Everything you wanted to know about the hijab, but felt too awkward to ask.

“Why do you wear it?”

It seems like a fairly innocuous question. Depending on my mood, my answer would be “Well, I’m Muslim and the hijab is part of my identity. I find it liberating, feminist even.  It’s empowering to not worry about bad hair days or my body, to ignore fashion trends and not give into conventional ideals of beauty as mandated by the beauty industry, yada yada”. If I’m grumpy, it would be, “Huh. I’m not going to answer that. I don’t owe anyone an explanation for how I choose to dress. It’s rude of you to even comment on what I’m wearing.”

Of course, I don’t say either of these things out loud. What I do mumble is:

“Um, religious reasons, y’know”.

I don’t know what caused my recent disinterest in talking about the hijab, in conversation or on the Internet. Maybe I’m fed up of talking about it, maybe I’m not ready for the judgement/ arguments that comes with talking about it, maybe I feel it’s too much of a struggle to stay calm during the inevitable personal attacks , or maybe I feel it’s something that is discussed way more than it should be.

A few years ago, a national newspaper published an article of mine on hijab, and the reactions were…something. Though most comments were supportive and appreciative, as much as I don’t want to admit it- some of the “criticism” got to me. And I’m not talking about you, Hindutva Uncle who ranted about the Mughals in your poorly-written hate mail (which, in retrospect, I should have edited for grammar and sent back). It was the entitlement seemingly well-educated, eloquent people felt in telling me to justify one “Islamic” ruling, Arab social evil (I’m not Arab), and hoax (!) after the other- a frustrating process that has no end to it. Apparently, if you briefly talk about women’s rights in Islam, you’ll be crowned Spokesperson of Everything “Muslim”-Related- a full-time job that no one has got time for.

However, recent happenings, that have lead to a sprouting of all sorts of ignorance about the hijab – and the fact that if you google image search “Muslim women”, what comes up is literally an image of completely-covered women in shackles– made me go “WTF. I need to single-handedly crush every single stereotype about Muslim women and hijab in existence!” So now you have to deal with more of something the Internet has no dearth of – Strong Opinions.

What does the hijab look like?

Please don’t base your knowledge of Muslim women on google image searches, of women walking around covered head-to-toe in black, literally in chains. Nope, that’s Taliban-run Afghanistan.

What google image searches of Muslim women should show is: Indian/Pakistani women in their salwar kameez with the dupatta as a head scarf, South Indian women in sarees with the pallu draped over their heads, Ethiopian women with their heads wrapped in patterned turbans, Turkish women with silky, square scarves, women in Saudi and the UAE flashing sequined, designer abayas, Malaysian and Indonesian women wearing summery, pastel shades, etc. And also… women who don’t wear hijab.

This diversity is nicely conveyed in this neat video by MuslimGirl.com:

The video just gives a tiny peek into headscarf-styles. The diversity of African/ Black Muslim women required its own video. I think this is where we’re supposed to go- what’s that Young Woman Slogan?- “YAS QUEEN”.

What warrants constant reminding is this: Muslim women are not a homogenous group. We belong to different races, come from different countries and cultures, speak different languages, have different sets of beliefs, follow different schools of theology and yes, dress differently.

Why do Muslim women wear the hijab?

Any answer to this question would be an oversimplification.

Once you stop talking about Muslim women as though we are sheep that function with a single inter-connected brain, you’ll realize that our reasons for practicing the hijab are diverse. I can’t talk for the global population of Muslim women, but here are some possible reasons:

  • Religious reasons. Plain and simple. As a form of worship and a symbol of faith. (Sigh. not today, edgy Internet Atheists)
  • Cultural reasons. To cling on to a cultural identity in a world where young Muslims living in Muslim-minority countries feel increasingly pressurized to discard their roots and conform to the majority.
  • Political reasons. As a form of protest against governments singling out Muslim women to push their Islamophobic agenda. It’s unfortunate that a simple piece of cloth has been politicized to such an extent, but c’est la vie.
  • Because they are forced into it. It’s heartbreaking and infuriating, but there are many women who have no choice in the matter, and have to face social stigma, violence or even death if they don’t wear it.

