This post was last updated on January 29th, 2019
As much as I and other Muslim women wish it weren’t, the hijab is the subject that everything comes back to with regards to women’s rights in Islam. Since there is no way of avoiding this topic, I might as well confront it head-on (no pun intended).
In this post, I will attempt to explain what the hijab is, why women wear it, what its status is in different countries, and why I, as a progressive Muslim woman, am against the hijab.
What Is the Hijab and Why Do Muslim Women Decide to Wear It?
Usually, a woman who wears hijab will say that she wears it for one or several of the following reasons:
– God commanded her to do so,
– for people to focus on her inner values.
The idea that God commanded Muslim women to wear the hijab is based on verses of the Qur’an which do not use the term hijab. (The only times the term hijab is in a completely different context.)
“And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; 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, their fathers, their husband’s fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. And O ye Believers! turn ye all together towards Allah, that ye may attain Bliss” (24:31, translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, emphasis mine.)
“O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons (when abroad): that is most convenient, that they should be known (as such) and not molested. And Allah is Oft- Forgiving, Most Merciful” (33:59, translated by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, emphasis mine).
Again, culturally and historically, what is considered “decent” differs. While, as a feminist, I believe everyone should be allowed to wear whatever they want to wear I can appreciate that not everything is appropriate in every setting. Going to your office job like Madonna at her most provocative is your right, but clearly out of place. Likewise, a bikini is perfectly acceptable on the beach but doesn’t really fit in a hospital. These are the standards most of us are used to. However, people in the Amazon who don’t wear clothes will not have the same approach to nudity that Western Europeans have.
When discussing clothes, we have to consider the environmental factor. While wearing more clothes in the deserts of Arabia, clearly protects men and women alike from the sun, or thick layers of clothing are vital to survival in the Artcic, if we go back to the Amazon, the environment, warm climate but numerous trees to provide shade against the sunlight, make clothes less important.
Clearly, the above-mentioned verses are not enough to arrive at the typical hijab that is worn by many Muslim women today. Sometimes, verse 33:53 is brought up, but it actually refers specificall to Muhammad’s wives. Therefore, in order to justify the hijab, scholars had to look into the ahadith, the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. There, it is suggested that women should cover everything except for their face, hands, and feet. However, the authenticity of these sayings is not universally accepted.
Many Muslim women claim that wearing the hijab makes people focus on their inner values. This is also an argument often used by Muslim men who claim to be modern and interested in women’s rights. According to this argument, women who don’t wear hijab are objectified, and the hijab frees women from the sexual objectification by men.
This approach is completely removed from reality as not all women without hijab are sexually objectified to a higher extent than all women who wear hijab. I expect Oprah Winfrey to be objectified much less than Noor Tagouri who was interviewed for Playboy magazine. The hijab has actually become a fetish. Consider the success of porn star Mia Khalifa who played with stereotypes about Muslim women and the hijab. Clearly, wearing or not wearing the hijab has nothing to do with whether or not people will look at a woman with sexual desire.
Furthermore, if this is our shortcut to gaining respect, it’s quite lazy, isn’t it? Simply dressing in a way that we think men will not find sexually appealing doesn’t gain us any real respect. It might gain us admiration from men who are all too happy that we play by their rules, but if they only see us as a person because they cannot see our hair there is definitely something wrong with that.
In general, dressing a certain way so that men will respect us is as un-feminist as can be. We don’t need to impress men with how we dress whether it suggests sexiness or modesty. This is a trap that many feminists such as German feminist icon Alice Schwarzer have fallen into. At the end of the day, men will comment on the lack of attractiveness these women portray. These women are objectified to the same agree for not complying with society’s beauty standards. In our patriarchal world, there are really only two alternatives: “Wow, she’s smart considering how hot she is.” and “Well, no wonder she’s so successful, she’s not even a real woman.”
Legal Attitudes towards the Hijab
Several countries ban women from wearing the hijab, or some forms of it, in certain situations. Many times, women who wear the hijab compare such bans to the enforcement of hijab in public when, in fact, the two have nothing in common. While, for example, female teachers in some federal states of Germany are not allowed to wear the hijab at work, there is no law anywhere in the world that punishes a woman for being seen wearing the hijab, whereas the contrary is the case in Iran, Sudan, Aceh, and Saudi Arabia.
In order to support women who are discriminated against because of their hijab, World Hijab Day has been initiated where non-Muslim women wear the hijab in solidarity with Muslim women who wear the hijab. Unfortunately, those same women who care about World Hijab Day, do very little when it comes to fighting for the right of Iranian women to take off their hijabs. Where is the solidarity with our fellow Muslim sisters? Do the Muslim proponents of World Hijab Day take off their hijabs for a day in conservative circles, at mosques, at Islamic events to show solidarity with women in Iran and Saudi-Arabia who will get arrested if seen without hijab in public? If not, their World Hijab Day makes a mockery of the rights of Muslim women which they claim to show solidarity with.
Progressive Islam and the Hijab
According to traditional pro-hijab arguments, men are too weak to control themselves around a woman whose hair they can see. While that is, unfortunately, the truth in many countries, it is not an innate truth about the nature of men. Men can very well interact professionally with women, even when they see their arms or legs. Any man who sexually harasses a woman because she is not fully covered should be locked up to protect the safety of girls and women instead of placing the burden on women by making us dress a certain way. And where does it stop? We know that the more conservative the interpretation of Islam becomes the more restricted the movement of women is. Women end up being forced to stay at home in order not to tempt any man into harming them. The solution is not to follow the rules imposed on us by men but to bring consequences to men who harm women.
The idea that men are slaves to their physical desires but are kept from acting on these desires by the way a woman dresses is ludicrous. It is the same as the argument that places the blame on rape victims by asking what they wore when they were raped. As if clothes were some sort of protective shield that could switch off these supposedly overly powerful desires. What is not mentioned very often is that Muslim women who wear the hijab are often sexually harassed by Muslim regardless. Statistics suggest that 99% of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed, while 90% of them wear the hijab, so it is quite obviously not true that the hijab protects women from being sexually objectified or even harassed.
Another issue that stems from the constant discussions about the hijab, is that a woman’s “Muslim-ness” is often judged by whether or not she wears hijab. The hijab has been turned into – by Muslim traditionalists and Western Orientalists – the ultimate sign of being a Muslim woman. Any Muslim woman who doesn’t wear the hijab is not quite Muslim enough.
The objectification through the hijab is very real. There are famous campaigns comparing unveiled women to unwrapped lollipops surrounded by flies. Hijabs exist even in baby sizes, even though, according to traditional beliefs, the hijab should be worn to avoid sexual tension.
To my fellow Muslim sisters out there, I am sorry that I cannot support the hijab. I know many of you are 100% convinced that you are performing a feminist act by wearing the hijab. I, on the other hand, cannot separate it from the ideology behind it, an ideology that places all responsibility on women because it considers men too weak to keep their clothes on when they see a woman’s hair.
Do you or anyone you know wear hijab? What are your thoughts on the matter?