There seems to be a new trend taking off in Lebanon, but it’s not exactly what anyone would suspect. Over the past few months there has been an increasing presence of conservative Muslim men as guests on political talk shows, and they all appear to have one condition- if the host is a woman, and regardless if she’s Christian or Muslim, she better cover her hair with a headscarf.
On several occasions I’ve watched talk shows where a male guest has insisted that his female interviewee cover her hair. Some women have outright refused, citing that the headscarf is a personal choice for women and that Islam does not condone forcing a woman to veil. But others have accommodated their guests simply to decrease tension and hostility.
On a fairly recent television show a male guest with no religious clout, other than being extremely conservative, sat diagonally across his female host because she refused to cover her hair. The man sat uncomfortably, trying very hard not to glimpse at his host or make eye contact with her. To many viewers, including myself, the show, supposedly about an important political discussion, was reduced in seconds to nothing more but a man’s outrageous behavior towards a woman whose hair was uncovered.
In the past few weeks media outlets went hysterical too at the way a Lebanese female talk show host stood up to her belligerent male guest, an Egyptian Islamic scholar residing in London. Many commended Reema Karaki for her bravery, but others insisted that the media’s reaction to this event is a product of the West’s portrayal of Middle Eastern women as weak and submissive. The modestly dressed Karaki took it upon herself to cover her hair at the request of her London-based guest who still shamed her for being an uncovered woman.
In plain terms, it appears that some extremely conservative men who are invited to discuss current affairs on television are using these platforms to shame women. To them, the headscarf signifies whether or not a woman deserves respect. They speak as if they have a moral upper hand over a woman who should cover her hair for their sake as if they have never walked down the streets of Beirut or London. These sorts of judgments are nothing more but a ridiculous way to intimidate women who do not conform to their religious interpretations of proper dress, which to them signifies the headscarf.
A man’s insistence that a woman cover her hair has very little to do with women and a lot to do with his insecurities about women in general. Placing on a headscarf during a television interview for five or ten minutes will not make a woman more holy or more Muslim and it will not change her character or her values. It is even more ludicrous that such negotiations have to be made between a host and her guest on a television platform.
The shaming and humiliation that comes with “cover your hair” is often greater for women who share a common cultural or religious background. Lebanon is home to 18 religious denominations of Christians and Muslims and talk show hosts of both religions have been ordered to wear a headscarf on television. Some conservative men feel a sense of betrayal when a woman of their kind does not conform to their expectations. A conservative Muslim man would not dare go on an American or European talk show and insist that his female host cover her hair. But, he would give himself permission to insult a woman who shares his religion, ethnicity, or language.
Most Muslims believe that the headscarf is part of their religious faith and many women choose to veil. Some even see this as a personal choice that empowers them as Muslims. However for others, the headscarf is enforced on them by family and to a large degree by society. A small minority of Muslims contend that the veil is a cultural practice that has been co-opted over time as a religious duty for Muslim women. Whatever the reasons are for veiling or not veiling, every woman has a right to dress in a way that is appropriate for her and this right should be respected at all times.
Forcing any woman to cover her hair out of consideration for a man at any time is highly perverted. All sorts of women are judged for not wearing what others in their communities deem proper for them to the extent that they are automatically judged on their moral values. Sometimes, they are also verbally and sexually harassed and even blamed for inviting unwanted attention. It is wrong to assume that any woman who covers her hair is of greater moral character that should be better respected.
The veil should be an independent choice for a woman to make on her own without due pressure from family or society, let alone strange men who force women to temporarily cover their hair when they are present. There was a time when some religious leaders led by example and refused to judge women on their appearance. Most Lebanese should remember the many times that the disappeared Imam Musa al-Sadr walked into social gatherings and told women not to cover their heads out of respect for him. Such deeds, he would say, are done for God who is the ultimate judge. It’s time for those who force their religious views on women to give the non-judgmental approach a try.