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?