Is Wearing Hijab a Feminist Statement?

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:

  1. Hijab is “just a scarf that some women wear to cover parts of their bodies”, so it should not elicit such reactions from people.
  2. Wearing hijab is a statement of resistance against consumerist capitalism.
  3. Advocating against the depiction of hijab as inherently oppressive doesn’t inherently represent a denial of its use as an oppressive tool.
  4. Choice is what makes an act feminist.
  5. Dictating that women uncover is just as oppressive as forcing women to cover.
  6. Hijab doesn’t control a woman’s sexuality, magazines like Cosmo do.
  7. 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:

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.

hijab photo
The name of the shop roughly translates to something like “The Realm of Hijab”. Hijab shops often sell apparel besides headscarves. Photo by itsbruce

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.

Comparing Oppression

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.

I quote Hiba, again:

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.

Is Wearing Hijab a Feminist Statement?

11 thoughts on “Is Wearing Hijab a Feminist Statement?

  1. 1

    My professor usually tells people who want to research whether cultural product XYZ is “empowering” that they’re on the wrong track. The question isn’t “is this empowering” but “how is it empowering to whom and to whom not”.
    I think your own very nuanced reply shows that there’s a lot of discussion to be had. The things that are written in actual stone are usually the ones that people don’t care about much any more. Meanings change from place to place, time to time, context to context. It’s a semiotic struggle down to the last turtle. I do not disagree with your overall interpretation here, but I also don’t believe that the meaning cannot change and be change by those who find value in their hijab*

    *Many women who wear them here don’t seem to pay much attention to other aspects you listed. Skinny jeans seem to be favourites, often with tight dresses worn on top. Sure, you don’t see skin, but there isn’t much left to imagination.

  2. 3

    as always, excellent.

    one of the things that always bug me about “patriarchy pressures women to do X, so the opposite of that is feminist” arguments like this one about hijab being feminist because patriarchy wants boobz is that it utterly ignores that patriarchal pressures are almost always utterly contradictory: women should be feminine; but not *that* feminine, because airhead bimbo lol. women should cover up because it distracts co-students/co-workers; but also not cover up because then they’re not aesthetically pleasing to men anymore. not wearing make-up makes you look unprofessional; wearing make-up makes you a liar. having a career makes you a ballbusting harpy; staying at home with the baybeez makes you a leech. Etc. forever.
    Some of these are designed to be contradictory and break women/have them fight each other; some are results of intersectional oppressions; some of them are the results of different sub-categories/cultural flavors of patriarchy coexisting (e.g. the dudebro type alongside the quiverful type) and exerting contradictory demands on a person. And different pressures will have different salience to different gender oppressed folks (not just women), so “rebelling” against that pressure will look different to each person.

    Ultimately tho, you can’t really win by just promoting the opposite of what one patriarchal dictate says as The Solution, because it’ll play into an opposite dictate. The only way to win is not to play, and stop (to the degree that’s possible because jobs and shit) to pay attention to patriarchal demands and cultivate one’s own sense of bodily comfort and aesthetics, cultural practice, etc. blah blah. And that can include both utter rejection of a specific patriarchal dictate, or the reclamation of it on one’s own terms. Just, claiming one or the other as inherently feminist isn’t gonna work. Hijab as feminist per se doesn’t work; nudity as feminist per se doesn’t work; rejection of femininity as feminist per se doesn’t work; etc.

  3. 4

    I’ve never covered and, as far as I can predict, wouldn’t, but I kind of see what she’s getting at with #7. If one assumes that Western society demands that female flesh be on display, then sporting the hijab is a refusal to comply. From there, you can argue that the hijab therefore represents a reclamation of control over who gets to look at your body.

  4. 7

    I know I’m a bit late, but I don’t like writing extensive comments from the tablet.
    Thinking further about it, the conclusion is: complicated shit is complicated. In the end, a hijab is a piece of fabric the same was a lipstick is colour pigment mixed in with some oils: they can and do represent different things in different contexts and because space and time can be warped, they can mean different things while worn by the same person at the same time.

    For example, I think it’s important to represent all parts of society, therefore the inclusion of women wearing hijabs in all kinds of cultural products is good. On the other hand it also reinforces the equation muslim woman = hijab, adding pressure to muslim women to conform to this, which is bad.
    I also recognise that I cannot tell from seeing any individual woman wearing a hijab what this means for her personally (though other things like an abaya might add context). I know some recent refugees were more than glad to tear it off the moment they could rely on the German government to provide them with resources*, it was freedom to take it off and stay out all night without having to ask for permission.
    For others it may be a piece of home, a lifeline, something familiar in an unfamiliar world. And it can be like this within the same family, sometimes with the younger ones taking off their hijabs and the older ones keeping them, but also the other way around.

    We’re all constantly subjected to people judging whichever choice** we make, so in the end I’ll always cut the woman some slack, unless she’s actively trying to make life harder for others.

    *rereading, this sounds off. What I mean: during their flight they often had to rely on other muslims for help, resources and protection, muslims who might not help a young woman without a hijab, so they kept them on. I don’t want to sound like I’m blaming them for relying on government help.

    **And some choices are choicier. Because sometimes the price of making a different choice is too damn high.

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