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Feminspire | July 11, 2014

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Her Hijab Is Just As Feminist As Your Burnt Bra

Her Hijab Is Just As Feminist As Your Burnt Bra

| On 18, Oct 2012

Yeah, okay, I get it: the fact that women in Islam have to cover certain body parts sucks– but it’s also frustrating to see the constant arguments insisting that hijab is a sign of oppression or that people who use the hijab can in no way be a part of the feminist movement.

Islamic rule states that women should cover their body except their hands and their face (depending on which school of Islam.) Meanwhile, men are to cover between their naval and their knees because that’s where the penis is. There are admittedly other reasons than modesty for women to wear the hijab. Still, though, my skin is apparently akin to a penis! I can see how the whole idea of women covering more than men is infuriating. It is unfair, but even so, modern Muslim women have also been able to find a positive side to this religious obligation. They wear it to find their own definition of freedom.

The main purpose of the hijab is for women to free themselves from concentrating too much on their looks so that they can concentrate on their spiritual health. It is meant to represent their modesty and dignity, and it aims to communicate to men that a woman is more than her looks and body. It is a piece of cloth that urges a lack of judgement of women by her physical looks but instead promotes focusing on her character and intelligence. Of course it is totally possible for a woman to wear as little as she wants and still not deserve objectification or hate, but some choose a different path– and that’s okay.

Some schools of feminism believe that if Muslim women continue to use the headscarf, they can never be free from patriarchy. Caitlin Moran is adamant on this point (although she uses the term ‘burqa’, which indicates the veil. There might be a misunderstanding on what the term actually means to her, since burqa and hijab have become interchangeable terminologies.) As much as I like Moran, there’s also a dismissive way in her representation of the headscarf–that it is a man-based problem enforced onto women–as if every woman who uses it are robots with a malfunctioned decision-making chip. There is a falsification that hijabis–that’s the subcultural term–are accepting their role as second class citizens. But people tend to forget that a part of hijabis, especially those living in a modern environment, opt the hijab as a personal choice.

Believing that hijab as a symbol of oppression is disrespectful to these women. It is as if to say they are blinded by the head cover that is wrapped around their head, suffocated by the cloth that is muffled around their neck. These women are people who struggle with their daily life just like everyone else. They are like you and me. To dehumanise them into a general picture of oppression just doesn’t seem very feminist to me.

Some hijabis find their personal liberation by wearing the head cover, each with their own different reasons. In a society where expectations of beauty is constantly present in our everyday lives, some hijabis opt for the hijab to avoid being another target of consumerism and eliminate another thing that glorifies imposed beauty standards. Donning the hijab means reclaiming their body as a private entity and not a public space for abuse. The French schools’ ban on the hijab is the opposite of this. By coercing people out of certain headwear, they not only steal away their freedom to practice but also force them out of a comfort zone and turn a piece of cloth into a subject of political attention in the public arena.

Meanwhile, other women cover their heads to signify their strong belief in the gender equality taught in Islam, actively going against cultural influence that enforce patriarchy. Where Islam urges that educational, economic, and political opportunities should be equal, using the hijab to some women reflects their desire of true gender equality taught in Quranic philosophy. It may also signify their pride towards the religion and its teachings on gender rights, therefore providing them ammo to fight for women’s rights.

But with modernisation, there’s also evolution. The hijab is a growing trend, so the market for shawls and scarves is rapidly growing. Styles on using the hijab are becoming more beautiful– from various colourful shawls to bow pins to put the whole attire together (BOW PINS, GUYS!) The hijab in itself has become a fashion statement. Although this defeats the purpose of what the hijab is intended for, women are also actively making a choice on how to communicate their individuality to people by showcasing the creative ways to use a hijab. It can be part of a signature look. Using the hijab does not necessarily mean women are bowing down to men. Making the choice of using the hijab both for the purpose of religious obligation and fashion is great, and it’s a lot of fun to see! Men are not the frontiers of the hijab fashion– women are, and that is something that should be celebrated!

To allocate feminism specifically for those who doesn’t wear a hijab is not fair. We’re okay with the inspirational Balpreet Kaur using a turban, right? Then the treatment for hijab should not be any different. What is feminism if it isn’t about giving women the option to wear what they want and to empower their position in society? Why limit feminism when there are plenty of women of colour with different religious background who want to fight for women’s rights?

