A simple and fundamental miscalculation in how the hijab has been explained to their non-Muslim compatriots by the emerging Muslim communities in the United States and other Western countries has created what would otherwise have probably been largely avoidable controversies. The most recent iteration of this is a proposed law in the state of Oregon that would ban teachers from wearing "religious attire" in schools, apparently in an effort to prevent proselytizing in classrooms (which is a perfectly reasonable concern for any state legislature). This is, of course, highly reminiscent of ongoing controversies in France and other European countries that have sought to ban students in schools from wearing hijab and similar "religious attire." However, the entire matter might have been avoided, or at least significantly downplayed, had the most vocal spokespersons for these emerging Muslim communities not attempted to present the hijab as a "religious requirement" but rather as a cultural and personal choice to do with standards of modesty to which no one could reasonably object.
There are two reasons why some of the Muslim leadership in the United States and Europe have emphasized the hijab as "religiously mandated," suggesting that it is a form of religious symbolism rather than a personal choice about an individual standard of modesty in public attire. The first, of course, is that many if not most women who wear the hijab consider it a religious duty. The second is that many of these generally conservative and sometimes reactionary leaderships wish to enforce the idea that it is, in fact, a religious duty for women to cover their hair, and pressure women to do so. The Council on American-Islamic Relations has, for example, several times in the past issued e-mails expressing the view that women in public should be fully covered except for the face and hands, that men should not wear silk or gold, and similar constructs. Obviously, everyone is entitled to their opinions about both religion and fashion, no matter how dubious.
However, this emphasis on the idea that the hijab is a religious requirement has led many non-Muslims in the West to misinterpret it as some sort of religious symbol designed to communicate a kind of public devotion and announcement of religious affiliation rather than a standard of modesty. This misunderstanding has characterized the entire debate in France in which the hijab is seen as a challenge to French "secularism," although there is no doubt that racism and cultural chauvinism have permeated a deplorably twisted version of this indispensable principle in France and other parts of Europe. A lead editorial in today’s edition of the Oregonian newspaper makes the same error, suggesting that, "Wearing religious attire, whether it be an Islamic hijab or a Christian cross necklace, is not the same as proselytizing." By presenting the hijab entirely in terms of religious symbolism and requirements, Muslim American organizations may have been consciously trying to link the right to wear it to First Amendment freedom of religion protections, but I would strongly argue they have confused non-Muslim Americans as to the most essential reasons some Muslim women choose to cover their hair. The hijab is not a statement or a means of communicating an opinion, it is an issue of propriety and modesty, which are two completely different things. Asking a hijab-wearing woman to remove her scarf and reveal her hair is not analogous to asking a Christian person to remove a cross necklace. It is much closer to asking a typical American lady to remove her shirt and bra in public or teach a class topless. I think this analogy would have been not only more accurate, but much more easily understood, although it would have failed to reinforce the idea within the community that there is some sort of alleged religious obligation for women to dress in a certain manner in order to please God.
The truth of the matter, of course, is that there is no consensus on the hijab whatsoever in the Muslim community in the United States and the rest of the West, or for that matter in the Middle East either. It may be true that a majority of religious scholars over the centuries have felt that vague Quranic injunctions about modesty are properly interpreted as requiring the covering of hair, but this is not a universal interpretation. My guess is that a large majority of Muslim American women do not wear any hijab, and that while the practice has become much more pervasive in the Middle East over the past 30 years, there are very large numbers of Muslim women of the utmost devotion who do not choose to cover their hair and are not less Muslim for that. On the other end of the spectrum, others go so far as to suggest that women should be placed in burqas or naqabs, that is to say in effect inside a kind of a sack, whenever they appear in public outside the home, and this has been reasonably described by some as a kind of "moving prison." This is not to say that those who choose to don a sack should not have the right to do so (Michael Jackson is reputed to have been a devotee of the practice), but rather that the notion that there is some kind of consensus view about women’s attire that characterizes Islamic practices and beliefs is simply false.
In reality, the hijab is a manifestation of a convergence of three distinct factors: cultural norms, religious opinions and personal choices. In some cases, a political factor can be added, as some women have chosen to wear the hijab as a show of political defiance, both in the Middle East and the United States, although this is not terribly common. Of these, personal choice is the most important, as no one should be dictating to anybody else what they should be wearing (including the governments of France and Oregon). Religious opinions are also at play, and should be protected. But at heart, the hijab generally reflects cultural norms about modesty and propriety in dress and attire. These cultural norms are associated with both social and familial standards, and have more to do with a sense of propriety than a desire to display religious affiliation in an ostentatious way as the wearing of a cross or, for that matter Islamic symbolism such as miniature Qurans. Had the question of modesty been emphasized from the beginning by Western Muslim leaderships in discussing the issue of the hijab, which would have been more honest as well as more effective, the issue of religious symbolism might have been largely avoided. Covering or not covering the hair in this context has about as much significance as choosing long sleeve versus short sleeve shirts or ankle-length skirts versus shorter skirts. No one would bother with questions like that in the United States (or France).
However, because the hijab has been wrongly emphasized as a "religious requirement" and therefore imbued entirely with religious symbolism rather than a standard of modesty, it has been caught up in arguments about proselytizing, secularism and church-state issues in which it need never have been a factor. It goes without saying that under the United States Constitution, Oregon is not permitted to prohibit hijab-wearing women from teaching in its public schools, and that any such ban will never survive legal challenge and will probably not even ever be put into effect. However, although I’m not an attorney, I strongly suspect that any legal challenge, if required, would be better made under the 14th Amendment equal protection standards then under First Amendment free exercise of religion protections. In the past, the federal government has sided with the right to wear the hijab, but under the 14th and not the First Amendment. In other words, I think the federal government has it right: this is an equal protection issue, much more than a free exercise of religion issue.
Had Western Muslim leaderships been more interested in facilitating the free choice of women to wear the hijab or not according to their own judgments, they would have taken a very different approach. Unfortunately, they seem to have been more concerned with applying pressure to women to cover their hair and to reinforce the false idea that there is some sort of consensus on the issue and a stigma attached to not covering the hair. It isn’t any more properly the role of civil rights organizations or groups that are supposed to protect the entire community, much if not most of which does not wear the hijab and should not be pressured or coerced into doing so, than it is the role of the government, to tell anyone how to dress.