“Do you wear it in the shower?”
“Don’t you feel hot in it though?”
“Were you forced to?”
Questions like this have resulted in me being torn between exasperation at how some people can be so misinformed, and general astonishment at how preoccupied some people are with how a Muslim woman dresses. Their questions highlight the lack of understanding of hijab and what a Muslim woman stands for when she chooses to don the headscarf. When non-Muslims think of hijab, they most likely think “repressed” or “backward”. Would they think “independent”? Not likely. “Feminist”? Gasp! Certainly not.
But to me, wearing the hijab is a feminist action. Contrary to Muslim women being suffocated by our seemingly ‘oppressive’ regime, Western perceptions of the importance of external beauty seem to have led to the stifling of women. There appears to be a pronounced expectation for women to be groomed, glossed, polished, plucked, pinned, conditioned and heeled in order to mould them into a cookie-cutter template of idealised physical flawlessness. Opting to wear the hijab allows me to avoid being a target of consumerism as I am able to reject the glorified standards of beauty that society demands women live up to.
The hijab is a defiant refusal to conform to the norms of Western society and the emphasis it places on superficial perfection. By wearing hijab and denying people the right to objectify me (what, after all, is someone going to leer at- my face?), I am compelling people to look beyond my exterior and treat me as a whole human being. I am not partaking in a system that seems to value women for everything their looks can offer, rather I am choosing to take control of my own body and myself as an individual, and denying anyone the chance to judge me on anything but my intellect and character.
France’s forceful coercing of women out of wearing the headscarf crushes this exact individuality and freedom of religious practice. The dragging of the headscarf into the political sphere strips women of their civil liberties, and makes clear that the attack on the hijab is an assault on the freedom of Muslim women.
Extreme criticism of hijab is amusing in that it shows just how concerned with appearance many can be. Muslim women are encouraged to remove their headscarf in order to escape the confines of misogyny and oppression. But isn’t telling me what to wear, or what to remove, internalised misogyny in itself? By abiding by the Western standards of what is normal and what is right, am I not denying myself the right to dress as I wish? By criticising my hijab for being ‘backward’ and ‘repressive’, are you not preventing me from having the very freedom of choice you think you’re bestowing upon me?
Women in Somalia are dying of hunger, in the Congo they are being kidnapped and raped, in Ethiopia they are being mutilated; yet Western society is only concerned about the women who choose to cover their heads and bodies. If only neo-feminists put as much energy into obsessing over justice, health and education as they do about “reclaiming their femininity”, I’m sure the quality of life for many women around the world would improve.
Hijab is a way of life in terms of behaving with dignity, modesty and poise, but it does not hinder the way Muslim women live their lives. It is Islam, after all, that gave absolute freedom to women to own property, have total control over their wealth, choose who they marry and operate a business over 1400 years ago, at a time when Christians were still debating whether women had souls or not. So to the critics of Islam, the feminists with their skewed ideas of hijab and those who are simply ignorant, thank you for your warped attempts to “save” me but there’s simply no need. My religion has already given me absolute freedom, independence and individuality. The only thing I need saving from, really, is you.