“I wear my hijab because it is encouraged in the Qur’an, because I don’t feel the need to sexualize or objectify my body in accordance with society…because I want to assert my female Muslim identity.”
This is how Aaliyah* responds to my question “Why do you wear a hijab?” The question becomes important in the context of the controversy surrounding the hijab seen around the world. The hijab, a large square scarf draped over the head and shoulders, is a requirement for Muslim women. The hijab protects a woman’s modesty. The hijab, and other Islamic dress articles, have become the topic of discussion in various feminist circles. Western claims that the Islamic dress code can be viewed as a manner of oppressing and controlling the bodies and sexualities of Muslim women have largely dominated the discourse. But what do Muslim women think?
The hijab has become a largely contested debate around the world, but particularly amongst feminists. It is notable that the West largely constructs the majority of these perceptions. A large issue in feminism is the influence of western feminism on non-western nations. Issues like Female Genital Mutilation in Africa, and the Islamic dress code for women are written about and are, understandably, admonished. These arguments, however, tend to ignore the opinions of those directly affected: the women. Thus, I sought out the opinions of young South African Muslim women to find out what they thought about the hijab. South Africa, in general, is a country with a good level of religious tolerance. So what does the hijab mean to young South African women?
Interviewees included young Muslim women who wear and who do not wear hijab. Interestingly, across interviews, girls disagreed with the notion that their hijab oppresses them. It was actually the opposite. Aaliyah’s* comment struck me the most. She said that she did not feel the need to sexualize herself for the male gaze. The hijab is meant to allow these women to be seen as individuals, not sexual objects. Essentially, by covering herself, she is sending as message that her body and her face are not for sale, thus reclaiming her body. Feminist reasoning against the wearing of the hijab is on the basis that women are forced into modesty. These arguments, however, essentially reduce the agency of the women who wear hijabs. They assume that these women are not wearing their hijab by choice. This is not to say that all Muslim women make a personal decision to wear the hijab. There have been many reports of Muslim women being tortured, abused and even killed for not wearing the veil. And while many may be forced to wear it, there are many who make an active decision to wear the hijab. The young women interviewed all state that it is a personal choice to wear or not wear their hijab. So why is it acceptable for some western feminists to hail “oppression” when the hijab wearers themselves do not feel that way? Feminism should be about ensuring that women have the right and ability to make their own decisions about their bodies and lives. By admonishing the hijab, these arguments essentially negate these women’s decisions.
The connection between the hijab and oppression has become so influential that France, in 2011, banned the wearing of the hijab in public. This followed the 2004 ban of religious symbols or insignia in schools. Included in that is the wearing of the hijab by girl students. Bronwyn Winter, author of “Secularism Aboard the Titanic: Feminists and the Debate over the Hijab in France” states that that these bans stem from decades of tension, dubbed the “headscarves affair”. From 1989, a slew of incidents involving young girls, their headscarves and people of authority occurred, caused controversy that eventually led to the first 2004 ban. Nicolas Sarkozy, president of France, justified the 2011 band by stating that the country will not support something that oppresses and controls women. But by banning a woman’s right to religious expression, is he not oppressing and controlling her body? Often times, western ideals are imposed on non-western issues, in turn making the non-western issue seem wrong, or backwards. The problem with this is that it becomes an ethnocentric argument that does not take the people being discussed into consideration.
In ending, this is not a defense of the veil. This is a means of defending a woman’s right to choose. Just as a woman has the right to wear a miniskirt, a woman has the right to wear the veil if that is what she wishes to do. At the same time, her right to not wear the veil does not justify an attack against her. By monitoring and controlling another’s body, you essentially become the oppressor.