By Sadie Fuchs
What makes the wearing of the hijab so controversial? Why is it a human rights issue and why are Westerners loath to get involved? Who are the brave Muslim and ex-Muslim women leading the charge against modesty culture?
TYPES OF MUSLIM COVERINGS
Muslim modesty attire is worn in countries where the main religion is Islam, as well as countries to which Muslims have immigrated. The Qur’an calls for women to dress modestly, but the specifics are interpreted differently by religious scholars. The hijab commonly comes in three main forms:
- HIJAB: a scarf that covers the head, hair, and neck, and is worn in all colors.
- NIQAB: a veil for the face that leaving only the eyes visible. Worn with a headscarf, usually black, and often accompanied by a loose black garment (called an abaya) that covers the body from head to feet.
- BURQA: a one-piece that covers the entire face and body. Usually a screen mesh or grill covers the eye area.
CURRENT LAWS & CUSTOMS ON ISLAMIC MODESTY DRESS
Today veiling is required by law in Iran and the Aceh Province of Indonesia. Though other countries have not codified these restrictions, they often impose them under implied threat.
Before Iran’s Islamic Revolution (when the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power) women largely dressed as they pleased. But in 1979 all that slowly changed, and by 1983 the hijab had become compulsory for ALL women and girls over the age of nine. Women are arrested and harassed by the “morality police” as well as the general public.
INDONESIA ACEH REGION (IN SUMARIA)
In the Aceh province of Indonesia, Sharia is observed. Women are required to wear the jilbab, which is a type of headscarf or hijab. In 2018, it was ruled that even female flight attendants, Muslim or not, must wear the hijab upon landing in Aceh.
Up until last year, the abaya (a loose fitting full-length robe) was a legal requirement for all women. With a relaxing of some restrictions on women (they are now permitted to drive, for example), women are now merely required to dress “decent and respectful.” Saudi women are now wearing lighter colored Abayas in public (rather than black), and open abayas, which are worn over pants or a long skirt.
In 1990, the Taliban imposed the Burqa on all women. As of 2001, there is no legal requirement, however, some women continue to wear it out of security concerns.
Though the hijab is not explicitly required, women must dress modestly in public. The law doesn’t state what is considered immodest dress, but it does state: “Whoever does in a public place an indecent act or an act contrary to public morals or wears an obscene outfit or contrary to public morals or causing an annoyance to public feelings shall be punished with flogging which may not exceed forty lashes or with fine or with both.” Women have been arrested for wearing pants and failing to wear a hijab.
There is no legal dress code; however, the abaya and niqab are customary and are often forced on young girls. In some areas the hijab is part of school uniforms. Women who don’t cover themselves do so at the risk of facing abuse.
In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s Hamas campaigned for mandatory hijab as well as insisting that women stay at home and be segregated from men. During that time women who didn’t wear the hijab were verbally and physically harassed, so they wore it to avoid problems on the streets. In 2007, when Hamas came into power, they attempted to implement Islamic law but were shot down in the courts. In 2011, Hamas banned the styling of women’s hair, and continue enforcing Sharia on women’s manner of dress today.
Though not required by law, individual families have demanded their daughters adhere to strict religious principles such as the wearing the hijab. Girls and women who refuse run the risk of being disowned by their family or killed.
For example, in 2007 the father and brother of 16-year old Aqsa Parvez were convicted of murdering her because she refused to wear the hijab. They strangled her in her bedroom.
For whatever reason – be it choice or duress – many Muslim women in the West continue to wear hijab in public. A 2017 Pew Poll reports that in the US alone, 43% of Muslim women wore it all or most of the time.
Some countries, particularly Western ones, are grappling with enacting laws that limit face covering. These bans are reasoned on the safeguarding of secular and societal values, ensuring freedom for women, practicality, and fear of enabling terrorism. Face veils (and burqa and niqab) are particularly contentious in schools, banks, hospitals, public buildings, and the military. Sometimes the majority of Muslims living in those countries agree with the bans.
RELIGIOUS-DICTATED ATTIRE NOT UNIQUE TO ISLAM
The custom of religion dictating dress (particularly for women) goes back thousands of years and has been practiced by different religions. For example, Hasidic Jews, Mormons, Amish, and Roman Catholics have all dictated some type of modest or religious garb.
MODESTY CULTURE FROM A FEMINIST PERSPECTIVE
Modesty culture (the view that a good woman is a modest one) particularly when imposed on women, is viewed as a symbol of oppression, relating to power (or lack of) and subservience.
