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'After all it’s only a piece of cloth.' Aaliyah Bilal discusses the complexities of the Hijab in East Africa with particular reference to Zanzibar.

'Sitara kubwa kuvaa Vazu refu miguuni Msiige bila nija… Nguo ziteremsheni Yapungue maasia…'

'Wear a full covering, for your protection, A long garment, to the feet, Do not imitate without morality, Lower your garments so that there may be less rebellion…'

Sheik Amri Abedi, the first black mayor of Dar es Salaam and close advisor to Julius Nyerere, published the poem 'Nduo Ziteremsheni' (Lower your garments) for political as well as aesthetic reasons. As a missionary of the Ahmadiyya movement and a statesman, Abedi was perturbed by the westernisation of women’s dress in Tanganyika and sought to redress this 'rebellion against God' with the release of the book Diwani in 1963. The quoted passage is a small portion of a much longer poem included in this volume. While it addresses the women of Tanganyika in general, Abedi takes issue with Muslim women in particular, going so far as to call those who wear western attire 'evil'.

However inaccessible the medium, the content of poems such as 'Nduo Ziteremsheni' reveal something essential about Swahili women’s experiences with a truth that resonates on all levels of society today as much as it did when it was written - women’s bodies are contested sites where upon society negotiates meanings. In Muslim communities, the hijab is central to this phenomenon. All of these factors, as they are played out in East Africa, take on a special quality in light of the increased adherence of women throughout the region to this form of Islamic dress: a fact that Amri Abedi would be proud to know.

The Zanzibari experience provides a rich study of the phenomenon, made more interesting by how drastically the culture of dress has changed in recent history. The revolutionary period of the 1960s was a time when traditional social mores were being challenged by Zanzibari youth on a grand scale. They protested Islamic cultural hegemony by wearing western style clothes. They watched western films despite condemnation by Muslim clerics. The reality one confronts today is starkly contrasted to this example. Whereas it was common to see young women in short skirts and other non-Islamic clothes during the1960s, today a jaunt through the streets of Stone Town exposes the almost universal compliance of women to hijab.

The reassertion of rigid Islamic dress codes in contemporary Zanzibar has not yet been the subject of any published scholarly analysis. A glimpse into Zanzibari transnational and local politics provides clues into why this may be taking place. Historical linkages between Tanzania and the peninsular Arab states, aided recently with the building of Islamic mosques and schools throughout the country, have made the island susceptible to ideological movements from outside. A significant dimension of this reassertion is also related to the course of party politics. The portrayal of the Civic United Front by the ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (revolutionary state party) as a party of Muslim extremists, coupled with the widely condemned violence against the CUF constituents in the wake of the elections has put many Muslims in Zanzibar on the defensive. In light of these realities, the strengthened adherence to conservative Islamic dress makes sense.

Zanzibar represents an extreme case, but it possesses all of the major thematic characteristics at play in variety of East African contexts. The circumstances of women in southern Sudan, Kenya, and on the Tanzanian mainland attest that the entire region is undergoing a wave of islamisation. In all of these contexts, there is convincing evidence that politics plays a significant role in the increased use of hijab. Concerns arise, however, when we become overly reliant on political analyses to understand such gendered and religious subjects. Given the marginal position that Muslim women continue to play on the political stage, analyses that begin and end within the confines of a political framework yield a consistently damning message - Muslim women are oppressed by hijab.

While it is part of a cosmopolitan sensibility to question and condemn any subversion of women’s rights, one must ask if the attachment of African communities to Islam and symbols such as hijab really constitute such an outcome. In a discussion of women and hijab in East Africa, we should turn our attention to a different kind of evidence. What we find beyond the lens of a top-down political analysis illustrates how a nexus of factors hinder as well as help Muslim women.

However clear the connections are between the social status of women and Muslim practice, Islam is hardly alone as a marginalising force in the lives of East African women. Unfortunately, these women also contend with forms of patriarchy that are endemic to African societies at a rudimentary level. The threat of rape, mistreatment, or being outcast on the grounds of sexual impropriety cooperate with currents of islamisation in ways that endorse hijab. In contexts where donning hijab diffuses unwanted attention from men— although the practice underlines the patriarchal structures that make it necessary—the immediate needs of women encourage a favorable depiction of its use.

The contemporary discourse has become overly comfortable with the portrayal of Islam as a force that opposes modernity. What is most troubling is that these ideas are perpetuated in the face of substantial evidence to the contrary. The East Africa is home to a number of locales wherein processes of modernisation and islamisation work in tandem. In Kenyan costal towns, when confronted with an increase in drug use as a result of increased prosperity, the reassertion of an Islamic identity becomes a tool through which those communities resist the spread of substance abuse among their youth. A similar story comes to us from eastern Sudan where the migrant workers to Saudi Arabia, once they return home, implement Islamic structures in their communities that, in effect, cause a rise in school attendance among Muslim girls. While this is linked with an increased use of the hijab in both contexts, the overall effects are advantageous to women.

Another interpretive cleavage that is consistently ignored in discussions of women and hijab is the issue of a woman’s devotion to her perceived God. There is a tendency, especially in the context of a global Islamic revival, to short circuit all contemporary discussions of hijab to the political forces that are deemed to have triggered their appearance. The plausibility of these factors cannot blind us to the likelihood that at least some women cover for pious reasons.

Hijab is a word that turns heads and sells books, but it is a pretty empty subject on its own. After all, it is only a piece of cloth. Furthermore, any inquiry into the positive or negatives of its use does not end in answers, but exposes greater complexities. The story underneath the practice is more interesting. The idea that an increased adherence to hijab references the subversion of women’s agency within systems of Islamic jurisprudence seems to be the salient issue. In this regard, it is the personal jihad of Muslim women everywhere to create spaces within Islam where they act as subjects and not objects of Islamic discourse—a field that remains the guarded terrain of men like Sheik Amri Abedi.

In contrast to other parts of the Muslim world, there is some cause for optimism in the case of East Africa. One of the encouraging developments in African societies today shows women growing more powerful in their communities. Muslim women in East Africa, it is hoped, will begin to experience greater changes in their religious communities as they themselves play more visible roles in shaping the circumstances through which people come to Islam.

* Aaliyah Bilal is a masters student at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.

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