There is a plethora of narratives associated with the word ‘hijab’, a veil donned by Muslim women in the presence of men who do not belong to their immediate family. It is a symbol of oppression in Western civilisations and a source of liberation for a percentage of women who “choose” to wear it. Their choice to wear the hijab comes from a need to connect to a divine god or a desire to protect oneself. Nonetheless, it has become a symbol of identity politics. The recent rhetoric of Islamic feminism has labelled the hijab as a choice.
Guardian writer, Hanna Yusuf, states in her controversial video, that her hijab ‘has nothing to do with oppression,’ pressing further that ‘it’s a feminist statement’. She presents her argument by displaying two states; one covered female with the hijab and the other female ‘reduced to her sexual allure’. This dichotomy is dangerous. This informal fallacy ignores the shades of grey that lie in between the black and white thinking of the covered woman and the woman who wears ‘next to nothing’. The women in between the headscarf and the bikini. She asserts that there is nothing liberating in the latter; it is promoted by the market and capitalism to pleasure men and constructs women as merchandise, a patriarchal commodity. Her resolution is to cover and in doing so, it rejects the commercialised notion and allows women to ‘reclaim their bodies.’
Reclaim their bodies. Body autonomy is a controversial subject within Islam. In Surah 4, verse 34, it states that if a woman is not obedient, it is permissible for the husband to strike her. For instance, if a woman denies her husband sex, she could be beaten. Obviously, repossessing your body within Islam is not without difficulty.
Yusuf is one of many, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, who promote the hijab as a tool of liberation and a choice. The New York Times writer, Celene Ibrahim, puts forward the hijab as a way to ‘guard our bodies against unwelcome gazes and other forms of male chauvinism’. Teen Vogue’s #AskA series presented Muslims girls who explained, through individual anecdotes, why they chose to wear the hijab. Their answers have connotations around connecting to god, being defiant against Donald Trump and the uproar of “Islamophobia”.
First, the hijab is not feminist. Feminism is the advocacy of women’s rights, the ideology that promotes equality of the sexes. The veil obstructs this notion. It highlights women as sexual beings since childhood. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, for instance, girls are enforced to wear the headscarf at the age of six, when they start going to segregated schools. In Saudi Arabia, girls must wear the hijab at the age of nine, the age of puberty. The girls are taught that modesty is essential for protection. In Surah 33, verse 59 of the Quran, Muhammed is commanded to ask the Muslim women to wear outer garments when they go out to avoid harassment. A sort of victim blaming, rape culture, if you will. A denial that the victim is the person who was harassed and not the harasser. A woman is a temptress, a sinner, naturally and unwillingly seductive. Yet it poses the question: is a woman responsible for her rape if she doesn’t dress modestly? Oh, and another thing, the word modest. The fashion industry is bursting with couture, silk hijabs and conservative clothing. Yusuf’s advocation of the hijab as being anti-consumerist is laughable in a society where Muslim bloggers and fashionistas are taking the clothing industry by storm, creating clothes that suit Islamic ideals. The word ‘modest’ is thrown around in this Western-Muslim women movement as being directed towards women who want a variety when they cover. This is as opposed to ‘immodest’; improper; immoral. Women who do not wear the hijab. An institutionalised internalised misogyny. Again, this dichotomy is dangerous.
Femen leader Inna Shevchenko puts it beautifully at the Secular Conference, held on the 22nd and 23rd of July: My body is sexual when I choose it to be. Not when you choose.
Second, the punishment for deviating from this commandment to cover is the hellfire. In Surah 4, verse 14, it states that whoever disobeys Allah and his messenger, he will cast him into the fire and will have a disgraceful torment. The torment for those not wearing hijab is having their bodies cut by scissors made of fire. Could it really be a conscientious choice for Muslim women to wear the hijab if the punishment is hell? One must either choose to obey and wear the hijab or choose torture. I agree with Yusuf’s statement, ‘there is liberation in the choice’. It must be liberation to choose the hijab and avoid punishment. It must be liberation to know that, although it is an essential commandment from god and disobedience is met with fire, it is nonetheless, your choice.
World Hijab Day, which takes place annually on the 1st of February in countries worldwide, encourages women of all religions and backgrounds to wear and experience the headscarf. Well, I encourage another day. World Non-Hijab Day. A day for Muslim women in Islamic countries to take off their veils and experience a day without the hijab. Why? Because ‘there is a liberation in the choice’. The choice not to wear it.
