The hijab: an Islamic symbol that has been questioned, criticized, banned, torn off heads and been a go-to for stereotyping. Take it from me, the struggle is real: if I had a penny for every time someone called me oppressed, I’d be typing this on a gold-plated laptop. Recently, Tajikstan has joined the fun and passed laws banning the veil in public, with authorities describing it as representation of “alien culture”. I’ve taken it upon myself to clear up what this freaky otherworldly hijab really means, or at least what it means to a student at Edinburgh who wears a headscarf by choice, with pride and as a symbol of her Islamic feminism.
To begin with, although I feel like this goes without saying, I’m discussing the hijab as a choice. Unfortunately, it was and continues to be forced on women in various parts of the world, something the overwhelming majority of Muslims condemn. Any religious practice should stem from one’s own desire to express their spirituality. That aside, strong and prominent women who attend the world’s most esteemed institutes wear it as an expression of their own idea of feminism today, and thus the hijab has emerged as a symbol of resistance in modern times. This is particularly prevalent in the Western world, where there is more pressure not to cover. In the face of stereotyping, sexism, and judgement, the hijab is playing a central role for Muslim women on a personal and social level.
The concept of the hijab stems from Islam’s core value of modesty, which covers both inward modesty, or awareness of the divine presence in one’s private moments, and modesty in speech, behaviour or dress. What “modest” dress is in Islam is largely defined by culture, the main point being that women should not be objectified by men, a twofold responsibility. When the Quran addresses modesty, it addresses men first, instructing them to lower their gaze and guard their chastity. The Quran asks the women that they behave with dignity and decorum for security and self-awareness, highlighting that their sexuality is not a measure of their worth, an idea that continues to be exploited for political and economic gain today.
The notion that women are second-class citizens to men in Islam is a popular misconception. As the women who wear the scarf will tell you, it is a way for them to take control of their own bodies and challenge the way they are represented in mainstream media and marginalized by men.
I find that calling it oppression is ironic: if oppression can be loosely defined as the ‘taking away of power’, and my veil and modest clothing covers my body and sexuality, calling me oppressed is ultimately implying that my power lies solely in my body; the very same idea progressive feminist ideals reject.
The hijab does not hide my voice or intent. Rather, it is a defiance of social standards about how I should dress, an act of non-compliance that makes me feel empowered and free of what society dictates. We’ve seen a similar message conveyed through dress over and over again by influential women, my favorites being Katharine Hepburn and Coco Chanel.
Fearing what we don’t understand makes sense when the thing we’re afraid of is a spontaneous clown attack, or raisins on porridge. The hijab is a different story: there must be a compelling reason millions of women around the world choose to wear it, and it takes only a little digging to understand why resentment, fear and hatred towards women who cover is misplaced.
The hijab is an iconic way of showing resistance in the face of ignorance, and despite growing political and social opposition, it’s here to stay.
Image: Josh Green