Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Hijab as a Feminist Statement

The West's zeal to save “oppressed” Muslim women by urging them to discard the veil, whether it is the hijab or the niqab, demonstrates a profound ignorance of Islam and the rights of Muslim women.

We have seen a number of European nations and, to a lesser extent, Australia enact laws that purport to free women from their religion. While some Muslims may view these actions as good intentions gone awry, I see it as a systemic attempt to impose draconian laws that further oppression. As I have stated previously, democratic nations that impose laws restricting Muslim women from wearing the hijab, the burqa or the abaya share much in common with the Taliban by imposing their own interpretation of what is appropriate for Muslim women.

Academic Leila Ahmed goes so far as to call this a new colonialism, and there is much merit in her arguments. British occupiers, she points out, sought to free Egyptian women from the alleged tyranny of Islam at the beginning of the 20th century by encouraging them to unveil. Indeed, for more than 70 years Egyptian women rejected the hijab.

By the 1980s, the hijab emerged as a symbol of Islamic feminism. Specifically, women embraced the hijab as a means to minimize gender bias and force men to see them as equals in the workplace, and not view them as sex objects or simply for their beauty. Muslim women do not want their appearance to influence the conduct of the people around them.

Ahmed recognizes that the hijab is not a symbol of empowerment in some Muslim countries where women have no choices in whether they cover their hair. Yet Ahmed is spot on in stating what Muslim women have been telling the West for more than decades: the hijab is an Islamic feminist statement.

Ahmed has a new book out called A Quiet Revolution. I plan to pick up a copy and I suggest that those readers who prefer to discover an enlightened view of the hijab buy a copy as well.


Anonymous said...

she doesn't believe the hijab is "islamic" what are your thoughts on that? and if you read her earlier books she was anti hijab, I wonder what changed her mind.

Lynn said...

I have a couple issues with what you have written here.

'We have seen a number of European nations and, to a lesser extent, Australia enact laws that purport to free women from their religion'

I highly doubt that anyone that was for these 'anti niqab' laws would say that was their reasoning. I have never heard anything in that regard. 'Protecting their culture' perhaps or for 'security' but never, ever did I ever hear anyone saying it was to free them from their religion. Also, what do you say about the 'Muslim' countries that also have anti-hijab (in public schools) and anti-niqab (in public)laws?

Also: 'Muslim women do not want their appearance to influence the conduct of the people around them'

That is ABSOLUTELY untrue because in actuality they ARE wearing it precisely for that very reason, per the Quran 'so they will recognize you as a Muslim and will not molest you' Am I wrong?

Yes, perhaps there was a resurgence of the hijab in the 80's but I don't believe that it was due to anything other than a symptom of the rise in extremism with the Saudi exported Wahhabi ideology. I'm sure that the Muslim countries with the bans understood the danger that that 'religious' import would (and DID) cause.

Sabria Jawhar said...

Lynn, thanks for commenting.

Nicolas Sarkozy said: "The burqa is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience. We cannot accept to have in our country women who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, deprived of identity."

That's a pretty offensive statement to women who feel quite the contrary.

I think that Muslim countries that have anti-hijab and anti-niqab laws are also offensive. But that's just me.

As for your comments on women wearing the burqa/niqab/hijab. I always find it troubling that people go to the index of the Holy Qur'an, find some verse that fits their preconceived idea about what is and what is not Islamic, and then use that verse to support their argument.

My guess, judging from your comments, is that you never had a conversation with a Muslim women about her hijab. Try the mosque in your neighborhood. You'd be surprised at the answers. But I'm guessing you have no intention of doing so.

Do you really think that women in the 21st century check the Qur'an everyday to see what we should wear and why we should wear it? The Holy Qur'an establishes a bar in which men and women strive to achieve. I use teachings of the Qur'an, according to my own interpretation, as a bar in how I live my daily life.

Please understand this: There is no code of dress in the Holy Qur'an. There is flexibility with the changing of time.

I wear the hijab because I want to wear it. I love my hijab and the reasons I wear it are very personal. I love wearing my abaya and niqab in Saudi Arabia for many different reasons, including the simple reason that I love my abaya. Ask the girl next door about her hijab, and she will say it's for political reasons. Ask another woman and she will say it's for religious reasons. Ask another, and she will say the Qu'ran says she will be recognized you as a Muslim and will she will not be molested.

