For many people in the West, it seems the hijab is a symbol of oppression, in a religion that is widely viewed as misogynist. As a Muslim woman, I marvel at the assumption women are pressured or forced to wear hijab in the Western context, because in my experience, the opposite is more often the case.
Muslim women in my community struggle for their right to wear hijab, not the other way around.
I’ve never heard of a husband forcing his wife to wear hijab in a real-life scenario. Husbands are usually supportive or neutral, and some actually discourage women from wearing hijab, usually citing fears of discrimination, open hostility, and in some cases, violence. Sometimes parents do pressure daughters to wear hijab, which can be a real struggle when a teenager wants to fit in with her peers. But even in that case, parents usually relent and allow girls to remove their hijab, fearing excess pressure will drive them away from Islam, and in many cases, their daughters do voluntarily wear hijab in later years. For those who don’t, it seems unlikely to me pressure would have been helpful. Most Muslim women eventually settle the matter based on their own convictions.
I personally like to wear hijab for the only reason I think really matters: submission to God’s will. As human beings, we tend to mix in other reasons, but ultimately, that’s the one that matters to me. After a careful, good faith study of scholarly opinion, I sincerely believe Islamic doctrine mandates that women dress modestly and cover their hair. Before I continue, I should note the Arabic word “hijab” has a broader meaning, though it has become widely associated with the headscarf, so I will use the word in that sense here.
I personally feel pressure NOT to wear hijab, especially at work, where I already stand out because I decline invitations to lunch when I’m fasting, and to happy hours and holiday gatherings where alcohol is served. I’m not alone in feeling self-conscious, I know, because Muslims have formed an informal group at work, and whenever we get together, we discuss these matters. Some of the Muslims we’ve invited to join us are reluctant to accept invitations that clearly indicate attendees are Muslims. It is easier in our workplace to “come out” as gay or transgender than it is to “come out” as Muslim, and in that climate, it takes courage to wear hijab.
There are five of us, all women, who meet regularly outside of work, and it seems our conversations often drift back to the topic of hijab. Two of us don’t wear it at work, two of us do, and the other strikes the middle ground, covering her hair but not her neck, wearing something similar to the Jewish tichel–a style which some women wear as a fashion statement, allowing her to escape obvious religious connotations. One of the women who wears hijab has wavered, going back and forth for some time before she finally made the permanent decision to wear it in the workplace, come what may.
All of us are also ambivalent about having to work, and if given the choice, would be content in the role of wife and mother. Like many other women in my circle for friends, I resent the 1970’s feminist movement, which deliberately drove women out of the home and into the workforce:
“No woman should be authorized to stay at home to raise her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one. It is a way of forcing women in a certain direction.” ~ Early feminist luminary and sexual predator, Simone de Beauvoir
Full-time work in an office creates all kinds of contradictions and confusion for Muslims, who are forced into mixed gender situations and face questions surrounding happy hours, midday prayers, handshakes, hijab, and other issues that necessarily arise from this milieu.
What if, by wearing hijab, we draw more attention to ourselves? Does garnering extra attention violate the spirit the requirement, even though we’re following the letter? Is it more important to wear hijab than to avoid discrimination, even if that decision might jeopardize our jobs, and in turn, our ability to put food on the table? We talk about these matters often, and never seem to draw any definite conclusions. The only constant for me is a nagging sense of unease.
Fortunately we have come to a consensus on other aspects of the dress code, and all agree we should cover our collarbones, wrists, ankles, and the area between with loose-fitting clothing. We also agree we should not wear nail polish or heavy make-up, because these things interfere with wudu. I conform to this much of the dress code with ease, and find it interesting that people rarely notice. Modest dress passes under the radar, but hijab creates a clear distinction people recognize immediately. Last summer, I was modestly dressed apart from hijab, having coffee with a woman I’ve known for almost a decade. She stopped in the middle of our conversation, cocked her head to one side, and asked, “Why do you always dress as if it’s autumn?” Only in the heat of the summer, when there was an obvious contrast between how each of us dressed, did she notice. I answered simply “because I’m a Muslim,” which she already knew but apparently failed to connect.
One of the first things I noticed when I visited Istanbul last spring is that women are given very broad latitude there. On the train from the airport when I first arrived, I noticed a niqabi dressed in black from head-to-toe sitting next to a woman in skinny jeans and filmy white shirt that revealed a red bra underneath, and marveled at this juxtaposition. In Turkey, where I felt the least constrained by outside pressure, I chose to wear hijab, and have never felt more content.
In that context, I didn’t have to grapple with competing arguments. I could follow my own conscience without putting myself in jeopardy, and for me that felt like a decadent luxury.
The main point of sharing my struggle is that I want people to understand that I don’t feel oppressed. Not by Muslim men, and not by Islam. I’ve never felt the urge to attend a “SlutWalk” and don’t want other women, especially those of the Femen variety, to defend my “right” to toss my hijab in the dustbin. I don’t want to expose myself to the public, and the only pressure I feel stems from fear of discrimination when I wear hijab. I want people to simply let Muslim women choose for themselves.