Last week on Saturday night, I went to Khane Iran in Boston to listen to Shahrnush Parsipour, a well-known Iranian female author as well as a prison celebrity, due to her experiences in prison both before and after the Revolution.
Her talk was not about literature but was about Hijab. She narrated a segment of Gilgamesh, which is an important 5000-year-old epic from Mesopotamia to point out that the concept of covering women's hair existed a very long time ago. I found the reference in Gilgamesh in Tablet X:
The tavern-keeper Siduri who lives by the seashore, she lives... the pot-stand was made for her, the golden fermenting vat was made for her. She is covered with a veil ...
Parsipour tried to relate the name of the girl, Siduri, to the word "Shahr", meaning "city" in Persian, which was not covincing. She wanted to say that Siduri is like a city and covering her acts as a wall around the city. She expanded a bit more on her theory by saying that since the Middle East is geographically located in an area that is constantly under attack from all diffent sides, people started to protect women, who were physically weaker, with Hijab.
In the Q&A, a few people took issues with her theory for the origin of covering women. A friend sitting next to me pointed out that in Iran before Islam, the rich people had Hijab, which was made out of expensive material, while peasant women would go around bare headed. He also insisted that the Quran has only required Hijab for wives of the prophet, which is not quite true*. A woman criticized Parsipour by saying that this is a multifaceted issue and she can not narrow it down to only a geographical component. Another woman supported Parsipour by pointing out that women in Iraq are covering up because of the insecurity as a result of occupation. A gentleman questioned why we should care about the history of Hijab while in its new form, it is a political issue.
I bought her Prison Memoirs book at the talk and read it in the past few days. Now it is much more clear to me why the issue of Hijab is so important to her. Throughout her time in a women's prison (somewhere like this), Hijab was used as a tool to subjugate prisoners. She paid heavily for resisting it. This is why she is trying to find out what is behind the obsession of some to force head covering on others. She points out that it is not all about Islam, but that the roots of Hijab should be investigated in other places.
*There is no explicit reference to Hijab in Quran. The following verses are the important ones. It is clear that it includes all believers but it is not clear whether women have to cover their hair.
"O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the believing women to draw their outer garments around them (when they go out or are among men). That is better in order that they may be known (to be Muslims) and not annoyed..." (Quran 33:59)
"And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; and that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands..." (Quran 24:31)
*Iranian Online magazine has a few features on Shahrnush Parsipour.