I am baffled why people seem to think that Muslims march in lockstep with each other and we are this monolithic entity that is so rigid in our thinking. You do a disservice to Muslims and non-Muslims by throwing verses back in our faces as if we follow every word literally. Allah gave us a brain to make our own decisions and interpretations of what we read. The verse you quote is the subject of debate among Islamic scholars. Some scholars say that verse only applies to the Prophet Muhammad's (peace be upon him) wives. Other scholars say the verse applies to all women.

You have chosen your own interpretation. Interpretation of the Holy Qur'an is a science and although Muslims may interpret the Holy Qur'an their own way, they still remain Muslims

Your argument demonstrates that you have very little experience with Muslim women. Do you have the courage to change that?

Laylah said...

Salaam Sabria,
I have to agree with Lynn here on the point that she raised about the influence of wearing hijab.
" Muslim women do not want their appearance to influence the conduct of the people around them."

Perhaps this is misleading a bit, and if it read "their good looks or beauty" etc then it would be more understandable.Don't we wear hijab just for that reason, to influence how people treat us?

Later you mention how

" the hijab is an Islamic feminist statement" which I agree on 100% but that being said, a statement is also something that influences people around you, right?

Anonymous said...

When in Rome do as the Romans do, goes the saying.

I think if Muslim women live in the West they have a duty to be sensitive to their chosen environment. In the West it is inappropriate to wear niqab. It attracts attention and hiding the face is contrary to Western values. It does not function in the West the way it does in a Muslim country. It is rude.

You are arguing about the meaning of niqab and hijab (which I don't have any problems with, btw). But that is incomplete - the meaning in the West and in Muslim countries is necessarily different. Keep your meanings - in Muslim countries. Keep your niqab there, also. Be polite. If you can't be, stay home.

I think, btw, that western women should dress in a manner that is polite by Saudi standards in Saudi Arabia. Obviously, this goes both ways. Do you really have a problem with that?

Sabria Jawhar said...

Dear Layla,

My original post does mention the hijab's role in helping forcing people not view Muslim women for their beauty. To that extent it does influence people's conduct. It would have been clearer if I said "negative" conduct such as judging a person on her beauty or lack of beauty.

Dear Anonymous @8:52,

I have gone on record many times saying that Muslim women need to be sensitive to the environment they live in and adjust accordingly. In fact, I have come under severe criticism from many Muslims for making that point. I personally object to wearing the niqab in the West because it defeats the purpose of the niqab in the first place by drawing unwanted attention.

But having said that, I support other women's right to wear one. And the reason is obvious. Democratic countries give individuals the right to wear what they please as long they are not dressing in a lewd or obscene manner. Democratic countries insist on freedom of religion and freedom of choice. You're asking Muslim women to give up those freedoms because you find it to be bad manners. That argument doesn't fly. Yes, some may agree that's it's bad manners to wear the niqab in the West, but it's their right (or at least it used to be in some countries). Besides, what's rude to you is not considered rude to other people. I have many Western acquaintances who simply don't care and consider it none of their business.

Yes, I agree that Westerners showing good manners in Saudi Arabia by wearing appropriate clothing is important,and I expect Saudis to do the same thing in the West. But I would never ask anybody to give up their rights simply because some stranger at the supermarket objects to a certain type of clothing.

Anonymous said...

I think if one truly wants to wear the hijab or niqab or whatever , no one's "ZEAL" can stop them. the west can try to get them to remove but really why care what the west says? Having said that i really hate hate that KSA enforces the abaya on all and sundry and yet the west cohorts with KSA.
Yes KSa is not fair or right, but being modest in KSa is now equated ot a black sack. I don't see the west or KSa as democratic at all.. each country does what they feellike and enforces rules. i'd much rather if the west thinks it's for security came out and said "we're more concerned with security than democracy so take off your black sacks" and be done with it like KSa does...

Sabria Jawhar said...

@6:22 - I'm not sure how insulting a great many Saudi women by describing the abaya as a "black sack" bolsters your argument, but if it makes you feel superior to people you don't know and better about yourself, then all the more power to you.

Anonymous said...

It offends me that Muslim women come to the West to exercise their 'freedom' to wear the niqab. Keep that sort of 'freedom' away from my country.

