Hijab, the illusion of choice

Created to mask the oppression Muslim women suffer

The world celebrated Hijab Day on September 4th. Pictures of women from different ethnic backgrounds: Asian, South Asian, Arab, Caucasian, Black wearing colourful scarf were displayed on social media. Among them were not only religious women of Islamic faith, but also liberal or moderate Muslims (as they would like to call themselves) and non-Muslim women who stood up in support for their sisters’ ‘choice’ to wear hijab.

Choice, as defined by the online Oxford Dictionary is, “an act of choosing between two or more possibilities”, or more appropriate in the context of this write-up, “the right or ability to choose”. By this definition, surely Muslim women must have some – if not many – possibilities presented to them by the state, society and religion; and exercise their right to make those choices in life.

Despite all the differences, Muslim states have a consensus that an unveiled or immodestly dressed woman tempts men to perform immoral acts, thus branding her the source of corruption in the society. Therefore, to save the society from adultery and other evils of the flesh, women must be kept hidden, segregated and completely covered in public, so that they are not able to arouse the carnal desires of men. Some Muslim states have gone as far as introducing laws which make hijab mandatory for women. In Iran, wearing ‘Bad hijab’ or exposing any part of body other than hands and face is punishable by 70 lashes or 60 days of imprisonment. Since the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, hijab has been enforced on women that require them to cover entire body with a veil or burqa. On failure to abide by the order, women have been publicly flogged or stoned to death. Similar laws are practiced in Saudi Arabia, where the religious police charge women for not wearing hijab in public.

This leaves women with no choice but to comply with the laws of their state. Every voice raised against the blatant oppression of women has been silenced with equal force in these countries. The patriarchal laws of these states deem women unfit to exercise the right to choose what to wear or decline to wear any particular form of clothing.

A Muslim society takes pride in protecting the chastity and dignity of its women by caging her in various lengths of cloth. In Muslim states where hijab is not mandatory by law, the society is conditioned to believe that modesty of a woman lies in covering herself up. With increase in length of the cloth around her body and over her head, the woman’s honour increases in the eyes of society. The cultural concept of hijab or modesty draws its strength from the Quran and hadith that is core to the foundation of a Muslim society. Allah says in the Quran, “And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and be modest, and to display of their adornment only that which is apparent, and to draw their veils over their bosoms, and not to reveal their adornment save to their own husbands or fathers or husbands’ fathers, or their sons or their husbands’ sons, or their brothers or their brothers’ sons or sisters’ sons, or their women, or their slaves, or male attendants who lack vigor, or children who know naught of women’s nakedness. And let them not stamp their feet so as to reveal what they hide of their adornment. And turn unto Allah together, O believers, in order that ye may succeed.” (Surah Al-Nur, verse 31, Pickthall translation) In a hadith narrated by Aisha, Ummul Mu’minin, “The Prophet (PBUH) said, Allah does not accept the prayer of a woman who has reached puberty unless she wears a veil.” (Abu Dawud, book 002, hadith 0641)

In light of these teachings it is clear that hijab is not a choice as far as Islam is concerned, rather it is an obligation that has to be fulfilled by Muslim women. However, Muslim scholars have different opinions about the length of hijab or body parts to be covered. Even the World Hijab Day in their ‘Invitation to Hijab for a Day’ says that go straight to the source (Quran) to know the importance of hijab. The purpose of this day is not to give a choice to women to cover their heads for a day, but a reminder of what is expected of them in Islam.

Hijab symbolises the control of society over the freedom of women that has taken deep roots in their psyche, which has altered their perception to accept it as their identity. By calling hijab their identity, women reduce their worth to a piece of cloth, bringing entire focus on their bodies. This is no different from using a woman’s naked body to sell products. The blatant sexualisation of body in both cases perceives women nothing more than source of temptation, pleasure and sin. However, the projection of such views is different in conservative and free societies – where one is exposed unnecessarily, the other is hid behind layers of unnecessary clothes. In both the societies, the choice is not the woman’s.

The choice was never the woman’s when she was a little girl and dressed in a ‘modest’ way, neither during her adolescence when she was forced to wear a dupatta to cover her budding breasts and finally as a grown woman, she knows her position lies behind the curtains and veil. For a handful of women in Muslim societies who do not wish to wear hijab, the choice comes with its limitations. The moment such a lady has to use public transport or move in congested, old bazaars, her choice of clothes goes out the window – jeans are replaced by shalwar kameez and duppata or scarf goes over her head to protect herself from possible harassment. Therefore, in such a situation, where religion, state laws and culture dictate women’s clothes and their actions, believing hijab to be a matter of choice is a beautiful illusion created to endure the oppression they suffer every day.

The writer is a journalist and social critic based in Lahore. She can be reached at [email protected]; she tweets at: @twistturnlock