When I was a freshman in college, I have to admit: I was in my feminist phase back then. I had completely bought into the idea that “ hijab is a choice,” that it was all about “freedom,” that it made me “empowered.” So, is hijab a choice? Or is that just a feminist slogan?
Muslim women at Harvard discuss is hijab a choice?
I was interviewed by a fellow Egyptian Muslim girl at Harvard (let’s call her Sara) about my experience with hijab. It was a group interview setting where Sara interviewed me as well as a few of my Muslim friends, asking each of us why we abided by the rules of hijab. She published the result of the interview as an article in the campus newspaper, the Harvard Crimson.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, it was a trap. I found this out only when I read her article after it was published.
It turns out that Sara had a bone to pick with Muslims who insisted on following the Islamic guidelines for dress. She began her article with a story about how when she went back to Egypt for a summer visit once, an older Egyptian woman, a stranger, chastised her for wearing in public a short shirt that showed her midriff. Sara angrily recounted how she was incensed by this incident. How dare anyone tell her how to dress! In America, nobody would ever dare do such a thing! But in backwards Islamic-law-adhering countries like Egypt, apparently a random strange woman on the street had no qualms about violating personal autonomy and policing another woman’s dress or public behavior. The nerve!
So the semester after her summer in Egypt, Sara found herself a group of Muslim girls at Harvard whom she could interview about why they dressed as they did. Her article was a scathing review of the oppressiveness of the Islamic dress code and the naivety of the females, like me, who followed it.
At college I was a Muslim feminist
Looking back at this incident, I am not as bothered by Sara’s vindictive setup of an interview as much as I am by my own incoherently feminist answers to the question of why I wore the hijab.
I have to admit: I was in my feminist phase back then, much to my chagrin.
I had completely bought into the idea that “the hijab is a choice,” that it was all about “freedom,” that it made me “empowered.” I wince now in embarrassment to remember that these cliché feminist talking points about hijab were part of my answer to her question of why I wear it. I proudly parroted back the stuff I’d heard other American Muslim women say hijab was about:
- Hijab is not mandatory—it is a choice! See, I’m not oppressed like you think! I chose to don this piece of fabric on my head out of my own free will and it is a sign of my unfettered personal agency.
- Hijab is all about freedom! Wearing it makes me free of the oppressive gaze of men. It gives me the freedom to go about my life in public unburdened with the sexualization that can result with showing too much skin. Covering my body in this way is a way for me to gain freedom, you see.
- Hijab makes me feel empowered! I wear it to show my independence and power as a proud Muslim woman who is not scared of others, of being different, or of expressing my ethnic or religious heritage! America is a melting pot!
Where did the slogan “My body my choice come from?”
We often hear the slogan in relation to women’s rights : “My body, my choice!” The phrase is short, simple, and on the surface, quite powerful. This slogan was created by second wave feminist campaigning for abortion-choice, contraceptive rights and sexual freedom. Now, bodily autonomy arguments go something like this:
- The woman’s body is her sovereign zone.
- Therefore, a woman has the choice to do anything she wants with her body, i.e cover or uncover
- If a baby is inside her body, she has the choice do whatever she wants to it, including have an abortion.
I’m not oppressed!
I don’t remember what else I said, but I remember these as the main talking points. It pains me to type these things out now, to see how jumbled and nonsensical they really are. I had fully believed that these were all good reasons to wear the khimar, jilbab or other loose fitting clothing, and other aspects of proper Islamic dress.
I was so worried about fulfilling the tired old stereotype of the meek, oppressed Muslim woman who’s shrouded from head to toe in loose clothing, the walking symbol of the Muslim patriarchy and suppression of women. Being so conscious of this popular perception of Muslim women, I went out of my way to show the world that the stereotype was false and no I am not oppressed and yes I am fully free, thank you very much. I felt that I needed to make this point. I needed to showcase my agency and prove my lack of oppression.
Why were my answers so confused?
But as Muslims, when we do this, we play right into the hands of non-Muslims. We start to change our religion for them, a little bit at a time. We worry more about proving something to kuffar than we do about pleasing Allah. Instead of straightforwardly stating the Islamic wisdom of the system of hijab (for example, as stated by Allah in the Quran), we simply say what we assume the non-Muslim skeptics of our religion want to hear.
I didn’t see this at the time, of course, but what I was doing in explaining hijab this way was merely trying to fit the Islamic concept of hijab into the Western non-Muslim secular feminist mould. It was as futile an endeavour as trying to fit a square into a circle because these two things don’t go together. In order to align them as I thought I had to, I had to bend either one or the other a little. Either the Islamic paradigm or the non-Islamic paradigm.
