Moving Beyond Homogenizing the Hijab: Part 1

By Diana Rahim

It seems like we never stop talking about the Hijab. Asra Nomani and Hala Arafa unearthed a storm of anger and debate recently with their op-ed in the Washington Post which went down bitterly for understandable reasons. Although well-meaning, they also came across as condescending and reductive, not particularly acceptable in a climate where Muslim women are condescended to enough from Islamophobes and misogynistic Muslim men without receiving it from fellow Muslim women as well.

Of the storm of opinions that have bubbled up, predictably many have pushed people into diatribes. Few responses have captured the problem with the op-Ed, its responses, and the nuances that ought to be considered aside perhaps from this response, this one from Muslim feminists and these especially lucid thoughts by Sarah Eltantawi

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Nomani and Arafa’s op-Ed infantilize and trivialize Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab, reducing the meaning of the veil to merely a signifier of a patriarchal expression of Islam that seeks to control female sexuality, and therefore dismissing any consideration for the personal reasons why women choose to veil (or unveil). They also make an alarmingly brash claim that the Wear a Hijab day (or World Hijab Day) movement “spreads an ideology of political Islam, called “Islamism,”” Yet a look at the aims of the movement show nothing to do with politics, and arguably nothing to do even with religion, but everything to do with confronting difference and fostering greater understanding and tolerance in an environment where Muslim women face discrimination due to their visibility when wearing the hijab. The movement can be closer categorized as sociological than Islamic, and saying that it promotes a strain of Islam as conservative and alarming as Islamism seems like an absurd leap.

They are not wrong to point out that the hijab can and does feel oppressive for certain women, especially women who are coerced or forced into wearing it. To flat out reject the fact that the hijab has been connoted with oppression by women who were forced to wear it is to be wilfully blind. They are also not wrong to point out the semantics of the word hijab, and in fact I would agree with demanding a deeper understanding of the term ‘hijab’ as per written in the Qur’an and to point out misinterpretations, especially since Muslim jurists, dominantly male, have for centuries formulated discriminatory laws against women based on their own misogynistic interpretations of certain verses. Asma Barlas’s “Believing Women” in Islam does an especially good job at uncovering this.

But educate every single woman about the semantics of the term (how infantilizing it is to think that women wear the hijab because they don’t know better) and you still won’t be given a world where all women will either be veiled or un-veiled nor a world where the choice to don the hijab would primarily be premised on theology. In fact, there are plenty of Muslim women who may agree that the Hijab is not in fact mandatory, but still continue to wear it anyway, simply because there are a host of other reasons that influence their choices.

In this article listing the personal reasons why some women don the hijab, Shahzia Rahman stated that she started wearing the hijab in order to assert her identity as a Muslim and help counter negative stereotypes. Maria Ahmed continued wearing hers despite some unsettling experiences because she wanted to be an example to her children to “stay strong, remember who they are, know in their hearts that they’re not doing anything wrong.” None of these reasons are theological, but rather one rooted on identity. These are just two examples. There are hundreds of millions of Muslim women in the world, there is no way anyone can homogenize ‘hijabis’ as a category nor can anyone homogenize the reasons for veiling.

To reduce the meaning of the hijab to merely the theological is to view it primarily through the lens of religion, a classically orientalist approach, one already used in many disappointing studies on Muslim women. Such an approach neglects to acknowledge Muslim women as complex beings defined by more than just the one factor that is their religion. Within our own context, Humairah Zainal had explicated how framing the Hijab debate in Singapore as a religious and racial issue ignores the fact that “women face multiple forms of discrimination at work with respect to the hijab.” There is a need, when talking about the hijab, to seriously understand that it is a discourse that can’t be framed solely through religion. Any discussion that does not understand this is doomed to fail.

One is also hard-pressed not to notice the neo-imperialistic tendency to modernization theory in their letter where the veiled and the un-veiled are correlated with progress (modernity) and backwardness (tradition) respectively. They correlate a movement that believes the hijab to be a marker of modesty and dignity to be one that is already codified in places like “Saudi Arabia, Taliban Afghanistan and the Islamic State,” possibly the worst, most regressive places a Muslim woman could end up in. To call this hyperbolic would be an understatement. One would think there are worse things you could do to be related to the Taliban and ISIS than to say that you wear the hijab due to reasons of modesty and dignity.

In the end, though Nomani and Arafa may be valid in requesting a problematization in associating the hijab with modesty, or in requesting an honest and in-depth look to what hijab truly means qur’anically, they ultimately deny Muslim women the agency to assert their own meanings for wearing the hijab. To decide unilaterally that to wear the hijab is to perpetuate an ideology of Islamism is to dismiss the multifaceted meanings the hijab has accrued and the personal reasons women have for choosing to wear it. They call themselves ‘mainstream Muslim women’ although it is clear that their understanding of the term ‘hijab’ is far from mainstream. Then there is also the question of mainstream in which context? The ‘mainstream’ Muslim woman varies vastly all over the world.

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For women’s clothing to be so hotly debated is nothing new. The female body and female clothing has always been a site of contestation in power struggles, ideological or otherwise. Anglo missionaries who came to India in the 19th century worked together with British colonialists to urge women in the Nadar caste to wear more ‘modest’ clothes under a moral pretext — the female body becoming the site where the power of colonialism is exercised. The burqa was turned into a symbol of moral justification by western liberal-feminists for the imperialism and war in Afghanistan (something Afghan women’s rights activists have criticized). While in certain places the hijab can be seen as oppressive, in others it becomes a symbol on the re-assertion of indigenous identity in the face of western imperialism. Even within these places one can’t make such homogenous claims.

In the end, the hijab is just a piece of cloth. The fact that it can mean vastly different things to different people throughout different times means that anything assumed about the cloth reveals more about the person making such assumptions than it does about the cloth itself.

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image credit:  Hijab/Her (2013). nuruL H. 

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