Hijab gives Muslim women the chance to practice feminism in their own way


Maria Mawla wears a hijab in this Aug. 4, 1999, photo at an unknown Danish location. (Jens Dresling/AP)

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

Editor's Note: "Peace be upon him" (sometimes abbreviated "pbuh") is a salutation for the prophets of Islam. Who receives salutations depends on the school of thought. It is a mandatory practice per the Quran and hadiths.

In the month of June, a sign was posted around the University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing that made its way around social media and the Internet community. The sign specified an in-building dress code designed to combat what the School of Nursing deemed to be distracting clothing: mini-skirts, short shorts, etc. The sign sparked controversy for its alleged violation of women’s rights. Since then, the School of Nursing has taken the signs down and clarified its position, stating that the sign was a mistake and that it did not effectively communicate the intended message, namely that professional attire is not a gender-specific issue.

While there are many different types of feminism, I’m going to focus on the issue of Western feminism and the hijab. I am not an expert, but I will communicate the basics of Western feminism's hypocritical relationship with the hijab by the use of Islamic texts, research and experience.

The term hijab is often translated to mean veil or barrier. Hijab is a rich concept, but one important clarification that needs to be made is that the concept of hijab applies to both men and women. Unfortunately, hijab has come to be known only as a headscarf that some Muslim women wear, but the hijab is more broadly understood as the practice of modesty which is popularly manifested in material things such as the headscarf, loose clothing and coverings for the private parts. The concept depends on the reciprocal relationship of responsibilities between men and women. While both women and men are told to practice modesty, they are also both commanded to “lower their gaze.” That is why the claim that the headscarf’s purpose is to prevent sexual abuse — a popular notion in the culturally backwards part of the Islamic community — is wrong. The person responsible for any act is the person who commits the act. However, when all agents in a community abide by the concept of hijab then what you have is an environment that does in fact prevent such abuses. The problem arises only when culture and patriarchy are given precedence over religion.

While many Muslim women are forced to wear the headscarf in Muslim countires, it is because of the country's decency laws, which, like any decency law here in the United States, are designed to protect culture and tradition. There is no compulsion in Islam. Islamically, hijab is mandatory, but there is still a choice in wearing it, a choice that reflects an individual's relationship with Allah. Muslim women believe that hijab empowers them because they know that the relationships they build with others are based on intellect and personality as opposed to appearance or societal expectations. In fact this past spring, six Muslim organizations came together to organize Islam Awareness Week, during which the women of the UT Muslim community came out to explain their support and significance of the hijab.

Feminism is not inherently contradictory to Islam. We firmly reject the notion that Islam is backward and oppressive toward women. In fact, Islam is unique in its preservation and elevation of women’s rights and women. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was born in a time when women were oppressed, and daughters were buried alive, but Islam demolished such institutions of injustice against women and commanded that women have legal, social and religious rights like the right to own property, right to inheritance, right to divorce, right to marry freely, right to earned income and rights in marriage. In addition, the Prophet (pbuh) honored women and is recorded to have said that heaven lies underneath the feet of women. Lastly, Islam has many prominent Muslim women who were instrumental to the establishment of Islam, such as Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and the Prophet’s (pbuh) daughter Lady Fatima (pbuh), who, after the death of her father, notably went to the court of the caliph to protest the usurpation of her land.

Islam offers a strong and robust defense of women’s rights, and this reinforces the reason Muslim women choose to wear the headscarf. Because wearing the headscarf is, for many Muslim women, a way to practice feminism. And yet mainstream rhetoric, including feminists, has chastised the Islamic head covering. Countries such as France have even banned them in certain settings, and groups such as FEMEN, a feminist movement known for its controversial topless protests against sexism, religious groups and other institutions, have oppressed Muslim feminists. Laila Alawa, a writer and Muslim feminist, was told by a member of FEMEN that in order to be a feminist she had to take off her headscarf. When FEMEN organized demonstrations titled “International Topless Jihad Day” in order to “save” Muslim women, a Facebook page titled “Muslim Women Against FEMEN” went up, obtaining thousands of likes soon after. Muslim Women Against FEMEN wanted to “expose FEMEN for the Islamophobes/Imperialists that they are… [they] have had enough of western feminists imposing their values on [them]… Muslim women have had enough of this paternalistic and parasitic relationship with SOME western feminists.”

My little sister started wearing the headscarf at the age of 16, just this past year. In addition to her love for her religion, she chose to wear the headscarf because she wanted to be respected and have control over her body, instead of being at the whim of commercialism and societal expectations. We had never pressured her to start wearing it, so her courage to make that decision herself is commendable, but the transition was not easy. She was treated differently and taunted at times, but it was a struggle that she took on proudly, as a proud Muslim and as a women's rights advocate.

My sister’s story is just one of many, and yet, all of these strong women, whose stories deserve exaltation, are instead seen as oppressed women in need of saving. Well, they don’t need saving. A part of feminism is having the choice and the opportunity to define yourself, that is why varying opinions are the result of feminism. This sentiment of diversity is threaded in the American fabric and at UT, because diversity is an environment where good ideas take hold. The concept of Hijab may be Islamic, but its approach on mutual and reciprocal responsibility for modesty might help the UT School of Nursing provide for a conducive learning environment.

Rizvi is a government senior from Chicago. Follow Rizvi on Twitter @SyedMuzziRizvi.