different to their fashion loving sisters elsewhere.
No longer the fashion outcast
Many veiled girls behave and dress like their unveiled contemporaries, wearing tight, fashionable clothes. They ensure that the hijab's colour matches the outfit, thus incorporating it into the overall look. The veiled girl is no longer the fashion outcast she once was, hiding under her veil and blanketing her body in suitably modest clothing.
Beauty and veils are at odds no more. The veiled girl in the sweet shop handed out cards for her own store that had recently opened in Mar Elias. Only women got the cards, because the store in question was for women only.
These young women are changing the meaning of the veil. We see them on the Al-Rusha Corniche, in the streets, clothes shops and universities. Instead of hanging around in silent groups apart from the crowd, the veiled girls seem more free, open and light-hearted than their unveiled friends.
New way of wearing the veil
Salwa is a Jordanian student. Her clothes are nothing like her hijab, or rather, they are nothing like the clothes we are used to seeing on veiled girls. Salwa has devised a new way of wearing the veil: she covers her long hair with the fabric then ties it up at the back, leaving her neck and face uncovered.
Her clothes are up-to-date, bought from clothes shops designed to appeal to the Western fashions she reads about in magazines. Many of these female students have boyfriends and roam around the campus openly holding hands.
These girls, wearing rings in their noses and lips, make me ask myself what the purpose of the veil is, or why they wear it at all. Are these just regular young women who, given the choice, would prefer to wear modern fashions than traditional Islamic dress and hijabs? Is it pressure from society or their families that compels them to take he veil? Or are they believers in the importance of the hijab and their own beauty.
Answers to these questions are hard to come by, but what is certain is that these young students experience a freedom within the university campus that they lack outside it.
Fashionable Islamic clothing
There is a TV show that plays on one of our satellite channels that runs a competition for female viewers. Viewers phone in to win a "cool" aba'a (gown) created by a fashion designer who specializes in fashionable Islamic clothing. This is a new phenomenon.
A few years ago, religious clothing was a single, unchanging design. Nowadays, Islamic clothes are produced by different designers, the variety of colours and designs reflecting their individual tastes and styles.
Piety and pleasure now work together. In the streets and public squares veiled women have made the hijab a symbol not of regression and stasis but of freedom and modernity. Adherence to the stricter Islamic traditions that caused women to hide themselves and their bodies is weakening, it seems.
Blue-eyed, pouting blondes
The veiled girls who appear on posters and TV adverts are the same blue-eyed, pouting blondes we are used to seeing on jeans and chocolate adverts.
The shops that sell Islamic clothing to young women have changed the shape of the hijab and the way it is worn on the head. It keeps pace with fashion: highlighting the very beauty it is designed to conceal.
The veiled woman has been liberated from more restrictive traditions and the restrictions they impose on her beauty, without renouncing religion itself.
© Babelmed 2006