Third, Yusuf says her hijab ‘doesn’t deny the forced hijabis around the world’. But it does ignore it. It ignores those who fight against it in Islamic countries. It adds to the process of alienation Muslim women face in Islamic countries. Those women, persecuted, threatened, executed by the government, murdered by their families for wanting the choice to not wear it. And yet, here we are, fighting for the right to wear it. Yusuf mocks Femen leader Inna Shevchenko for ‘trying to save’ Muslim women and belittles Shevchenko’s acknowledgement for those who are brainwashed or forced to wear the hijab in Western societies. Those who do choose to wear it are usually forced and threatened by families. They are persuaded to because punishment awaits if they are not compliant. This persuasion, a mere nod from an aunt or a calm plea from a father, creates a cognitive dissonance, an unconscious hypocrisy, that suppresses social criticism of the hijab. There is a certain infallibility when it comes to being a Muslim woman who wears the hijab.
Could we instead stand in solidarity with those who choose not to wear it?
16 year old, Aqsa Parvez, was killed by her father and brother for rejecting the hijab. This incident took place in Ontario. She chose to wear the ‘Western’ style clothing and refused to wear the headscarf.
21 year old, Alya Al-Safar, was threatened by her cousin after deciding to stop wearing the headscarf. She was branded and labelled a ‘bitch’ and a ‘whore’. She and her family live in London.
My Stealthy Freedom, a movement led by Masih Alinejad, encourages women in Iran, to post photos of themselves without their hijabs. It was met with over a million likes on Facebook. Women risked their lives to do so; uncovering is met with imprisonment in Iran. For many, it represented the reconstruction of the Persian identity, one without the imposition of Islamic law.
The White Wednesday movement allows those in Iran, who are scared of posting their photos online, due to the threat of being arrested and imprisoned, to participate in solidarity by wearing a white headscarf. One woman even said: “even if this leads me to jail and sleeping with cockroaches, it would be worth it to help the next generation.” Such a powerful statement. The consequences are known to all but the defiance is strong. The hope of building a brighter future without female subjugation is embedded with this movement.
The first ever Feminist society in Egypt condemned the veil. Huda Shaarawi created the Egyptian Feminist Union in 1923, a philanthropic organisation that advocated equality and justice. Cairo was met with an uproar of women who removed their veils; a gesture that branded itself in Egyptian and Feminist history.
There are so many organisations and activists in Islamic countries that see the veil as oppressive; Egypt’s Nawal El Saadawi, Fatemi Mernissi…
Of course, the stream of responses would be: “This is not Islamic!” “This doesn’t represent true Islam!” “It is cultural!” I will, again, emphasise that the punishment for not wearing the hijab is having your body cut up by scissors in the hellfire, as dictated by Allah and his prophet Muhammed.
Yet, Yusuf states that the hijab doesn’t pose threat to progressive values. It is supposedly more feminist than Western feminism because it is defiant and rejects the enticement of men. Islamic feminism, an oxymoron with contrasting values, creating a destructive collision that brings the feminist movement backwards. Instead of fighting for women who live under Islamic law, who don’t want to wear the hijab, slut shaming women in the West who wear ‘next to nothing’ is undoubtedly more progressive.
It is a threat to progressive values because the values of the West, rooted in 1789 and the Enlightenment, are those of rationality, logic, liberty and equality. There is no logic in the hijab.
Furthermore, it is an acknowledgement that the male sex is governed by their primal desires, a derogatory implication that men are ravenous lustful predators. The females, consequently, must cover up to avoid harassment and abuse. Such deductions would inhibit misandry and very un-feminist narratives. Feminism advocates for equality of the sexes and certainly not the subjugation of the male sex.
I ask you to think about those who live under Islamic law. I could write that they are tortured for their desires but you would not begin to understand torture. These are women who are condemned for their rejection of the hijab. Women being spat upon, someone’s saliva on your skin, a branding iron of disrespect. Women being raped, their bodies are a weapon against them. Women being stoned, the ground they walk on, picked up and thrown at them. It is debilitating to take off the hijab after years of wearing it. To be coerced and lied to for a long time to wear the hijab, realisation is mentally crushing. It paralyses a woman and restrains her to the hijab. World Non-Hijab Day would provide the grounding, the foundation for women to understand and acknowledge the mental restraints of the headscarf. The psychological turmoil and neuroticism are completely and undeniably ignored and this needs to be comprehended.
Because what we lack in society today, amongst the array of identity politics, political correctness and religious vigour, is empathy. Could we create a day for those who do not want to wear a hijab? Just like Hijab Day? Stand in solidarity with women.