Just because there are women who are forced into it, it doesn’t invalidate the choices of women who wish to wear it. If you think Muslim women in the free world should be deprived of the right to wear hijab, because religious fanatics in other parts of the world impose it on women, you are letting the religious fanatics indirectly dictate Muslim women’s dress codes from wherever they are. Any piece of clothing can become repressive if you take away a woman’s choice in the matter, whether it’s the dupatta or high heels.

Stop pretending you give two hoots about the “oppressed” women, if all you do is use them as a convenient means to shut down the voices of Muslim women whose opinions don’t align with your myopic views. Muslim women are capable of looking at the hijab with nuance, of distinguishing between choice and force. You may be ignorant enough consider the hijab an offensive symbol of a repressive regime, but Muslim women, including those living in said regimes, can think for themselves. If you scroll through posts on My Stealthy Freedom, an Iranian movement against forced hijab, you’ll see that the rage is directed towards the government- not hijab itself, which is meant to be something personal, something which loses its value when forced.

Is it really a “choice”?

Yes.

And this should be a satisfactory answer. But like “Are you sure you want to eat that?”, a question as loaded as this one inevitably leads to a pile-on of condescension, something that’s getting increasingly difficult to respond to in a calm manner. And everyone knows that Angry Muslim is not an attractive look.

“Don’t men force you to wear it?” Sigh. This one’s a classic. There are women who follow hijab while their female relatives don’t. There are women who follow hijab despite their fathers/brothers/uncles trying to persuade them not to.

“Yeah, but there is social and cultural pressure to wear it”. This statements irks me so much,  because the whole argument is based on a single preconceived notion. Yeah, some women have to deal with social stigma if they don’t wear it. Some women face all kinds of social stigma if they do- like job discrimination and varying degrees of day-to-day Islamophobia, which often even culminates in assault.

“What kind of religion tells you to cover up?” I’m pretty sure it’s not just Islam. Bringing up the long list- Catholic nuns, Orthodox Jews, The Amish, Taoist Nuns, Orthodox Sikhs, several other Indian religions-only leads to it being shut down. “Yeah, but women choose to become nuns”. Yeah, well there is no concept of nuns in Islam, so all practicing Muslim women become equivalents of nuns (without the celibacy)(This is a weird sentence and I realize it).

“But, in Saudi Arabia…”

STOP. JUST STOP.

Saudi Arabia is not a free country. It’s a monarchy, built on openly discriminatory principles which only cater to Saudi men.

Have you stopped to think how unfair it is that the global population of Muslim women, who have nothing to do with Saudi Arabia and are likely vociferous opponents of Saudi rulings, have to be held to the same standards set by Saudi? Does Saudi Arabia have some monopoly on the hijab and Muslim women’s rights?  Do you even realize how offensive it is to refuse to acknowledge Muslim women for the diverse group they are, and to allow one country-the one most well-known for its regressive policies- to frame your ideas of them?

I know Saudi-women-can’t-drive is First World feminism’s favourite pet project, but as an Indian, this is something I find very difficult to care too much about. I’m too worried about the women back home being raped and hanged from trees, and girl babies being battered to death, to pretend to care about Saudi women who are forced to commute in air-conditioned, chauffeured cars.

If I must be concerned about atrocities in Saudi Arabia, it would be their systematic racism against Asians and Black people, and their mistreatment of migrant workers, particularly the female domestic workers from poor countries who fall victim to Saudi’s misogyny.

Are you Oppressed or just a Bad Feminist?

