Is the hijab a feminist statement?
I don’t know about you all, but I’m getting rather bored of the I-love-my-hijab sentiments now. It means, unfortunately, you have to put up with my lengthy rants.
The Guardian (who else) recently posted a video in which Hanna Yusuf asks, in a tone usually reserved for naughty schoolchildren, “why a simple piece of clothing is seen as the very epitome of oppression.”
She goes on to say that “many women find empowerment in rejecting the idea that women can be reduced to their sexual allure – and we should not assume that every women who wears the hijab has been forced into it.”
I was not aware there was so much outrage against the hijab. In this country, where the (visible) Muslim population has grown, the headscarf is not really that controversial, as opposed to the full face veil – niqab – which is seen even by many Muslims as extreme.
Let us tackle the first point about oppression. By contrast, why is the hijab seen as liberating, or a symbol of feminism? In fact, Muslims themselves – whether that’s imams or scholars – are the ones who make such grand claims about the hijab in the first place. If they didn’t then I doubt anyone else would care.
Hanna goes on to say that the hijab “resists commercial imperatives that support consumer culture”. It is true that in the world we live in, capitalism has made consumers of us all – including Muslim women.
In fact, Muslims comprise one of the fastest growing consumer markets in the world! The ‘halal’ industry is huge. Everywhere you go there will be an Islamic store selling you all sorts of ‘Islamic’ goods including hijabs and hijab accessories for women. Far from sticking two fingers up to Western consumerism, Muslim women are embracing it, matching their hijab with the latest trendy garments on offer in British high street stores and offering tutorials for other Muslimahs to follow.
Hanna wants us to respect her choice to wear hijab while denigrating women who don’t wear it, suggesting they’re slaves of the western fashion industry. So what does your decision to wear hijab make you, Hanna?
Then there is “false dichotomy” (as Kate Maltby puts it in the Spectator) between the hijab and bikini, which is “one of the oldest anti-feminist tropes in the book, a mild reframing of the old Madonna-whore complex, for which my own Christianity has been rightly pilloried.”
And, correct me if I am wrong, there are no countries in the world that make the wearing of a bikini mandatory unlike the hijab, which is compulsory in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Women in those countries are flogged if they disobey the strict dress code. What happened to their choice? It is easy for Hanna, a privileged Western woman, to insist it’s her choice, but about the rights of her sisters in Muslim countries? They do not have that luxury.
If wearing the hijab is a feminist symbol of rejection of western objectification of women as sex objects then does that mean wearing the full Afghan style burqa or Saudi style niqab is a stronger feminist statement, as both garments remove all identifiers of the woman as a sexualised individual?
As for the argument that women aren’t objectified with a hijab on, that is simply not true. Those who don’t wear a headscarf are likened to uncovered lollipop which have flies buzzing around them (great metaphor and not at all demeaning towards men by the way). Covered women, however, are like precious pearls or diamonds. Is that not objectification?
When I was nine years old, I was taught in mosque that if I did not cover my hair, Satan would urinate on it. No wonder it looks great, I hear you say. Jokes aside, imagine hearing that as a young child. Not only was it terrifying but the concept of shame was instilled in me at a young age, something which is the case for many young girls around the world. Many Muslim women who do not wear the hijab are constantly made to feel guilty about it. In fact, some women over compensate by defending the right for women to wear hijab (and rightly so) but are not so vocal about their own right not to wear it.
For ‘just a piece of cloth’ it seems to do so much. It’s a feminist statement, it’s a two-finger salute to capitalism, it’s an anti-rape shield, etc.
There is no consistency with the headscarf argument. On the one hand women are told to wear because it has been instructed by God and it has nothing whatsoever to do with men, but on the other hand, they are then told actually yes, wear it for the sake of it men too, because they can’t control themselves and you don’t want to invite attention on yourself now do you? If you must reveal yourself, do so to your close male relatives, e.g. your husband. Why is dressing for one man more empowering? Either way, you’re still factoring a man’s opinion into what you decide to wear.
For years, many Muslims would insist that we don’t need feminism because Islam is more equal and superior. Now, however, feminism is compatible with Islam. I can’t keep up.
Few people will approach a man and inquire about the way in which he is dressed. Yes, yes, men must “lower their gaze”, but a man won’t be denounced as a ‘bad Muslim’ nor will his dress code be used as an excuse to prevent him from attending the mosque or other Islamic functions. There aren’t dozens of books dedicated to telling men what they must and must not wear as there are for women and the dozens of guidelines they are given, exclusively by men.
Hanna, like many women who wear the hijab, wants to be judged for her mind,not the way she is dressed. But the only reason non Muslims have focused on hijab is because, as mentioned before, Muslims themselves have put too much emphasis on the headscarf. If you don’t like people focusing on your hijab then don’t make it the centre of attention in the first place.
It is also slightly ironic that she says this while wearing a trendy lace black dress (what was that about consumerism?) and bright blue hijab with a face full of make up.
Many of these women claim, “I’m more than my hijab”, but then have stupid events like world hijab day where you can experience what it means to be a Muslim woman by covering your hair, thereby reducing a Muslim woman’s experience to a piece of cloth.
Rather than promote modesty, the hijab does reduce a woman to her sexual allure. Islamically, any girl who has reached sexual maturity must start covering, which then tells the world – specifically men – that she is is sexually available for him and ready for marriage.
Hanna constantly talks about choice, but here is a question for her and for women who wear the hijab: would they ‘ choose’ to wear it if they didn’t believe it was a religious requirement, or if they weren’t told on a regular basis that good women are supposed to cover?
In fact, whenever women put on the headscarf and post a picture on Facebook for all to see (how very modest) the response is usually greeted with “Mashaallah!” or, “you look so much more beautiful with hijab on.” I thought the whole point was to see the woman for who she was? Sounds contradictory, don’t you think?
Also, if the hijab really is about obedience to God then why is it not obligatory for post-menopausal women? Qur’an 24:60 states, “Such elderly women as are past the prospect of marriage, there is no blame on them if they lay aside their (outer) garments, provided they make not wanton display of their beauty; but it is best for them to be modest; and Allah is One Who sees and knows all things.”
That is a great feminist statement.
Unfortunately, women who do wear a headscarf are judged twofold. When they are seen doing things they are not “supposed to do” (smoking, talking to strange men) they are told that they are hypocrites because, like it or not, they are seen as walking, talking, breathing examples of Islam. Anything they do is reflected on the religion.
One point I wish to end on is that if a woman is not free to remove her headscarf without the fear of scorn or ridicule, then it is not a choice. I am glad Hanna can wear what she wants but far too many women do not have choice.
Published for The Nation on 26/6/2015