Freethinkers: People have been talking about hijab a lot lately…



From Ophelia Bensonmon
The Freethinker

You Can’t Do Both

The Associated Press reported:
On the night of the California mass shooting, Asifa Quraishi-Landes sat on her couch, her face in her hands, and thought about what was ahead for her and other Muslim women who wear a scarf or veil in public.

The covering, or hijab, often draws unwanted attention even in the best of times. But after the one-two punch of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks by Islamic militants, Quraishi-Landes wanted to send a message.

‘To all my Muslim sisters who wear hijab,’ Quraishi-Landes, an Islamic law specialist at the University of Wisconsin, wrote on her Facebook page. ‘If you feel your life or safety is threatened in any way because of your dress, you have an Islamic allowance (darura/necessity) to adjust your clothing accordingly. Your life is more important than your dress.

h2Well that’s nice, but notice what it implies: that if you don’t feel your life or safety is threatened, then you don’t have “an Islamic allowance” to stop wearing hijab. In other words, you are required to wear hijab unless you think it’s putting you in danger. That’s in direct contradiction with the claim we so often hear, that it’s a choice to wear hijab. If it’s really a choice, why did Quraishi-Landes feel the need to go on Facebook to remind her Muslim sisters of the safety exemption? If it’s really a choice, why do women need any such reminder or permission?

It’s not a choice in the straightforward sense, as in choosing chocolate rather than strawberry or Labour as opposed to Tory. It’s possible for some Muslim women to choose to be bound by the religious obligation to wear hijab, but that’s a strained sense of “choosing”. Choosing to obey, choosing to submit – that amounts to choosing to give up choice.

On the other hand there is coercion and violence coming from the other direction too: wearing hijab makes Muslim women visibly Muslim in a way that Muslim men are not, and that makes them targets of abuse. When there is coercion from all directions, it’s hard to know how to go about making a free decision.

A few days ago Asra Q Nomani and Hala Arafa wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post asking people not to wear the hibab as an act of interfaith solidarity.

Last week, three female religious leaders — a Jewish rabbi, an Episcopal vicar and a Unitarian reverend — and a male imam, or Muslim prayer leader, walked into the sacred space in front of the ornately-tiled minbar, or pulpit, at the Khadeeja Islamic Center in West Valley City, Utah. The women were smiling widely, their hair covered with swaths of bright scarves, to support ‘Wear a Hijab’ day.

It’s a benevolent idea at first blush, a way of declaring support and friendship with women who are subject to being treated as unwelcome aliens, but Nomani and Arafa explain that it’s not that simple.

For us, as mainstream Muslim women, born in Egypt and India, the spectacle at the mosque was a painful reminder of the well-financed effort by conservative Muslims to dominate modern Muslim societies. This modern-day movement spreads an ideology of political Islam, called ‘Islamism,’ enlisting well-intentioned interfaith do-gooders and the media into promoting the idea that ‘hijab’ is a virtual ‘sixth pillar’ of Islam, after the traditional ‘five pillars’ of the shahada (or proclamation of faith), prayer, fasting, charity and pilgrimage.

In other words promoting the idea that it’s required, it’s obligatory, it’s not to be omitted – in short, that it’s not a choice.

It was a choice when Nomani and Arafa grew up. They were not required to wear it.

Born in the 1960s into conservative but open-minded families (Hala in Egypt and Asra in India), we grew up without an edict that we had to cover our hair. But, starting in the 1980s, following the 1979 Iranian revolution of the minority Shiite sect and the rise of well-funded Saudi clerics from the majority Sunni sect, we have been bullied in an attempt to get us to cover our hair from men and boys.

And now well-meaning non-Muslims are reinforcing the idea that Muslim women and girls are religiously required to cover their hair.

Today the hijab-wearing convert Yvonne Ridley presented the issue as if it were a feminist resistance to bullying by men, with a poster to illustrate the point:

Will men of Faith and no faith stop telling women what to wear – whether in general, in protest or in preference. Just get the hell out of our wardrobes and stay out!


But the image doesn’t do the work Ridley wants it to do. The woman in the enveloping scarf and the long sleeves can show her biceps all she wants, but she’s still obeying a religious command issued by a man and enforced by other men.

The men of faith are already in women’s wardrobes, they’re already telling women what to wear. Ridley is fooling herself if she thinks she made a proud, muscular, feminist choice to wear hijab, independent of any influence from “men of Faith.” Of course she didn’t; she did what she took her new religion to be telling her to do, a religion in which all clerics are male. You can’t do both. That’s one kind of choice you can’t make, because it’s a contradiction. You can’t obey orders and tell us you’re making a choice.