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Hijab should be woman’s personal choice 



Wednesday, 07 May 2008


We have a bad habit in Western secular society of thinking that we know best. And Western feminism often has an equally bad habit of thinking that its ideals are the right ideals for women of all cultures. In our society, the veils and scarves worn by Muslim women are commonly seen as symbols and tools of an oppressive Islamic patriarchy. This sort of establishment thinking makes feminism inaccessible for women of different beliefs, which robs the movement of its global power. 

Western stereotypes surrounding the hijab — the scarf that covers the neck and hair of Muslim women — include the assumption that women are wearing it because of subjugation and religious indoctrination. Some argue that such coverage is used to make women subservient and invisible. But what really makes them invisible is assuming that the women who choose to wear the hijab, the abaya or anything else did not make the choice themselves.

As John P. Bartkowski and Jen’nan Ghazal Read, as well as numerous others, have pointed out, the decision to wear the hijab is not always a matter of religious teaching — it is often a political decision. Many women believe it is important to be identified as a Muslim, and many find it liberating to know they don’t have to worry about others judging their appearance, especially men. They have the ultimate control over who can see their bodies.

This reasoning is at odds with the idea that “liberating” clothing is, by definition, less clothing. We could just as easily see the pressure on young women in our own culture to look a certain way and wear revealing clothing as being oppressive and coercive as well.

It’s when it stops being the woman’s choice to wear a headscarf or similar covering that it becomes a problem. There are certainly Islamist states and even families that force women to veil themselves. The belief that women should dress modestly so that men are not tempted turns women into the sexual objects of men, and dehumanizes men by erasing their ability to control themselves.

I am not giving my opinion on whether a Muslim woman should wear a hijab — I am not a Muslim or an expert on the Qur'an. But I believe that it should be her choice, and other women should not judge her for it. A young woman whom I once interviewed, who began wearing the hijab after much careful thought, said that her clothing gave her courage and a sense of identity. She wished that more people would ask her about it before making their own conclusions about her decision.

There are a number of reasons Muslims have for wearing the headscarf, just as women can have a number of reasons for wearing revealing clothing. The larger point is that women are too often judged by what they wear.

Our society is so preoccupied with appearance that it forgets that it shouldn’t matter so much what women look like. Are they really invisible because they choose not to show the same parts of their body? Or are we making them invisible because they don’t look like we do?


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