This video, via The Guardian’s Comment Is Free and featuring Hanna Yusef, was brought to my attention by Nathan Zwierzynski (transcript):
Speaking as someone who also used to wear hijab and claim it was a bold feminist act, I will say that there is a lot to unpack here, none of which can be addressed without nuance and care.
The video makes seven central, related claims:
- Hijab is “just a scarf that some women wear to cover parts of their bodies”, so it should not elicit such reactions from people.
- Wearing hijab is a statement of resistance against consumerist capitalism.
- Advocating against the depiction of hijab as inherently oppressive doesn’t inherently represent a denial of its use as an oppressive tool.
- Choice is what makes an act feminist.
- Dictating that women uncover is just as oppressive as forcing women to cover.
- Hijab doesn’t control a woman’s sexuality, magazines like Cosmo do.
- What makes people uncomfortable about hijab is that it helps women to reclaim and control their bodies.
Is Hijab “Just a Scarf”?
The notion that a headscarf worn in that particular way by a Muslim woman is “just” a scarf covering her hair, ears, and neck is frankly laughable. It is preceded by the claim that hijab is a feminist statement; the later points made in the video itself further undermine the “just a scarf” argument. Can hijab “just” be anything when it is claimed to be statements of ideologies ranging from feminism to anti-consumerism to bodily empowerment and autonomy?
The claims about hijab in the video aside, that the word “hijab” is commonly understood to mean “a scarf worn in a particular way on the head” is seen by some Muslim scholars and advocates as troubling. The Arabic word itself, etymologically speaking, does not mean “headscarf”, though that is what it has come to mean colloquially.
In fact, as a devout student of Islam, I was often cautioned to avoid that colloquial trap. I was taught not to use a headscarf as a shortcut to full Islamic modesty. Covering the head was certainly considered a necessary part of hijab, but so was:
- wearing long sleeves that came down to the wrist (often necessitating pull-on sleeves along with the bell sleeves so common in the peasant-style tops that were the most popular modest style when I was a teen)
- draping the headscarf so as to obscure any hint of the shape of the breasts
- avoiding tight jeans and pairing loose pants with long tunics that fell to at least mid-thigh, if not avoiding pants entirely
- wearing socks in case hems were inadvertently raised while walking, which could reveal the ankles
- speaking neither too loudly nor in too alluring a tone
- aspiring to someday wear a jilbab or abaya (note that there is ableist language in the title of that link, but it’s the most comprehensive overview I have found)
Hijab’s Symbolic Meaning
Hijab, then, means more than just a scarf as far as modesty goes. Symbolically, too, it has meaning beyond a headscarf.
For the Muslim women who choose to wear it, the meaning is often a personal interpretation. What any particular consensual hijab-wearer says hijab means might say more about her as an individual than anything necessarily to do with the Islamic canonical teachings. Such is the case with Hanna Yusef. To her, dressing the way she does frees her from the tyranny of consumerism and from misogynistic standards about sexuality and bodies. When I used to be a hijab-wearing Muslim, I felt and stated (loudly and often) something quite similar. In my Southern Californian context, not caring overmuch about my appearance was a welcome rebellion from the pervasive, stringent adherence to beauty norms.
As far as theology goes, however, there is nothing in Islam that posits hijab as a political or personal-as-political statement of any kind. Such a thing would be ahistorical. The verses in the Quran as well as the sayings from the hadith that support wearing hijab are about female modesty, guarding the body from men, and saving men from temptation. Women who wear hijab certainly have the right to interpret the modesty code as they personally see fit, but failing to mention the original reasoning behind hijab when asked about its purpose is, mildly speaking, a(n understandably) self-serving presentation of an incomplete picture.
Claiming the inherent meaning of hijab for feminism and anti-capitalism may not necessarily deny its use as an oppressive tool, but it does erase the views of some women who wear hijab for reasons that more closely resemble the canonical ones. Some Muslim women who cover may, like many women worldwide, reject feminism and wear hijab for reasons they would consider explicitly anti-feminist.
As for capitalism, it has come a long way since my teenage years of struggle to find hijab-appropriate attire. “Mipsterz” are A Thing, designers are scrambling to satisfy the desire among monied muslimas for haute hijab couture, and H&M has a hijab-wearing model. Even when I was a kid, plenty of people made a living importing headscarves and other garments needed by women and girls who wear hijab, selling them at a rather high markup considering the overseas prices they paid for them, at stores colloquially known as “hijab shops.” I doubt the more brand-conscious hijab-wearers, or those who profit immensely from the sale of hijab-related garments, would agree that hijab is inherently anti-capitalist.