The hijab has been associated to an object of fear. The cultural difference between hair and hijab is simply shocking to a lot of people, which is why the hijab is such a controversial thing in the Western world; it’s alien. It’s the opposite in Muslim countries! Last week, for instance, while I was touring a mosque without a hijab, a lady told me off for not wearing anything to cover my hair, and she was like, “OMA (Oh my Allah) HAIR! BEGONE, YOU HARLOT!”

The dichotomy between hair and cloth is surprising to different societies, but it does not mean one is right while the other is wrong. Seriously, I don’t care what you put on your head. I don’t wear a hijab; I’ve made that choice, and other women more religious than I am have made that choice too, similar to hijabis making the choice to wrap a shawl on their head. People should be able to practise the freedom to put things on their head. There should be a clause in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights with all these unnecessary controversy circulating around demonising one society for what is norm in their culture. Why dwell on a piece of cloth when women are struggling every day for gender equality? Why can’t we fight for gender equality wearing whatever the hell we want, together?

Written by Teah Abdullah
Find her on twitter and tumblr!
  • disqus_nQzDQG7S4f

    In Orthodox Judaism women also cover their hair, though often with wigs. They do it for the same reason. Similarly, they wear skirts past their knees and shirts that cover their elbows and collarbones. This “represents their modesty and dignity, and it aims to communicate to men that a woman is more than her looks and body.” Thank you for writing this!

  • Savannah Thomas

    love this – SO powerful. i have muslim friends who wear the hijab and muslim friends who don’t and i think the CHOICE is the important part, not whether or not they do wear the hijab. thank you for sharing this

  • Emily

    “People should be able to practice the freedom to put things on their head.” Love this.

  • feministxxo

    wonderful article, although i would like to point out that it’s better to say ‘wearing the hijab’ rather than ‘using’ it :)

  • Cristina Nance

    Absolutely brilliant article, with wonderful consideration for women on both ends of the spectrum.

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  • Ennoia

    This is simply a thought I had while reading this, and it should not be taken as saying that wearing hijab and being feminist are mutually exclusive. I absolutely agree that everyone should be free to wear whatever religious or secular attire they please, perhaps within certain few limits of nakedness in public
    It struck me that what is probably quite problematic for many feminists to deal with is precisely this concept that certain types of clothing “represents [women's] modesty and dignity, and (…) aims to communicate to men that a woman is more than her looks and body”. Because this strongly implies that a woman’s dignity is not a given, that it is inextricably tied to and dependent on her ‘modesty’ as defined by others who view her entire body as a ‘taboo’. That it needs to be communicated via a woman’s body that a woman is more than her body. I think this is what many find hard to accept as something that is reconcilable with feminist beliefs. A brutal way of putting it, saying that a woman’s skin is akin to a penis, but it’s kind of apt when you think about how indecent many find it when, for instance, a woman’s legs are showing. Or even just hair. I think it seems to carry the implication that men cannot be held accountable for treating women as sexual objects if they see any parts of their bodies. It is difficult for many women to imagine how agreeing that women *should* cover themselves more than men do can lead to more rights and equality for women. It is the idea of being treated as ‘other’ all the time, and as the ones whose bodies are for sex, that the custom of veiling seems to be related to.

    Again, this were just the thoughts that the quote at the beginning of this paragraph triggered for me. I would never demand of individual women to stop wearing something or ban it for any collective group of people etc. It’s hardly better than mandating that women must be covered up. The point is that women need to be free to decide what they do with their bodies without being labeled ‘harlots’ by anybody. And nowadays it’s hard not to be called some variation of that word at some point no matter what you wear…hence all the Slut Walks.

    • Teah Abdullah

      It’s a world where no one can win, kind of like how girls wearing hot pants are considered sluts by girls who covers up, or wearing short skirts means you’re “asking for it”. What a load of bull!

      I think choice is important and empowers people, and if people are happy regardless of what they wear, that is great! Different cultures have different expectations and have their own limitations. In Muslim countries, those limitations cannot be eradicated at one go because the barrier is incredibly massive. I think it’s completely okay if women who choose to wear a hijab still fight for feminism that’s suited in THEIR country. Islam gives a lot of rights for women that has been skewed by cultural injection and a lot of them has been translated to benefit the men. If rape continues to happen despite wearing hijab or burqa (and it does) feminism can come into play and demand an answer as to why these shit still happens, kinda like what’s happening in Malaysia now.