While girls are sexualized and held responsible for controlling men’s lust, males are infantilized and not held accountable for their inability to control themselves. It is women’s own immodesty that causes them to be harassed and raped. It’s a misogynist view that women are not only the source of evil and temptation, but it is women themselves that must control men’s primitive desires and not lead them astray.
The female as seductress and corruptor is a universal theme. Some examples are:
- Eve in the Old Testament leading Adam astray.
- The 16th & 17th century European witch-hunts targeted primarily women, where hundreds of thousands were affected. The persecution of witches was based on several beliefs: (a) biblically, women were evil and could corrupt good men, and (b) women were sexually insatiable, mortal men couldn’t satisfy them so they were susceptible to seduction by the devil.
- Today if a woman gets pregnant it is her responsibility to bear the burden of her sins. That can be seen in continuous whittling away at the right to abortion. If a woman is evil enough to succumb to her lust, she must live with the consequences of it.
- Female victims in rape trials often have to justify the manner in which they were dressed, to demonstrate that their clothing didn’t imply consent.
- Boys will be boys and can’t be held to the same self-discipline standards as females.
The common theme is that women must control themselves and not corrupt men – men’s salvation lay in reigning in the power that women hold over them and if women step outside of their roles, they deserve what they get.
CONTROVERSY AMONG WESTERN FEMINISTS
It is against this backdrop, some women are declaring the hijab instead as liberating. Feminists — some in an attempt to sympathize with discrimination encountered by those who choose to wear the hijab — celebrate it and wear it in solidarity, but neglect to mention those who have no choice. While 180 countries now celebrate World Hijab Day, participants often fail to mention the millions of women who view it as a sign of their oppression. It’s mostly the political right that brings attention to that inconvenient truth. Critics, such as Maajid Nawaz, argue that it spreads a “misleading interpretation” to the public that the hijab is always voluntary.
So why don’t more feminists stand up for these women? There’s a tendency, perhaps well-intentioned, by Western feminists to have a blind-spot towards abuse of women by non-white or minority males (and in particular, Muslims). Even Western atheists who have no problem criticizing Christian dogma, often fall silent when it comes to criticizing Muslim dogma. A sentiment exists that meddling in these issues would equate to cultural intolerance, but others consider it to be a “soft bigotry of multiculturalism.”
Activists like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali-born Muslim-turned-atheist and author of “Infidel,” who fight on behalf of women worldwide, are often shunned by Western feminists. One of the Women’s March Leaders, in 2011, wrote of Ali and another woman that “…She’s asking 4 an a$$ whippin’. I wish I could take their vaginas away – they don’t deserve to be women.” Ms. Ali argues there’s a double standard — Western women would never accept the kind of oppression they doom women in Muslim countries to endure.
More recently, many women’s rights activists took offense to the donning of the hijab by New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, in response to the March 2019 Christchurch mosque massacre. Many praised the move as an act of support, but women struggling against forced hijab also saw it as an insult.
Even human rights groups seem to apply different standards when criticizing anything to do with Islam. The Southern Poverty Law Center puts out a list of hate groups and individuals. They listed Ali as an “anti-Muslim extremist,” and appear to have only removed her from their list in response to a lawsuit filed by Maajid Nawaz, a moderate Muslim (who encourages the reform of Islam) who was also on their hate list.
The idea of universal human rights should supersede any reticence to commit cultural intolerance. Fundamental rights are defined by the United Nations and apply to everyone, including the right to freedom of religion, and the freedom to manifest that religion or belief.
EFFORTS TO SUPPORT MUSLIM WOMEN’S FREEDOM
In order to help women objecting to forced hijab, Western feminists don’t have to initiate a movement themselves; they can merely support the Muslim and ex-Muslim women who are already advocating for change. Just listen to those pleading their own case.
In Iran, there’s already a huge grass-roots struggle. In 2014, Masih Alinejad, a journalist now living in self-exile in New York, launched the global media campaign, “MyStealthyFreedom,” a Facebook page which invited ordinary women from Iran to post their picture sans headscarf. In 2017, she launched a movement called “White Wednesdays,” initially for Iranian women to take off their hijab on Wednesdays. However, women took it further and now every day is White Wednesday. It is distressing to see them publicly confronted by men, other veiled women, and police, facing persecution and imprisonment.