Laylah said...

to above commenter:
What kind of "freedom" is forbidding someone to wear a certain piece of clothing?
What does "freedom of dress" mean to you?

KHC said...

You know, as a western woman who lived in Saudi Arabia for many years, sometimes wearing the abaya and sometimes not, I have my own opinion on this issue. While it does protect women in urban areas from harassment, it then becomes body armor. It is sad that it is needed. I also feel sad about the abaya because it blocks women from connecting with their natural environment, and limits their personal interactions with others. Decidedly, as a westerner, facial expression and body language are a key part of communication. But then I am a nature-loving, western, God-fearing westerner, so take my opinion with a grain of salt if you will. I believe women find great strength in the natural world that God created for us to enjoy and learn from, and the hijab blocks the ears, and sometimes the eyes. Also, women need Vitamin D from sunshine to fight off cancer. For these reasons, I am personally opposed to the abaya and hijab. I believe women deserve to be fully in the world without being veiled. They deserve to be respected wearing clothes that do not hide their essence. I know this is not politically correct, but thank you for considering my view. With my fondest regards to all who think deeply about this issue.

Mer said...

I'm an American, and i disagree with the french law because i don't think any person should be told how to dress. My problem with the burqa is that it keeps muslim men from learning that a woman is to be valued and treated like a human being, no matter WHAT she's wearing. I mean really, it makes me wonder if you really think about and consider the things written in the Koran that you follow. You say that it states that a woman should wear the burqa so she'll be recognized as a muslim and won't be 'molested'. So the koran implies that its ok to molest a non-muslim woman? Because thats what it sounds like. I see no other meaning that could be inferred from those words. If the writer of the koran wanted men to respect all women, muslim or not, then why would it advocate muslim women wear a burqa to be protected? In fact, why not come right out and say 'women, muslim or not, are not to be molested', but respected and cherished', or something along those lines? When you wear the burqa, you only enforce these outdated thoughts many muslim men have, that unless a woman is covered head to toe, she's a whore who deserves to be raped and beaten, or at the very least, jeered at, threatened, and groped. Surely if a man cant look at a MODESTLY clothed woman without behaving like a starving dog looking at a bone, its the MANs problem and deficiency of character, not the womans? Where is the passage in the koran admonishing men not to think of sex everytime they see a woman walk down the street (again, MODERATELY dressed)? I believe women should be able to wear what they like-however, i also agree that a woman wearing a low cut top and a miniskirt may bring sex to mind(note-this does NOTmake it ok to attack or disrespect her). However, a woman in pants, a tutrleneck, and a jacket, whose only skin showing is hands neck and face, is enough to be considered a whore by some muslims. Does that not seem extreme to you? If a man looks at this woman and the sight of her hands and uncovered face makes him so wild he wants to rape her, and because shes uncovered, he thinks this is acceptable because she's a 'whore' in his eyes, then again, isnt the MAN the one with the problem, not the woman? Where is the koran passage addressing this? Where is the outrage, the talk of getting men to stop seeing a normally dressed woman as a whore and wanting to attack her? These are things that bother me deeply, and i hope you'll take the time to readand think about what i'm saying.

Anonymous said...

I am a Christian, Asian woman who worked for a year in Saudi Arabia as a Management Consultant a few years ago. I was in my early 30s then, single, and living without a male guardian. Those who know Saudi society well enough might say, "Were you out of your mind?", or "Geeze, you've got some guts breaking their customs!".

Here are my learnings from living there:
1. I liked wearing the abaya. I found it exotic and fashionable. It made me blend in and protected me from the curious eyes of men.
2. I would have wanted to wear the hijab because I also found it fashionable and exotic, but when I did, people started talking to me in Arabic. So, I had to drop it so they knew I was a foreigner.
3. The abaya and hijab have cultural and societal contexts too. If we, non-muslims, only classify people according to religion, and forget the cultural and societal context of our brethren, we will fail to fully appreciate each one's humanity.
4. True, I found that many Saudis are close-minded to the Western ways, but not all of them are like so. I worked with Saudi executives (men and women) who appreciated my work despite my gender, age, ethnicity and religion. They let their daughters drive outside the country. They talked about poetry and travel, ie they are not as uptight as your stereotype Saudi.

More power to the Saudi women out there who assert their dignity whilst holding steadfast to the merits of their faith, family values and culture.