      Thank you for your input! :D

      • Ennoia

        As I said, I fully support people’s choice to wear what they want. I am not someone who wants to replace a perceived restriction with a different one. As you noted, a woman’s clothing has no effect on her likelihood of being raped. It is dangerous to create an association between ‘proper, modest clothing’ and more safety from rape, because it places the responsibility for their own sexual assault on girls and women. And we know it is not so, it makes no difference at all. It shouldn’t make a difference, because we can’t be teaching people that a woman in a short skirt has done something wrong to invite violence against her.

        You said that Islam gives women a lot of rights which are then interpreted by outsiders as beneficial to the men. However, would you not also agree that it’s not a right but rather an obligation in many places? Is it wrong of outsiders to criticize practices and laws that force women to cover themselves or suffer punishment and ostracism if they don’t? Of course wearing a hijab is not always forced upon women and should remain their right (I would say men should be allowed to wear these things too, though, as I find it wrong to have different laws for people depending on their gender, race, or religion), but there are places where girls are given no choice at all. I know different cultures have their own limitations, but I feel very uncomfortable simply accepting the lack of female freedom that can be seen in some Islamic countries as a purely ‘cultural’ issue and therefore nobody else’s business. It is a question of human rights in many countries. Wherever organized religion becomes law, humankind is in trouble, especially if this law states that one part of humanity has a lesser or greater value than another. Is it possible to speak out against girls being forced or shamed into covering themselves without stepping on the toes of the women who choose to? Because that is what I would like to do.

        • Teah Abdullah

          That is a whole story altogether. I can’t speak for females who live in countries where they don’t have the choice to use whatever they want. However, I can speak as a woman who lives in a Muslim country all my life that certain things are already norm even if it’s not religiously related: they’re used to it, they don’t want to bother with their hair, they like it better, etc, and if girls choose not to wear the hijab, people in my country (and other places like Jordan and Southeast Asian countries) see it as fine too. The burqa, for instance, has existed in Turkey before Islam even exists, and that has nothing to do with religion (although I can’t say why because I haven’t read into it.) I absolutely understand and agree to your point how it’s a human rights problem in some countries, especially those with with lower education rate and stronger patriarchal enforcement. Education is a gateway to give females this choice that I’ve been privilege to get!

  • disqus_oexOVPWEfz

    interesting read! even as a feminist Muslim girl living in a Muslim country who chooses not to wear a hijab, this opened up my eyes and enlightened me. i love reading your articles because they’re always so inspiring and informative. i also hope to meet you one day (we live in the same country so that shouldn’t be difficult, right?)

  • Cluisanna

    For me wearing a hijab is like wearing a cross necklace – a sign of faith, and a notification to every observer that this person, although claiming to be a feminist, still believes there is a supreme MALE being who she is ultimately obeying; and in the case of a hijab, a sign that this person believes there are two distinct genders.

    • Wafaa

      In Islam God is neither male nor female and beyond being contained in a body, thus one can not apply irrelevant biological definitions such as female and male (the difference being sexual body parts). Being referred to as a “He” is simply a linguistic artifact as there are no gender neutral pronouns in Arabic.
      A chair is clearly not female but is referred to as “she”, and a wall is clearly not male but is referred to as “he”.

  • hidaya

    I do like that one should be able to wear anything on their head because i do believe u can wear it according to your style/culture. But, as long as it covers the chest as what has been mentioned in the Quran. I dont understand why wearing hijab is a choice. It should not be made a choice whether to wear or not to wear hijab. It is Islam;not as religion and separate the lifestyle. Islam is way of life. The conduct. The character.

  • Mona

    Teah, thank you SO much for writing this terrific (and much-needed) piece! As a feminist and American Muslim woman, I appreciate your fair, thorough treatment of the significance of the hijab–an especially difficult undertaking, since women often choose to wear the hijab for wildly different reasons, as you carefully explain in the article. One comment to add, though: many female Muslim scholars do not regard the hijab as a religious obligation (see “Believing Women in the Qur’an,” by Asma Barlas, or “Rethinking Women’s Issues in the Muslim Community,” by Kecia Ali, for examples of this view). Whether you choose to subscribe to this view or not, I think we can all agree that the notion in the Muslim community (and in American society in general, for that matter) that a women’s dress is an indicator of her morality/piety has dangerous consequences and needs to be changed. Reading this article was truly a breath of fresh air–thank you again so much for sharing this with us!

  • A woman from Europe

    Women, who live in liberated and civilized western countries and actually choose to wear headscarves, in effect offend and devalue everything that women here had fought so hard for and won for themselves, we’re still fighting for equality. It is very disrespectful to use western liberties that suit you and still wear this archaic attribute. Every time I see one – I’m deeply offended.

