“Do you sleep with that on?”
“Do you shower with that on?”
“I don’t think girls should be allowed to wear it until they’re at least sixteen”
“Why do you even wear it? It detracts from your individuality. I can’t tell you apart from the other ones”
“You look like a child bride in that”
“To different extents, the hijab is always a burden that is placed on women”
“Do your parents force you to wear that? Will they force you to get married, too?”
“Are you Shamima Begum?”
“Towel head Muslim b****. Go back to where you came from!”
The symbols that adorn the flags that line our embassies, the ones that are stamped onto our letters and passports, the ones that govern us, and compliment and dictate what we come to see as valuable and desirable (or the opposite) and, of course, the ones we wear: symbols are undoubtedly of remarkable significance in politics and wider society. Since Muslim communities first began settling in Europe, certain garments have come to be perceived as symbols of ‘Otherness’, which often give rise to feelings of discomfort, or, in many cases, hatred, among numerous individuals. The hijab – and its related but different cousins, the niqab and burqa – are, in the West, popularly associated with misogynistic abuse and are seen as impediments to Muslim female agency. Everybody seems to have their own take on the topic of the Islamic headscarf and what it represents, but it seems as though discourses around the veil are often, well, thinly veiled, with (racialised) misogyny.
It is understandable that certain individuals cannot empathise with women who say that their wearing of the hijab is a personal choice. In the media, any mention of the garment tends to be linked to terrorism, or Islamophobic abuse, or, once again, to wider ethical discussions on the perceptive sinister meanings of such symbols. Politicians in the Western world frequently offer impassioned commentaries on the issue; Burkini bans have been discussed; plans to sell hijabs for female runners have been abandoned in light of public furore; more recently, with the notorious case of Shamima Begum, pictures of the teenager’s former hijab-less ‘liberal’ self have been dug out to juxtapose with her current fundamentalist hijab-observing self. In the eyes of those on the outside looking inward, the Islamic headscarf has come to represent oppression, concealment, an alarming forfeiture of individualism, and a protest against Western liberal values – of which certain norms pertaining to fashion appear to be a crucial element (even if said norms necessitate the existence of sweatshops in Third World countries which depend on the curtailment of the human rights of numerous women). I have seen too many a white man sharing pictures of Islamic societies in the 70s, of women who are hijab-less, and thus, ‘happy’. And, to build on the recurrent theme of irony within such discussions, the topic of modesty culture in Islam tends to be approached from a variety of political, philosophical, and sociological angles, but the Muslim woman – irrespective of how intelligent, accomplished, or ‘free’, she may be – is rarely ever meaningfully consulted.
What might seem, upon first glance, as a mere piece of cloth – in some instances colourful and florally decorated, in others plain and colourless – that sits on the heads of many Muslim women is, in fact, a highly politicised symbol that embodies and inspires a number of debates on agency and feminism. We, even we highly educated, capable Muslim women, breaking through in the spheres of the arts, politics, literature, sports (the list goes on) will always be seen as oppressed so long as we continue to choose to observe the religious practice of outward modesty. But what many fail to acknowledge is that the principle of hijab is not restricted to just women, nor to the covering of one’s hair. It is about modesty – not simply in outward appearance – but also in mannerism and demeanour. What we are witnessing increasingly, from Western and Islamic (and combinatory Western-Islamic) commentators alike is a reductive emphasis on hair-covering. The concept of hijab, if you delve into the matter through the consultation of the Qur’an and Hadith, is more abstract and complex than we are often led to believe.
It is undeniable that copious numbers of Muslim women are subjected to torrents of misogynistic abuse on a daily basis – from raging Islamophobes and racists, and, unfortunately, from Muslim men, alike. These respective groups are united in their implicit emphasis on the perceptive inability of Muslim women to make beneficial decisions for themselves, in conjunction with the belief that men must take a paternalistic approach towards such women – to guide, govern and protect us.
Understandably, the idea of choosing to don the hijab is typically incomprehensible to the Western mind, especially in a society where female ‘liberation’ tends to be imaginatively tied to adhering to the forces of consumerism, fashion, and, dare I say it, of choosing to satisfy the Male Gaze, that we are bombarded with on a daily basis. We must come to understand that, in any case, liberation lies in choice, and that even then, absolute freedom in ‘choice’ is never truly possible. In being ‘free’, we essentially get to choose the practices and belief- and value-systems that we subscribe to – whether they be political, cultural, religious, or otherwise. Working menial jobs for measly pay, for instance, might be perceived as oppression to some. In the same vein, wearing a headscarf – irrespective of whether or not you actively chose to do so – might be seen as misogynistic oppression by (many) others. But if we are all truly committed to the intersectional feminism movement (saying yes to ALL women) we must not accuse neither the bikini-wearer nor the burka-wearer, nor anybody who sits somewhere in between, of being traitors to the cause or shameless proponents of the patriarchy.