Coercion As a Red Herring
Coercion is not nor has it ever been the only issue with hijab. The ideology behind female modesty that lies at the heart of hijab as per canonical Islam is the fundamental problem. Hiba Krisht wrote about this in 2014 in I don’t oppose the hijab because I was forced; I oppose the hijab because it sucks (which I suggest you read all of):
my ideological opposition to the values of the hijab are precisely because clothing and baring of skin are morally neutral matters, and one’s self-worth or value or morality does not rest in them. That does not mean that I think that it is ‘better’ if people do not wear the hijab, that baring your head or skin is somehow morally superior in turn. It means that I think that clothing should not be a matter of ‘better’ or ‘worse’ to begin with, and that is where the problem lies. The objection is at the meta level: it’s not that it is morally wrong to wear or not wear certain things; it is morally wrong to place moral value and human worth in whether one wears or does not wear certain things. It is morally wrong to devalue human bodies as such unless one dresses in a certain way. Because it leads to coercion, mistreatment, and power inequalities, yes, but it also because it is a fundamentally flawed notion in itself.
The ideology behind hijab is an issue regardless of whether or not it is forced on anyone. It is the same ideology that drives purity culture in the United States. Purity culture adherents might claim that they are rejecting the misogynistic aspects of hookup culture or what have you, but the underlying, driving ideology rooted in misogyny remains. The same goes for hijab.
For the women who are forced to wear it and the men in those societies who oppose forced covering, hijab symbolizes oppression. For some among them, hijab feels like a hate symbol regardless of context, an extremist approach that is unfair and divisive.
There are plenty of misogynistic standards and norms enforced on girls and women around the world. Hijab is certainly not the only one, by all means. Misogyny is everywhere and manifests itself in many forms. That it is everywhere does not absolve certain forms of misogyny from criticism.
As such, the comparison games that well-meaning never-Muslim women as well as hijab-wearing women sometimes play are incredibly shallow. To use the example presented in the video, Cosmo may incessantly list ways to please your man in bed, and Western women may be under immense social pressure to please men sexually, but that same misogynistic pressure is applied in Muslim-dominated societies as well. Indeed, the modesty rules in Islam are centered around remaining sexually pleasing and available to husbands. Covering yourself is advocated in Islam, canonically speaking, because it allegedly prevents men who aren’t allowed to touch you from desiring to do so. Hijab is not some scrappy alternative to the misogyny that dictates that women exist to please men sexually, it is an established part of the Islamic version of that same misogyny.
Choosing a Choice
To return to the purity culture example, there exist plenty of women who claim they adhere to it out of choice. The woman who had papers drawn up to prove to her father that she abstained from sex until marriage certainly argued so.
the presence of free choice, of bodily autonomy, does not render all ideologies of bodily conduct equal
That the pastor’s daughter said she chose to stay celibate until marriage doesn’t mean that her choice is necessarily empowered or feminist. Her choice is complicit in the sexism of a world where the mythology around hymens is used to oppress others. It reinforced the lie that a hymen is some kind of tamper-evident seal and that women who have sex before marriage are inferior damaged goods.
There are many choices that women can make that aren’t feminist. Many feminists make those choices and that doesn’t negate their feminism, but just because a woman, even a feminist woman, chose something, doesn’t automatically make it feminist. Choices that align with Islamic values are not exempt from this sort of critical examination.
Respect All Women, Regardless
This should go without saying, but it doesn’t: All women should be afforded basic human decency. Yes, even if they make choices that aren’t very feminist in origin and often in practice. Respect that women have the right to make choices that aren’t feminist. Respect their right to argue that their choices are feminist. Respect their individuality and humanity. Criticize ideology rather than skewer a woman personally. Don’t judge a woman by her cover, to quote Hiba again.
This means that although I believe that Claims 1, 2, 4, and 6 are dubious at best, I wholeheartedly support #5. Forcing women to take it off is not any kind of feminist solution to misogynistic norms that pressure women to cover up. Claim 3, regarding the depiction of hijab, is a more complex issue than can be easily and unilaterally agreed or disagreed with. Balancing the reality that hijab is not infrequently used as a tool of social control and has misogynistic origins with the fact that criticism of it is often taken to mean free license to impose judgment of every kind on hijab-wearing women is a real struggle, if a worthwhile one.
As for Claim 7, I think Hanna Yusef might be engaging in some rather odd assumption-making of her own. Due to the very anti-Muslim bigotry Hanna Yusuf is attempting to counter with her video, we can safely say that many people’s discomfort with hijab is far more likely to do with the assumption that a woman in hijab is oppressed or potentially violent than with the perception that she is incredibly liberated in body and mind.