With the news just in that France has now moved to ban the wearing of the hijab by Muslim women in sports, the necessity of World Hijab Day on 1 February, alongside the importance of educating ourselves on the hijab, becomes even more apparent. I am a Muslim woman and for as long as I can remember, the term ‘hijab’ has been mercilessly vilified by both media and politicians alike to propagate the incorrect and harmful narrative that Muslim women need saving from ‘tyrannical’ Islam. This saviour mentality has allowed and encouraged Western countries, such as France, to reduce the complex experiences and beliefs of Muslim women to a passive, two-dimensional existence as either ‘oppressed by wearing the hijab’ or ‘liberated by not wearing the hijab’. I’m here today to discredit some of the most foolish myths and stigmas associated with the hijab because while the West may claim over and over again that it is for women empowerment, it has become increasingly obvious that it seems to only be in favour of women empowerment when the women fit a certain checklist of the ‘modern woman’.
Before I delve into the ridiculous stereotypes stapled to the backs of hijab-wearing Muslim women, I first want to define the term ‘hijab’. Although most people in modern society define hijab as the head covering worn by Muslim women, ‘hijab’ is an Arabic word that translates to ‘barrier’ or ‘partition’. From an Islamic theology perspective, hijab encompasses the principles of modesty for Muslim men and women that are to be observed in their dress, behaviours and mannerisms. Unfortunately, the Western obsession of associating nudity with female empowerment has meant that women who do wear the hijab are either pitied (if the narrative is one that insists Muslim women have no agency), or are regarded as ‘backward’ and ‘archaic’ (we don’t understand why or how a woman could possibly cover her hair and dress modestly and still feel CONFIDENT).
MYTH #1: HIJAB IS ANTI-FEMINIST AND IS ROOTED IN THE OPPRESSION OF MUSLIM WOMEN
I believe that for something to be defined as ‘anti-feminist’, it must fundamentally illustrate that the person has/had no choice with regards to the belief, behaviour or custom that they are engaging with. Even if the decisions made by Muslim women are not the norm for other women in society, this does not automatically make them or their religious practice anti-feminist. Nor does it indicate that as a collective, Muslim women, especially those who wear the hijab, are oppressed. The most anti-feminist thing about Muslim women wearing the hijab is not the fact that they wear the hijab, but rather society’s lack of respect towards their bodily autonomy. Furthermore, the black and white generalisation of ‘covered up’ as ‘oppressed’, and ‘wears shorts and crop tops’ as ‘liberated and practices bodily autonomy’ reeks of cultural insensitivity, while reinforcing that Western feminism has once again chosen to speak on behalf of women from minority communities, and have defined their own Western values as the benchmark of progression.
MYTH #2: MUSLIM WOMEN DO NOT HAVE A CHOICE WHEN WEARING THE HIJAB
When I first wore the hijab, I was nine years old. When I took off the hijab, I was 15 . Most Muslim women will echo my sentiment when I say that the hijab was, and always will be, a personal choice. Yes, from an Islamic perspective, men and women are both commanded to be modest and observe hijab, but a key principle that underpins Islamic teachings is “There is no compulsion in religion” (Quran 2:256). Now, I have had my decision to remove my hijab used by others to insist that if I took it off, it obviously must mean that I had been forced to wear it. I did not wear the hijab at nine because a male figure of authority in my life forced me to do so. And when I took it off, I did so by choice (for my health). For different women, wearing the hijab signifies different and personal things. For some, it’s a physical manifestation of their relationship with God, while for others it may be worn as a reminder of their duties as a Muslim. The counter-argument I hear all the time when debating the place of ‘choice’ in a Muslim woman’s decision to wear the hijab, is the example that there are still some women who are forced into it. To this I say, there are people in every community and group who misuse scripture, beliefs and/or ideology for the sake of power and manipulation. The Muslim community is extensively dealing with this through educational programs and community based discussions about the necessary role of choice in the decision to wear the hijab. Please do not use the un-Islamic and unethical engagement of some with the hijab to justify and encourage current society’s preoccupation with ‘saving’ Muslim women.
MYTH #3: THERE IS ONLY ONE CORRECT WAY TO WEAR THE HIJAB
This myth has served its place in perpetuating misinformation surrounding the hijab while also encouraging certain people to behave as the ‘hijab police’. Within the Muslim-Asian diaspora itself, there are a number of different styles and materials worn. As a Muslim woman of South Asian cultural heritage, I am most familiar with family members wearing a ‘dupatta’, a ‘shayla’ and the ‘khimar’. These various styles of hijab are common in countries such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Contrary to the Westernised/Hollywood portrayal of what a hijab looks like, many Muslim women do not only wear black hijabs. Hijabs can be patterned, embroidered, a mixture of colours, or a plain solid block of colour. My mother likes to wear the ‘dupatta’, which is often a part of her traditional Indian wear. Whereas in countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, the Doa Guan and Tudong/Tudung are worn. The stylisation of the hijab is as personal as the choice to wear the hijab itself.
So ultimately, what it comes down to is this: Muslim women do not need saving. The hijab is not oppressive, and insisting it is so, labelling it as ‘anti-feminist’ for example, contradicts the very foundations of choice and respect that women empowerment in the West aims to advocate for.
Terms for Hijab
- Hijab: a broad term that refers to the act of Muslim women choosing to wear a head covering. Also refers to the Islamic principles of modesty that are to be followed by men and women with regards to their dress, behaviours and mannerisms
- Tudong/Tudung: Indonesian form of hijab with a sewn-in curved visor
- Shayla: long rectangular scarf popular in the Gulf region – wrapped around the head and tucked/pinned in place at the shoulders
- Doa Gaun: translates to “dress for praying” – includes a gown and headscarf that can be slip on and off on top of clothes. Commonly wore in Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia
- Chador: full body cloak often worn by Iranian women outside of their homes. Includes a smaller headscarf underneath
- Khimar: long cape-like veil that hangs down to just above and covers the neck and shoulders completely while leaving the face visible
- Burqa: covers the entire face and body, leaving a mesh screen to see through
- esarp: silk, square scarf worn primarily by Turkish women that are colourful and come in various patterns and designs
- Al-Ameera: two piece scarf that consists of a close fitting cap and an accompanying tube-like scarf
- Niqab: veil for the face that leaves the area around the eyes clear