    • Leila

      Your hypocrisy astounds me. You call them ‘Western liberties’, but you wouldn’t give Muslim women the freedom to wear what they want on their own heads, out of their own choice? Does that even make sense to you?

      I’m not going to stop wearing my scarf because it offends you. Go cry about it. :)

  • Umm Naadirah

    Your skin is not equal to a penis. You are looking at the whole situation wrong.

    The private parts for men are from the navel to the knees. If he shows his thigh above his knee, he is sinning. The same if he shows his penis.

    The private parts for women are actually defined as the same as men when it comes to her family and relatives, which means she can walk around bare chested in front of her father or female friends. In fact, in many Muslim societies women openly breastfeed in front of their families/female friends. It makes Muslims from more traditional societies extremely uncomfortable (as well as Western Muslims), but there’s nothing wrong with it.

    Men have two levels of nakedness – when he is alone with his wife, he can be completely naked. When he is out in public, he must cover from his navel to his knees, but it is better for him to cover more.

    Women have three levels of nakedness – when she is alone with her husband, she can be completely naked. When she is with family or female friends only, she must cover from her navel to her knees. When she is out in public, she must cover everything except her face, hands, and (according to the Hanafis) her feet.

    This extra coverage has to do with stopping women from being objectified. If we were to follow the rules of Islam correctly, you wouldn’t have women in articles where they are shown as being submissive, are dismembered, or even literally become objects (such as beer bottles).

    It has nothing to do with my hair being equal to a penis, and for you to even claim otherwise shows that your understanding of awrah is ill-informed, not to mention insulting.

  • Cynthia Joy Finnegan

    Well, Caitlin Moran was wrong about what a burqa is. It’s not a veil, but a shroud, a single piece of fabric that covers from the top of the head to the tops of the feet.

  • Elaine Hang

    This is powerful statement about women arguing with each other, which is so frustrating to witness. You shows how it’s tough for women to respect and support each other when they are told how they SHOULD look and actually BELIEVING it, regardless of which side it they are on.

    It’s hard to go on with your choices when you have so many people criticizing you. Your editorial emphasizes the CHOICE women have in deciding whether or not to wear a hijab and that in and of itself is empowering. I have Muslim friends who don’t wear the hijab, but that doesn’t make them any less religious or horrible as a person.

    I also see that you’re pointing fingers at both men AND women, which is fair. As a stated right off the bat, women argue with each other over things like this. It’s frustrating and disappointing, because it shows the lack of respect some women have toward each other. This shaming of the other for wearing (or not wearing) something has to stop.

    Thanks for writing this article!

  • notsureaboutchoice

    I think this is a great piece and a very interesting point of discussion. It is extremely important that Muslim women who choose to wear any kind of covering are not berated my feminism telling them they can’t join in. The message behind coving up is also very nice and I don’t see anything wrong with it.
    However, I do wonder just how much choice someone who is born into such a religion really can have. I am a Jewish woman and even as a little girl was angered by my separation from the men (I just wanted to join in on all the fun!). Being told that I was spiritually higher because I was a woman, negating the need for me to practice many of the burdens laid on the men seemed like a lame ass excuse to make me submit to being dainty and watching while the guys had all the fun. I also despised skirts and long tops because it prevented me from playing as I wanted to, which was annoying because the boys were allowed to move freely in their pants and shirts.
    In short, I ended up as an atheist. My problem now is that Religions, especially the Abrahamic ones, are patriarchal religions. They are religions run by the men, they are rules set by men, they are religions that afford power to men. I find the concept of women choosing to partake in them limiting as they never had a say in their construction in the first place. How is it that one can ‘choose’ to partake in a tradition that they were never really presented with an alternate for?
    I’m also concerned by the fact that teaching men that women are more than their bodies is the responsibility of the woman. It further perpetrates the idea that men are inherently unable to see women as people and therefore women must do everything they can to make themselves seem as unthreatening or provocative as possible to man sure the men can handle life. I simply don’t like the idea.
    In saying that though, I am incredibly interested by the choices behind covering up (in both Judaism and Islam) and certainly support being able to wear whatever makes you most comfortable.

  • Joe Smoo

    When you dress like our enemies what do you expect? Like going around in Nazi uniforms. Lucky we haven’t incarcerated the Muslim citizens until the war is over like we did the Japanese and Germans in WWII.

  • Joe Smoo

    Next we will have African people going around topless because that’s the way they dress in Africa.