Features

Hijabs in the Western World

For me, they’re a reminder of the place I grew up. For some, they’re a symbol of oppression. But however you may see them, hijabs are something entirely different for the hijabi women who wear them.

Growing up in an Islamic country, hijabs and burkas weren’t something that I questioned, they weren’t something I even necessarily noticed. They were something that some women wore. And yet, the Western views on hijabs seem predominantly confused and convoluted. The controversy that surrounds a piece of fabric, and those who choose to wear it, just seems downright baffling to me. Especially considering that most of the people who seem to have an issue with the Islamic head covering, know very little about it and don’t have any interest in learning anything else about it.

I think one of the most notable misconceptions over hijabs is that women are forced to wear them. And whilst I’m not denying this will happen, this is an extremely small minority of cases. The controlling and abusive men that hijabi husbands are seen to be, exist only in the most radical cases; domineering behaviour is not an exclusively Muslim attribute. Arguably, Islam actually promotes women’s rights much more fervently than Christianity. The bible actually describes women as the root of all evil, whilst the Quran promotes rights such as education, ownership of property, the right to vote and the right to divorce. In fact, one of the pinnacle figures of Islam, the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), married his employer, Khadijah, a business woman who provided their primary source of income. In Christian culture, this isn’t even something we could expect to see as recently as the early 20th century.

Hijabs are illegal in more countries, than it is legal to wear them and yet one of the most common arguments against them, is that they are oppressive. Is it not more oppressive to deny women the choice of wearing them, rather than strip them of the option completely?

However, this is not to say that Western culture isn’t becoming more accepting. Changes are apparent within US TV where there is a noticeable effort to normalize Hijabis, with shows such as Grey’s Anatomy introducing a Hijabi intern into their latest season. More shockingly, The Bold Type, one of Amazon Prime’s latest series, actually features a lesbian Hijabi with strong feminist views, countering many stereotypes traditionally associated with women who choose to wear Hijabs.

In researching this topic, I found a lot of the articles and blog pieces I was coming across, were written by converts. These women had grown up in predominantly Christian households, raised to be strong and independent and had chosen Islam. For those who claim ‘brainwashing’ as the reason for Hijabi women, think again. These women chose Islam and chose to wear hijabs because they felt it resonated with them and best reflected their beliefs.

I got in touch with Hibah Mourad, one of my friends from secondary school in Dubai. It had been a few years since I’d actually been in contact with her, from Facebook and Instagram updates, I knew that she was still as bubbly as ever, an advocate for human rights and an avid Potterhead; the perfect contradiction to the stereotypes built up against the hijab community.

When I first approached her about the article I was intending to write, Hibah was keen to answer any questions and bring awareness to a topic people are so quick to have preconceptions on. These are the responses I got from her.

Do you consider yourself a feminist, and if so -what does feminism mean to you?

To me, feminism is simply all about gender equality. Simple as that, there is nothing more to it. I feel as though society overcomplicates the concept of feminism or misinterprets it as men and women being the ‘same’, rather than equal. Of course, biologically speaking, men and women have physical differences by nature, but the issue here is about their rights & opportunities and ensuring that there is no difference here. In this case, I would definitely classify myself as a proud feminist (and Muslim!).

How important is religion to you?

Religion has always been one of my core values in life. It helps to keep me grounded and to remind myself of the purpose of existence. It is about putting my trust and faith in someone bigger than me, spiritually, our Creator. It is about being humble and following God’s plan, as He will always have something meaningful in store for us, and placing full trust in that. It is about using the tool of my faith to get me through the difficult times and to continue moving forward. Essentially, it can be applied to all aspects of life.

How do you view Islam and feminism in relation to one another?

There is a huge misconception that Islam and feminism are mutually exclusive. Islam fights for the rights of women and the concept of gender justice is strongly emphasised. I take pride in the fact that it transformed the way women are treated in society, and there is strong history and culture of women empowerment in the Quran.

In fact, there was a comparative study in the past where Christian and Muslim women who were asked whether they believed their religion supported feminism. Interestingly, the results showed that most of the Muslim women idenitifed Islam as a feminist religion, in contrast to the Christian women who didn’t have the same belief about their own religion.

Why do you wear your hijab? What is the biggest misconception about hijabs, in your opinion?

I started wearing the hijab when I was 12 years old. Some people might argue that it is quite a young age to be able to make such a decision or that I’d regret it later, but I believe that I was ready. I’ve never regretted my decision in wearing the hijab and don’t think I ever will.

The hijab is a very personal choice which holds different meanings to the women wearing it. Islam brought the idea of women wearing the hijab as a mark of religious devotion. It is never forced on a woman, which is another misassumption, but rather it is whenever one feels ready to make that decision. It does the opposite of restricting me, the hijab liberates me from everyday pressures of having to look a certain way. It celebrates women’s bodies as sacred temples, rather than a toy to be played with. It instils a sense of respect for who a woman is, rather than what she looks like. Overall, Islam supports feminism in a different way to how it is portrayed in the media. 

It places little to no importance on a women’s figure or aesthetic, which sadly has always been the case in society.  Women deserve better than compliments on their bodies and looks, and wearing the hijab gives me the satisfaction that I am more than that, but allowing me to stay modest about it.

I’d like to thank Hibah and all the Hijabi women I approached whilst researching and writing this article. For the most part, I have found that when asking religion related questions, it is important to treat people with respect. That means making sure they are comfortable, and making sure that whilst you do not necessarily agree, you do not make them feel as though they are not entitled to their beliefs.

Do not be afraid to ask questions.

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