Okay, obviously no one asks that in those exact words. I’m very wary of discussing the hijab in feminists circles, especially while in Europe, because I find myself bracing myself for one of 2 things to happen:

  1. Being branded as “oppressed”, having to deal with the assumption I can’t speak for myself and dealing with people suffering from a savior complex
  2. If I do speak up and say I’m pro-hijab, being branded anti-feminist

It’s hard to say which one is worse, but being told I’m a slave who gave in to the patriarchy and/or am suffering from Stockholm Syndrome wins by a small margin. It always feels great to be accused of single-handedly setting women’s rights behind by centuries.

Whether you want to acknowledge it or not, Islamic feminism is a thing. The feminist justifications for the hijab are plenty: “modesty” can be empowering, it’s an act of rebellion against the constant pressure women face to show more skin/to look “hotter”, it forces society to not to judge you by your body, thereby reducing body image issues, etc.

“So you’re saying women who show skin want to be objectified?”  No. That’s absurd. Almost as absurd as the statement that the hijab protects women from sexual assault. Stop conflating issues. The only thing that can stop women being treated as sex objects is education.

Since these discussions make it mandatory to share this popular, now somewhat outdated cartoon of two women judging each other…

1
Does an excellent job of portraying the difference in perception. Ideally, there’d be less side-eyeing (Source: evanscartoons.com)
2
There, I fixed it. We’re all fighting the same fight. (Hope I don’t get slapped with a copyright lawsuit)

I’ve accepted that the hijab will always be at odds with certain schools of feminism, and there is nothing that can be done to change that. What really irks me about the feminist view that the hijab is something inherently misogynistic, something that has been designed with men in mind, something that should be banned solely because there are women being pressured to wear it, irrespective of whether it makes other Muslim women happy or not, is the hypocrisy.

Do you know what else can be called inherently misogynistic, something that was designed to cater to the male gaze, that a growing number of women are either directly or indirectly forced to wear on a daily basis?

Make-up.

But it hardly faces any revulsion. And rightly so, because it’s 2016 and women should wear whatever the hell they want without instigating tiresome “good feminist” vs “bad feminist” debates.

“As a man, I believe-”

No one cares lol.

Doesn’t matter whether you’re a liberal dude looking to treat Muslim women to some much cherished benevolent sexism, or a religious guy who just wants to “advise sisters about the hijab”- stay out of this. Muslim women can think and speak for themselves. If you must get involved, do as the lead actress in an Indian movie- just stand in the sidelines with a supportive smile.

On a final, cheerier note, I’m glad  that discussions about the hijab are no longer just reduced to the bikini vs burka debate. And the ridiculous “a woman in hijab is like candy in its wrapper/  pearl in its shell” analogies are now more of a running joke than an actual pro-hijab argument by well-meaning Muslims. With hijab fashion a booming industry (yay capitalism) and growing representation of Muslim women in the media- not in shackles, but doing actual stuff– perceptions are changing for the better. Women in hijab are doctors, lawyers, scientists, policewomen, and Nobel Laureates; they’re representing their countries at the Olympics; they’re standing up to the Taliban and fighting ISIS, and breaking all kinds of barriers. If you’re choosing to see only what fits your narrative, I’m afraid the fault’s on you.

[Note: 1) For the sake of convenience, the definition of hijab in this post is the colloquial one of the garment in its physical sense, not the umbrella term used in discussions in Muslim circles. 2) If you’re interested in what I wrote about the hijab in my late teens/early 20’s, and can stand the outdated pop culture references and my embarrassingly cutesy writing style,  read  here and here]

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2 thoughts on “Everything you wanted to know about the hijab, but felt too awkward to ask.

  1. Nazia! Been so long since I read something you wrote and I’m glad it is this. Loved it and sigh! But loved it. I could actually hear you write it, err, think it, type it. Whichever but you get what I’m saying right? I was able to feel the exhaustion, the sarcasm, the matter of fact Nazianess and all the other ‘ness’. Please don’t punch on my face for such poorly constructed comment 😛 ❤

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