Hijab, the illusion of choice | Pakistan Today

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


  1. Virendra Kaul said:

    Why Muslim men get aroused at the sight of a woman's hair? Don't you think their morality needs to be raised rather than encaging women?

    • AKRC said:

      I guess you first need to gain some elaborate understanding about the concept of hijab which first of all entails more than a woman's hair.

  2. Tayyaba Rana said:

    virendra its everyone not only the muslim men. see what s happening in india , daily stories of rape cases. actually the mindset of men needs to b changed.

    • atanub said:

      Not just men, women too. Most of these men are nurtured with this mindset since their childhood by their mothers or grandmothers (if not the male counterparts). This is not easy of course, but this is most probably the only way how feminism got its shape in the 18th century. Just another thought.

  3. Tauheed Butt said:

    The biggest clause of Islamic faith is knowing that you can't know everything and you Creator does. You can learn things from others experiences; written, reported or otherwise but that's not all encompassing. A human's lifespan is not long enough to formulate their opinion on many matters specially where it is dependent on reactions of others. As you can not read another person's intentions its best to take precaution against their worst side.
    Taking care of ones modesty is akin to applying belts and braces in a moving vehicle. Just as those belt can save a life in an accident – taking care of one's modesty precludes coming into view of the base nature of a human that Freud termed Id.

    • priya said:

      so women who wear hijab or burqa don't get raped at all? what statistics are you gonna propose to prove your point?

    • Dan said:

      Freud also had a term for the Ego and the Super Ego. It is the Super Ego's job, if you will, to determine a course of action. From a psychological perspective it is the Super Ego that is deficient in those that do harm. The Id is more of a reaction, as you said "base" desire. The Id is what it is, it is the actions that people are accountable for.

    • lol said:

      most pakistani people dont wear belts in their vehicles.
      protection is supposed to be offered by the state. we have a blame the victim culture in our society. people are supposed to take care of themselves. We blame lack of discretion of the victim, not the sin of a criminal.

    • Muhammad said:

      The idea that one can not know everything is not islamic but rather common sense irrespective of what one believes in. You can not use the "unknown" factor to impose upon others translations that attempt to control people's private lives and how they dress.

      The islamic idea of modesty is fixated to sex and women and this is why you folks force your women to cover up while the guys wanna show their bums in the newest levis jeans.

  4. Sangeetha said:

    Love it! The very fact, that a Pakistani paper published this article gives a great hope for women in Muslim country

  5. Dr. Muhammad Nawaz said:

    A great article that reflects the a true picture of current state of misconception about Pardah and Hijab.
    Well done !!!!

  6. Hakimnaved said:

    A very good article indeed. With modern Islamist ideology, there is no choice. It's actually a duty; just like the Muslim countries created their own version of the "Islamic Charter for Human Rights", in response to the "UN Declaration of Human Rights" which grants freedom of choice of religion or "no religion." It is ore of a charter of duties. Islamists don't understand the concept of rights. What they understand by it is that: they should have the right to impose on others, their worldview.
    This is all part of the Islamist attempt at global hegemony.

  7. Fiza said:

    A lil complicated writing, nudrat. But i get your point and i agree!

  8. Rony said:

    The holy Koran only mentioned about covering the bosom and some say that was because women in those days did not have much cover in that area. There was no mention of a full hijab

  9. hasi said:

    There is difference of opinion in the islamic jurists about hijab or veiling

  10. mobi said:

    so its an illusion to choose ,but a duty to follow if u r a muslim woman

  11. Jacqueline Hare said:

    An excellent article. Covering up doesn't stop women being harassed or raped. I have spent some time in Pakistan, and I know that women who were fully covered, not even showing their eyes were still being groped in crowded places, like bazaars. Men have to stop blaming their own shortcomings on women.

  12. Maureen said:

    I think burkas attract attention,and make men wonder what is beneath witch could lead to unwanted attention.

  13. guest said:

    I believe Pakistan is facing more serious issues than to get involved in burkas.

  14. Guest said:

    a lot of rant and rave, and your point is….? I really couldnt find one

    Simple choice, either follow Islam or not follow Islam

  15. Mohammad Anar said:

    Seems confused or wants to confuse others intentionally or otherwise. CHOICE ? – to really know that it is a choice or forced, do an honest survey by asking women who are wearing hijab. Ask them if they are being forced to wear it or is it by there choice. Then report the results honestly. Why there is no mention of women wearing hijab in Europe even risking fine and with government support against it. Very simple, all people never had one favourite choice – in politics, choosing colour of their dress or criteria of their life partners then why assume that all women who wear hijab do that only because of oppression. This is insulting to the very proud and intelligent women among them are doctors, layers , politicians and so on. So when one has to about CHOICE, he / she has to do some research work. Now after survey if it is found that it is choice of the majority and if it is confirmed that this is part of their culture (even in some non muslim societies) then those radicals who want to against the culture have to be tamed somehow to teach them the ethics of respecting the prevalent customs.
    p.s. My daughter in law, an educated woman, had put the condition for marriage with my son that he would not force her to remove her hijab! which we accepted and still honoring our promiose.

    • Ali H said:

      I work for Sony Computer Entertainment Europe in London. Sitting near me is a Hijabi Kuwaiti woman. She programmes software tools for the PS3, PS4 and PS Vita software development kits. In C++. She has a very good working relationship with all her colleagues. From where I am this article looks like posturing to impress very naive people.
      It is a measure of backwardness that people can somehow look modern and sophisticated merely by removing articles of clothing. Deal with real issues like corruption or be damned – to end up with a n Egyptian style Fascist regime – with all the right window dressing of course. I know 'modern' Muslim men who drink, assault women, commit adultery and feign liberal sophistication by insisting their women do not wear hijab. It is S O O O easy to do these days.

  16. Faraz Ahmed said:

    Muslim women saying hijab is their choice as if they could also go hang out at the beach in bikinis. The writer has some great points to crack. Please try and use some intelligence before replying to this article, especially the diehard muslimahs. Don’t prove yourselves stupid.

  17. Tony Reeves said:

    Since wearing a veil is such a great choice, it's surprising how few men choose it.

  18. Fatima said:

    Truthful, bold article. Pakistani women who copy cat the Arab women in wearing hijabs are the worst ones…they have no respect for and are ashamed of their own culture and heritage..Hijab is definitely akin to slavery of men…hijab denotes complete domination of men over women, no matter what hijabis say or do. why are they ashamed of their hair and head? its disgusting and pathetic….the whole laughs at them from China to Russia to USA to Europe…

  19. SayNo2Islam said:

    If men can't control themselves when faced with the sight of an unveiled woman, then the man should cover his eyes with a mask.

    What a sick ideology that treats women this way. It's not enough that Islam forces women to cover themselves but then goes further and mutilates them (FGM), murders them (honour killings) and permits their husbands to beat them if they are not a good wife. Finally it permits old men to marry child brides and have sex with them.

  20. Genesis said:

    Where the god is male as it is in most religions the bias in favour of men starts.it is always preference and deference to man who makes the laws and makes sure it is enforced.

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