Instead of rejecting their entire (extremely flawed) paradigm completely and making a case for my own Islamic paradigm, I tried to squeeze the Islamic notion of hijab into the non-Muslim paradigm, which I took for granted as the automatic default. Of course focusing on things like “freedom,” “choice,” and “individual liberty” is paramount—after all, what other reasons are there for anyone to do anything? This was my simplistic understanding, completely poisoned by liberal, feminist concepts and values.
Why hijab is not a choice?
Now, a decade later and fully out of my feminist phase (alhamdulillah!), I give a simple and direct answer when I’m asked about Islamic dress:
I abide by this dress code because my Creator commanded me to. I am convinced Allah knows what is best for me so I obey my Creator.
Covering the hair, one’s body, is not about freedom or liberty or empowerment or choice. I don’t care about any of these things, as shocking as this admission might be. I really don’t care. None of those things are my priority. None of them figure into why I dress as I do. I no longer subscribe to their importance as reasons for my behavior or motivations for my actions, especially when it comes to religious matters.
In the Quran, Allah the Exalted says:
“O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful.” (Surat Al-Ahzab, 59)
So I cover myself in the way that my Creator has commanded me to, for the sole reason of seeking His pleasure through obedience and acknowledgment of His authority. He is my Master and I am His slave. It’s very simple.
None of these concepts mesh with the liberal, feminist paradigm, in any way. Let’s catalog the differences:
Instead of freedom, here we have slavery. Instead of choice, command. Instead of empowerment, obedience to authority.
The Sahabiyyat, the noble and pious female companions of the Prophet ﷺ did not care about the freedom or choice or personal empowerment of the hijab. As soon as the verses of hijab came down, these women tore their sheets into pieces that would work to cover themselves with, in their sincerity and their haste to comply with the commands of Allah.
Wearing hijab must have been difficult for them, just like it is for sisters today. I fully appreciate the struggles sisters face wearing hijab in the 21st century. Inshallah we should take inspiration from the Sahabiyyat.
You could argue that as Muslims we have free will and so in every action we do i.e salah, fasting, zakat etc. we have a choice to obey Allah or disobey Allah. Iblis also was given free will and he made the choice to disobey Allah. As Muslims once we have made the conscious decision to believe in Allah need to find out what our obligations are and
Hijab is an act of obedience
This is the reason why we Muslim women cover: to obey Allah’s command. As for the possible wisdoms behind this divine command, we can derive two possibilities based on the ayah in Surat Al-Ahzab above. The first is that these women who cover themselves will be known as Muslims, recognized as believing women, and the second is that these women will not be abused or harassed.
Some confused Muslim women bristle at the idea that modest dress has any utility in protecting women from harassment, but this ayah makes it clear that this is one of the wisdoms of modest dress. It is the toxic influence of feminism that makes this ayah problematic for some (na`udhubillah!). The typical argument given is that women dressed even in full niqab sometimes get harassed, therefore modest dress does not deter harassers.
But this argument is completely fallacious. Just because modest dress does not deter 100% of all harassment, that does not mean it does not deter any harassment. This would be like arguing that since burglars are sometimes able to break through locked doors, that means locking your doors is useless in deterring robberies! As we all know, if we didn’t lock our doors, we would be much more likely to get robbed. In other words, the locks don’t magically protect us from ever being robbed, but they certainly help a great deal in preventing robbery in most cases. In a similar way, if we did not dress modestly, we would probably face more harassment than we would when dressed modestly. This is just common sense about human nature.
Common sense, unfortunately, is foreign to the feminist mind, which I can see now in retrospect. I can just imagine my former self agitated by what seems like “victim blaming” in the above reasoning. But the entire concept of victim blaming is highly illogical. Whether feminists will accept it or not, I am not trying to justify harassment any more than I am trying to justify robbery. The sad part is, by the feminist logic, the ayah in Surat Al-Ahzab is also justifying harassment and harm to women by prescribing modest dress.
Advice to Muslim imams & teachers
My request to imams and Muslim teachers everywhere is: please stop using liberal concepts and feminist values of freedom, empowerment, and choice to explain hijab. You might think you are helping your students by making an Islamic practice more palatable, but in actuality you are setting them up to eventually find Islam oppressive and backwards. Why? Because, whether you recognize it or not, you are indoctrinating them with a non-Muslim paradigm, and once they have internalised that paradigm, there will be no place for true Islam in their hearts.
“Allah has not made for a man two hearts in his interior.” (Surat Al-Ahzab, 4)
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