Sudanese Amira Osman Hamed  says she is prepared to be flogged to defend the right to leave her hair uncovered in defiance of a "Taliban"-like law.

Sudanese Amira Osman Hamed says she is prepared to be flogged to defend the right to leave her hair uncovered in defiance of a "Taliban"-like law. Photo: AFP

It’s getting to be an all too familiar story. Another Sudanese woman, Amira Osman Hamed, is being persecuted for failing to comply with strict laws governing women’s dress. 

Hamed faces a trial and possible flogging for “indecent clothing” after a policeman arrested her for refusing to cover her hair with a hijab.

The case recalls that of Sudanese journalist Lubna Ahmed Al-Hussein who, in 2009, was fined for wearing trousers. Refusing to pay, she escaped a public flogging only when the Sudanese Journalists’ Union paid the fine on her behalf. 

Amira Osman Hamed: ‘‘I’m Sudanese. I’m Muslim, and I’m not going to cover my head.’’

Amira Osman Hamed: ‘‘I’m Sudanese. I’m Muslim, and I’m not going to cover my head.’’ Photo: AFP

As mainstream Islam grows increasingly conservative, there is no doubt that the situation for many Muslim women, both in Sudan and elsewhere is deteriorating. Indonesia, for example, a once “moderate” country which has also been cracking down on women’s dress in recently years, is currently sparking international outrage for its plans to subject teenage schoolgirls to virginity tests.

According to Hamed, her arresting officer was so shocked to find her hair uncovered, he told her “You are not Sudanese. What is your religion?”

Her reply, that she is both Sudanese and a Muslim but nonetheless “won’t cover my head” highlights the intolerable pressure put on many Muslim women to comply with someone else’s standards of piety.

Ahmed’s words are a direct challenge both to the policeman and contemporary Muslim culture that dictates a woman must be covered in order to be a “good” Muslim.

For her part, Ahmed prefers to wear her hair in traditional Sudanese braids. But, judging by the policeman’s reaction, you’d think headscarves had been compulsory in Sudan for centuries and not just since the president Omar al-Bashir seized power in an Islamist-backed coup in 1989.

All of which shows just how quickly conservatism can change the face of a nation. There is no doubt that there is a disturbing emphasis put on women’s dress and behaviour and that this is increasing.

Modest dress, particulary the hijab is inextricably linked with Islam. Although ostensibly regarded as an individual expression of faith, it has become a fiercely political symbol.

While some Western governments seek to ban various forms of Muslim women’s dress including the headscarf, Muslim theocracies, with the aim of making religion as visible as possible, focus on the hijab as a means of promoting Islam, in the process exploiting a culture that is obsessed with female modesty and purity.

This endless tug of war between banning and enforcing hijab, as well as the West’s preference to cloak the issue in the language of “choice” actually detracts from the real question.

Why is modesty so highly prized and enforced in women but not in men when the Koran praises both “modest men” and “modest women”?

While modesty can as easily refer to humility as it can to dress and sexuality, the hijab requirement places women’s modesty front and centre at all times in a way men are exempt from.

Nothing has hindered women’s progress more than the cult of modesty. In the Muslim world it has sadly reached the point to where it is seen as the primary, if not only indicator, of a woman’s entire worth as a person. 

It is the direct cause of phenomena such as honour killings, the restrictions on women’s’ freedom of movement and female genital mutilation; all cultural practices that predate the rise of Islam and which are designed to ensure women’s chastity prior to marriage.

This cultural preference for female virginity means women’s lives and their entire moral character are distilled to their modesty, reducing them to, in the words of Arab-American writer Mona Eltahawy, “their headscarves and hymens.” 

In such a context is hijab ever really a free choice when women who refuse to cover their hair are derided as immodest and unashamed?

Amir Osmen Hamed’s bravery in standing up to the police is astounding but no less so is her declaration that she is a proud Muslim woman who refuses to cover her hair, a declaration that fiercely rejects the notion that modesty and hijab should be the markers of a woman’s faith and worth.

As long as modesty is extolled as the primary virtue of a woman and the obligation of every Muslim woman, then the tug of war between those who seek to ban hijab and enforce it will continue, with women, of course being caught in the middle.