Masih’s memoir, “The Wind in My Hair,” chronicles her journey from a small village in Iran to her work as a journalist and creator of her campaigns that sparked the nationwide movement for Iranian women. In a debate on CNN she argued: “It’s important if you care about human rights, women’s rights, you cannot use the same tool which is the most visible symbol of oppression in the Middle East and say that this is a sign of resistance [in the United States].” She’s also critical of female diplomats who visit Iran and don the hijab. Ironically, Iran serves on the United Nations Women’s Rights Committee.
Another Iranian movement, “The Girls of Revolution Street,” began after Vida Movahed, in 2017, removed her hijab, stood on a utility box in Tehran, tied a white hijab to a stick, and waved it around like a flag. Women copied Vida’s action one month later and likewise removed their hijabs in public. Dozens of women have been arrested and some have left the country. The image of Vida standing defiantly has gone viral and become the symbol of this movement.
Even Muslim women are combating the practice of veiling. Moroccan feminist and scholar of Islam, Fatima Mernissi, authored “The Veil and the Male Elite.” She argues that the original Muslim texts have been manipulated by male theologians in order to preserve a patriarchal system. Her work addresses the manipulation of Islam to depict women as silent, passive, and obedient.
WOMEN LEADING THE CHARGE
In response to World Hijab Day, Yasmine Mohammed (a Canadian human-rights campaigner) started the #NoHijabDay campaign in 2018 to “…celebrate the women who have defied social censure and the state to remove the hijab.“
Nasrin Sotoudeh is a prominent Iranian human rights lawyer who has represented women in Iran who have publicly removed their hijab. She was originally arrested in 2010 and charged with “spreading propaganda and conspiring to harm state security.” She was released after serving three years in prison.
She was re-arrested in June of 2018, and that December was tried in absentia in Tehran (she had refused to appear in court because she was not allowed to choose her own attorney). According to a March 17 Washington Post article, her crime was defending “… women being prosecuted for peacefully protesting Iran’s compulsory hijab law by removing the head covering in public.” This last March she was advised of the verdict; 38 years in prison and 148 lashes.
Maryam Namazie left Iran in 1980 (after the revolution) and eventually settled in the United Kingdom. Maryam is internationally known for her extensive refugee and human rights work. In 2014, she and several other women observed International Women’s Day with a nude protest at the Louvre in Paris, in support of women’s rights in the Middle East and North Africa. She also created a Nude Photo Revolutionary Calendar for 2012-2013 in honor of Egyptian activist Aliaa Elmahdy, also known as the naked blogger.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
For anti-hijab feminists, it can be frustrating and insulting to see the Western world embrace the hijab in a gesture of support. As Yasmine Mohammed puts it, “If you wanted to actually be supportive of progress then support the women fighting to be #FreeFromHijab. They deserve their freedom just as you do. Slapping your brand on prescribed modesty clothing that oppresses millions is not progress.”
This is a feminist and human rights issue, and as such, it’s time that Westerners, with the freedom to take a stance without fear of oppression, stand up for our sisters and support them in their fight for equality and freedom.
If you would like to help, consider some concrete way in which to do so:
- Consider organizing a Teach-In. Invite people to come together, educate themselves, and decide how to move forward. This can be done with a series of workshops strung together in the course of a day.
- Write a Letter to the Editor or write a Guest Editorial for your local newspaper.
- Go to Amnesty International’s website and sign up for the campaign to free Nasrin Sotoudeh from prison and lashing.
- Approach your local feminist group to ask that they put this issue on their agenda and bring it to the public’s attention.
- Publicize the issue by organizing a local demonstration — wave white cloth on sticks to bring attention to Iran’s campaigns. Come prepared with educational handouts.
- Organize a protest at your nearest Iranian Embassy. Refer to the demonstration in the United Kingdom for guidance.
Lastly, stay informed and inform others through social media:
- Follow this website:
- Follow Facebook pages and share them on your feed:
- Follow these Twitter accounts and re-tweet:
- Yasmine Mohammed – @YasMohammedxx
- Masih Alinejad – @AlinejadMasih
- Maryam Namazie – @MaryamNamazie
- Ex-Muslimsof North America – @ExmuslimsOrg
- Sarah Haider – @SarahTheHaider
- AHA Foundation – @AHAFoundation
- Ayaan Hirsi Ali – @Ayaan
- Maryam Namazie – @MaryamNamazie