Islamophobia is a multi-faceted, ever-present, ever-growing phenomenon here in the West, and most European Muslims have absorbed it into our collective consciousness. It – especially in its gendered form – contaminates our experiences of daily life. The more conspicuously ‘Muslim’ you look, the worse it tends to be. We casually talk to each other (and try to make light of and laugh) about our psychologically exhausting experiences of being subjected to slurs, and, at times, physical abuse, in public. Too many hijabs have been ripped off of the heads of Muslim girls and women going about their daily lives. Mutters, mistreatment, slurs. Pregnant women have been kicked. Women have been accused of being enemies to the West (in US rep. Ilhan Omar’s case, ‘anti-Constitutional’, as a result of her hijab) pushed down stairs, shoved, spat at, had beer cans thrown at them. Prominent hijabis such as American journalist Noor Tagouri have been reduced to tears as a result of the repulsive messages and death threats they receive on a daily basis, for being ‘terrorist rag-heads’. You cannot, on principle, oppose the perceived misogynistic oppression that you deem the hijab to symbolise whilst simultaneously oppressing the women you claim to be protecting, by actively abusing us, or even by playing into the harmful narrative of us being mere political icons, accessories to men, or voiceless, homogenous, unintelligent beings. The growing disdain towards the hijab seems to be less emblematic of a criticism of ‘modesty culture’ – which, when forceful, state-sanctioned and uncompromising, can be very detrimental – and more of an expression of hatred towards everything that is characteristically associated with Islam, and is thus conveniently categorised as ‘Other’.
One thing is for sure: many individuals who are in potent opposition to the observance of the hijab claim to have the best interests of Muslim women at heart. But, in truth, there is an element of fundamental hypocrisy here, especially when the protection of ‘British values’ (and indeed, of ‘Western liberal values’ as a whole) trumps our acknowledgement that Muslim women have brains too, and are capable of rational thought. In certain nominally ‘Islamic’ nations (Saudi Arabia immediately comes to mind) Muslim women are seen as incapable of such rational thought and are thus infantilised. In countries where hijab is obligatory, many women (justifiably) develop a strong sense of resentment towards it. But here in the West, whether or not you can fully comprehend why this is the case, millions of Muslim women choose to wear the hijab. They are not forcefully pushed into doing so, nor is the practice inherently misogynistic simply because it applies solely to women. Not everything that is ‘feminine’ is fundamentally oppressive. And yes, there are modesty laws in place for Muslim men, too.
As the forces of consumerism – via the spread of Western hegemony – continue to grow, many Muslim women are coming to favour fashion and outward beautification over outward modesty. This must be positively acknowledged, and we must allow women to make their own decisions. But, in line with wider discourses – particularly in the media, and indeed, throughout history – Muslim women are often depicted and perceived as being elusive, oppressed creatures who need to be unveiled, and thus ‘rescued’ by Western knights in shining armour. But, once again, it is hypocritical to encourage women’s choices to undergo the perceived ‘liberalisation’ of unveiling whilst simultaneously criticising women who choose to do the opposite by veiling themselves. The irony intensifies when violence against women in the Middle East gives rise to intense criticism, whilst violence against Muslim women in the Western public realm is brushed under the carpet… or, perhaps more pressingly, when politicians claim to be liberating these veiled, oppressed women by… bombing them. We have been conditioned to immediately associate veiling and the adherence to modesty principles with female silencing and oppression. But liberation lies in choice. And choice is about relative freedoms – about being able to choose the cultural structures we adhere to, if we believe that those structures can liberate us and enhance our personal quality of life. Countless Muslim women choose to wear it in order to physically express, and thus, constantly remind themselves of their desire to become closer to God; to direct attention to the content of their character, as opposed to outward beauty.
Of course, we must take into account the fact that numerous Muslim women have chosen to stop wearing the hijab – some, out of fear of negative responses to it in public; others, after giving the Qur’anic mentions of modesty some deeper interpretative consideration; some, simply because they wish to show their hair. These Muslim women also receive tirades of abuse – notably, from ‘extreme’ Muslims (Salafis in particular) and Islamophobes alike – on a daily basis. When renowned Muslim influencer and blogger Dina Tokio made the decision to stop wearing her headscarf, she was forced to endure countless daggers of criticism, on top of the abuse she had already received, being such a successful female Muslim public figure. In ‘Islamist’ countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, women have been arrested and persecuted for choosing to remove the hijab. But does that render the garment itself fundamentally oppressive? Any state-imposed requirement like that might impede on an individual’s freedom of expression, however, as Libyan-American writer Hend Amry points out, the argument that the hijab itself must be intrinsically oppressive because of its enforcement in such places is directly comparable to making the claim that the institution of marriage is, at its core, oppressive, due to the unfortunate and undesirable existence of forced marriage.
