The hijab: a fashion statement in Damascus?

Hijab, or a woman’s headscarf, is a “fashion” (if the word applies) that evolved with the passing of time in Damascus, undergoing stylistic changes as it was bequeathed from one generation to the next.

Under the 400 years of the Ottoman Empire, a black garb called milaya, covering all parts of the body including the face, was common in Syria. Everyone wore the milaya — even prostitutes were forced to wear it, with a red ribbon dangling from behind to differentiate them from “respectable women”.

Unveiling became popular in Syria and elsewhere during the early years of the 20th century, copied from women activists in Egypt and inspired by secularism of the French Republic. Angry clerics fought the trend with tremendous zeal, tabling a Bill in parliament in 1944, asking that the thickness of a woman’s stockings and the cloth covering her face be regulated officially by law, making their violation an offence punishable by hefty fines.

Women who promenaded on the hands of their fiancés, danced at private parties to the tunes of Frank Sinatra and attended matinee cinema screenings for “women only” were stoned and scolded by Islamic fanatics, accused of promoting “devilish practices.”

Religiousness among women, however, was popular mostly among the urban poor, who turned to Islam to compensate for the hardships undergone in their day-to-day life. More recently, however, it has begun to infiltrate the urban rich society; the wives, daughters and mothers of prominent businessmen in the Damascus elite. The spectacle of veiled women driving brand new Mercedes through the bustling streets of the Syrian capital illustrates that religious revivalism has penetrated high society. In posh residential neighbourhoods of the capital, for example, most restaurants have stopped serving alcohol and there are traffic jams every Friday outside local mosques.

In the 1940s and 1950s, cosmopolitan young affluent women wore an Audrey Hepburn-style headscarf, mirroring conservative yet elegant fashion, more so than religiousness. Over the past 30 years, a new headscarf uniform has emerged in the high society of the city, with varying degrees of blue, along with a thick coat and stockings.

That dress code has the signature of Munira Al Qubaysi, a charismatic 77-year-old, strong-minded woman who has created a cult around herself since the 1960s, composed of the who’s who of elite families in Damascus, mainly from the business and former landowners.

Her sisterhood, known as Al Qubaysiate, is a society of women of all ages, mostly from the rich and affluent, who gather to learn at the hands of teachers, all trained by Al Qubaysi. These women have to prove themselves in wisdom, studying, teaching and preaching to remain close to the headmistress.

During these meetings, which are aimed at discussing religion only and staying away from politics, young girls are tutored in faith and taught how to influence their fathers, husbands and children into becoming better Muslims. Among the senior women in the group are members of the prominent Tabba family in Syria, the Shishakli family, and Amir Jibril, the sister of Ahmad Jibril, secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC).

The group controls elite schools throughout Syria, in posh districts such as Mezzeh and Kafarsouseh, which helps it train and educate young girls from an early age. Syria is one of the few places in the Arab world where shaikhas, or woman scholars, are still allowed to operate so freely, with its Grand Mufti Ahmad Hassoun announcing that pretty soon, women will be appointed muftis in Syria. Usually a promising girl who needed guidance will be invited by a friend or relative to attend a meeting of the Qubaysis. New members wear white scarves and khaki coats. When they reach an advanced level in education, they wear navy blue uniforms, with a navy coat.

Trends such as these are becoming increasingly popular throughout Syria, accompanied by greater openness from the authorities vis-à-vis religiousness in society. Five years ago, for example, Syrians organised public festivals celebrating the birthday of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and restrictions on prayer in military barracks were lifted. In popular TV dramas, which mirror day-to-day life in Syria, young actresses in hijabs are increasingly appearing in lead roles.

But hand-in-hand with such measures came a recent decision by the Ministry of Education transferring — a polite way to say freezing — over 1,000 teachers wearing the niqab, a radical form of veiling that covers the entire body and face with exception of the eyes.

That was done to prevent these teachers from indoctrinating young pupils at school with radical Islamic thought, thereby preserving Syria’s “secular education”.

Gulf News, 23 July 2010