The Hijab and Feminism: A Friendship, ruined by the Western World
TW// Islamophobia, Violence, Murder The western view of Islam has been one where people view Muslims as oppressed; they view the ‘Shariah Law’ as a constraint and, most importantly, the hijab as a leash and a symbol of oppression. Growing up in the UK, you couldn’t avoid news articles or the media propelling this image of Islam as a religion based on violence and oppression, specifically of Muslim women. Even with the current events in Iran, it feels once again the incorrect image of the hijab is being perpetuated by the media, and the idea of modesty in Islam is being twisted and manipulated to the point the meaning behind it has become lost in the fog of deception.
Before I continue this piece, I want to reiterate that what has happened in Iran is inexcusable and puts shame on what the hijab is and what Islam stands for; what is happening within Iran and what women and protestors there are facing is a travesty and I support the message behind the current protests. This piece is a way to open people’s understanding to the hijab and its purpose and importance to Muslims.
The hijab is part of the Islamic principle of modesty, it is a way for Muslims to display outwardly their inner commitment to God, but throughout history, there has been a narrative and obsession behind the unveiling of Muslim women; to provide them with the freedom they have been calling out for. Alexander (2016) discusses this perception within her paper “The Motivations Behind Westerners’ Obsession with the Islamic Veil”; she discusses how, while always present, since the events of 9/11, we have seen the growth of Islamophobia within the west. Alongside it, there was a hope to “bring civilization to uncivilized Muslims,” leading to the “empowerment of Muslim women” (Haddad, 2007). As Alexander puts it, “this campaign led to the belief that the War on Terror was somehow connected to Muslim women’s oppression”, thus beginning the fear around the hijab. This fear and obsession around the hijab has led to the stigmatization of Muslim women, pushing the notion that they are either subjugated to the cruelty of Islam and the Qur’an, or that they themselves are vessels of such tyranny. This false narrative is equally as oppressive as forcing one to wear the hijab; women all over the west have had to give up wearing the hijab in order to fit in, in order to live without judgement, in order to protect themselves from others.
While I identify as a Muslim woman, I personally do not wear the hijab, so in my research for this post, I sent out a survey to ask hijabis their reasoning behind wearing the hijab. Responses varied from wearing it due to modesty reasons to using it as an act of worship, but the consistency in the responses showed how they all use it to connect and be closer to God. This idea of modesty is not only limited to women and isn’t just a physical item, in the Qur’an it states “Tell believing men to lower their glances and guard their private parts: that is purer for them. God is well aware of everything they do” (24:30); the hijab is a mental ideology which Muslims take with them, to remind them to live in a way where you focus on God in all your daily tasks.
This strong connection to their faith is muted by the harassment they experience daily, with over 50% of respondents to my survey stating they have experienced harassment due to their decision to wear the hijab. To many of these women, in a world where it has been normalised to show your body and “free the nipple”, they want the same respect to be applied to modesty and their choice to cover themselves. For these women, it is a way to liberate themselves from any societal expectations, and live true to themselves.
Respondent also took the time to speak out against the events in Iran, the main theme here was how un-Islamic these were. The Qur’an states “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256) and the obligation by anyone, person or country, to wear the hijab is contrary to this clear Islamic ideology and contributes to the concept that women are held within this cage of the hijab. Among my respondents, 7% did state that they weren’t willing to wear the hijab and were made to, and it would be immoral of me to ignore that this does occur; however, these events being extrapolated and leading to the further stigmatization of both women who choose to wear the hijab as well as Islam as a religion is not an accurate nor fair response.
When looking at the situation in Iran, the country is oppressing its citizens through this mandate to wear a hijab, however, these protests seem to become silent when looking at the other side of the picture. Within France, there has been a ban since 2004 to wear headscarves in French public schools, and in 2010, the country prohibited full-face veils like niqabs in public spaces like streets, parks, and public transportation. Most recently, in 2021, France passed an amendment that would ban girls under 18 from wearing the hijab in public and would also prevent mothers from wearing hijabs on their children’s school trips, and would ban the “burkini,” a full-body swimsuit (Lang, 2021).
To many Muslims, these protests seem to serve one side of the story, and when it is our turn to ask for help, the west turns a blind eye to our struggles. I, will once again, reiterate that what has happened in Iran is truly terrible, but this narrative shows how people are always willing to speak out against the ‘horrors of Islam’, but will never stand with it in its time of need.
I would like to leave you all with a story about an intelligent young girl, my 8-year-old cousin. Speaking to her about wearing the scarf shows me the pure message behind the hijab; when this little 8-year-old was asked why she was wearing a scarf by her friend in the street, her response was that it is part of her identity. It is quite amazing that an 8-year-old has this sense of logic which many adults still cannot comprehend- that a veil can have such an important meaning behind it. References Alexander, C. K., 2016. The Motivations Behind Westerners’ Obsession with the Islamic Veil. What All Americans Should Know About Women in the Muslim World, Volume 1. Haddad, Y. Y., 2007. The Post-9/11 Hijab as Icon. Sociology Of Religion, 68(3), pp. 253-267. Lang, C., 2021. Who Gets to Wear a Headscarf? The Complicated History Behind France's Latest Hijab Controversy. [Online] Available at: https://time.com/6049226/france-hijab-ban/ [Accessed 10 December 2022]. Pervez, S., 2015. Hijab In Islam: Modesty, Humility and Dignity. [Online] Available at: https://www.whyislam.org/hijab-in-islam-modesty-humility-and-dignity/ [Accessed 9 Dec 2022]. Pervez, S., 2018. Modesty in Islam. [Online] Available at: https://eu.mycentraljersey.com/story/news/local/faith/2018/10/18/modesty-islam/1647658002/ [Accessed 11 Dember 2022].
Amreen Kausar (She/Her)
I am an urban planning student currently based in London with a passion for making our public spaces safer for women through design and legislation as we all have a right to use a space. Also with a keen interest on how South Asians experience harassment from the lens of a Pakistani-Muslim
Cover art courtesy of @growing_designer