The Islamic world has played a crucial role in shaping Western thought and culture for centuries (and, especially more recently, vice versa) however large-scale immigration of Muslim families only truly began in the mid-twentieth century. Here in Britain, we required manpower to rebuild the country in the wake of the two devastating world wars. Thousands of Muslim men settled here and eventually brought their families. The first generation of these immigrants understandably identified more with their original cultures. But racism (notably, viciously attacking black and Asian people became a popular pastime) was rife, and so many women opted against wearing the headscarf here. In fact, many first-generation Muslim immigrants never even wore the hijab in their home countries. But with the cultural fusion that inevitably came into being – especially among second- and third-generation immigrants – we needed to find ways to navigate our hybrid European-Muslim identities. Having been born and/or raised here, we attend European schools and speak European languages and work for European corporations and institutions. Many of us embrace our Islamic identities by praying daily, fasting in Ramadan, giving Zakah (charity). Some of us express this component of our identity through the way we dress. This is certainly within our rights in this liberal society, which prides itself on its values of freedom of expression. Yet, due to the deeply negative connotations that have come to be in the collective Western psyche, being Muslim – strongly, outwardly – is not desirable.
I have read many articles written by Muslim students about their own disgusting experiences of Islamophobia. From a student at UCL recounting how a professor stated that he “[didn’t] want any blacks or hijabis to sign up to [his] course”, to a Warwick law student receiving torrents of anonymous abuse from her peers, who were not subject to any consequences whatsoever… these incidents are significant and certainly not uncommon. Islamophobic apologists habitually proclaim that “Islam isn’t a race!” and that therefore, Islamophobia should be treated as a matter completely divorced from modern discourses on racism. But the truth of the matter is that this ‘phobia’ is often highly racialised: the main victims of Islamophobic abuse tend to be black hijabi Muslims, and other Muslims with distinctively ‘foreign’, non-European features. A heterogeneous, Orientalist simplification of the religion is often passed as an acceptable view of the religion itself, and it really is surprising to learn of the amount of ignorance that is allowed to fester within apparent establishments of ‘enlightenment’.
Structural oppression is usually multi-faceted. Discussions on the hijab have brought topics such as gendered Islamophobia, as well as the potential misogynistic side of ‘modesty culture’, to the forefront of our political and social discourses. Ultimately, the hijab is a symbol, onto which people project varying significances. For many, it signifies a refusal on the part of the Muslim woman to fully integrate into Western society. For some, colourful headscarves, wrapped ‘turban-style’ or in an otherwise unorthodox way is acceptable, but plain black hijabs coupled with long-flowing abayas is where they draw the line. And, of course, for many Western Muslim women, the hijab and the religion that it is a synecdochical symbol of– even if such a fact proves extremely difficult to resonate with – is a tool used in the way of spiritual actualisation, and not oppression.
There are girls who secretly take off their headscarves as soon as they leave their homes. Equally, though, there are girls who secretly put their hijabs on as soon as they leave their homes, and schools, and workplaces. Some desperately want to remove their hijabs, out of fear of Islamophobia, or perhaps, simply because they want to show their hair. Some desperately want to put it on, but are afraid due to the same factors, or are simply confused or unsure. Whose struggle is the more commendable? Do we only care about women exercising their personal freedoms when it subscribes to certain mainstream Western feminist agendas?
Frankly, although I think it is always important to rally in favour of those women who are being forced to wear the hijab against their own wills under Salafi regimes, it is equally important to harness and redirect the insane amounts of energy we dedicate to the constantly scrutinising Muslim women. We need to celebrate the waves that Muslimahs are making in various fields (I am fortunate enough to be personally acquainted with numerous inspiring female political activists, artists, photographers, sportspeople, businesspeople, influencers, and more) and have always made (the first university in the world was established by a Muslim woman, Fatima Al-Fihri) instead of reductively focusing our attention on scarves. And, yes, too many Muslims – like their Islamophobic brethren on the other end of the spectrum of the misogynistic obsession with women’s clothing – are guilty of placing excessive significance on the hijab. We need to see women for who they are, rather than what they look like, or what they choose to (or choose not to) wear. We need to fully acknowledge that the applauding of women’s choices should not only be restricted to those who choose to show their hair and beauty; we must also humanise, celebrate, those who decide to cover themselves.
Sadia Ahmed, 2019