Picture a woman wearing a long, shapeless black cloak, her arms, legs and hair covered by dark cloth, with only the face — or sometimes just the eyes — visible. Does the word “oppressed” come to mind? That is a common assumption regarding Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab, the Islamic headscarf. But there is nothing inherently liberating or oppressive about the hijab, just like there is nothing inherently liberating about going naked. The liberation lies in the choice.
Not all Muslims believe that wearing the hijab is fard, or obligatory. Many feel that simply dressing conservatively is enough, while some Muslim women also wear skirts and shorts. For women who do choose to wear the hijab, the style varies from a simple headscarf worn over regular clothes to more conservative styles, such as the niqab, which partially covers the face.
Religions other than Islam also contain the concept of veiling. Judaism and Christianity include this custom, though society does not view nuns who cover their heads as oppressed in the same way it views Muslim women.
While there are Muslim women who wear the headscarf because they want to, many women in the Muslim world are forced to cover up in varying degrees. In countries such as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, women have no choice but to don the hijab. Even in less rigid countries, such as Pakistan, women do not have the freedom to wear what they want in public. These practices can be seen as oppressive not because the hijab is innately oppressive, but because forcing a particular style of clothing on people is wrong and restrictive.
Of course, the right to wear the hijab should be available to all women, and no woman should have to face discrimination just because she chooses to cover her head. But at the same time, no woman should be brutalized because she chooses not to wear the hijab. While there are Muslim girls who have been attacked and bullied for wearing the hijab, women in Muslim countries have also been tormented for refusing to cover up.
Even for women who have not been forced to wear the hijab, the right to choose can be an illusion. Many women who wear the hijab come from religious families that teach them to believe that a woman’s most valuable asset is her modesty, both in terms of appearance and conduct. What’s worse is when girls as young as 3 or 4 years old are made to wear the hijab.
The hijab is based on the notion that the female body is inherently sinful and sexual, and that a woman’s worth lies in her modesty. Society expects women to keep themselves pure and chaste not only for God but also for their future husbands. Most arguments defending the hijab include analogies such as the following:
“A man asks a Muslim man, ‘Why do your women cover their bodies and their hair?’ The Muslim man takes two sweets: He opens one and keeps the other closed. He throws them both on the dirty floor and asks, ‘If I asked you to take one of the sweets, which one would you choose?’ The man replies, ‘The covered one.’ Then the Muslim man says, ‘That’s how we see and treat our women.’ ”
These analogies infuriated me, but for a long time, I persisted in trying to balance my feminism with my faith. I once felt that completely submitting myself to my religion’s expectations and donning the hijab might help me grow closer to God.
I expected that the hijab would liberate me. But when I wore it for the first time, I burst into tears upon seeing my reflection. I didn’t feel empowered in my hijab — I felt objectified, constricted and sexualized.
I am generally very outspoken, but after donning the hijab, I became submissive and quiet. I kept my head lowered, partly because my scarf threatened to fall off my head at any minute, but mostly because I no longer felt confident. One of my teachers at Zaynab Academy, an orthodox Islamic center, had mentioned that a woman’s voice was also part of her awrah, or the part that must be covered, and that women should not raise their voices in public. I seemed to have internalized that message.
What stuck out to me most was how the hijab made me feel sexualized in a way that Western clothing never has. Instead of seeing my body as free and pure, I started seeing it as something shameful that I had to hide from the lustful gaze of men. Suddenly, even my wrists and arms became sexually charged.
After just five days of wearing the hijab, I stopped.
While my experience with the hijab was negative, it can’t be generalized to all women. There are Muslim women who feel that the hijab liberates and protects them.
I had the freedom to choose to wear the hijab in the first place and, when I realized that I didn’t like it, to take it off. Many women don’t have the luxury of this choice. The hijab is not inherently oppressive or liberating, but the right to choose what to wear is certainly empowering.