Politics, News

What hijab means to an ex-hijabi

Modesty is not a scarf you wear on your head. This goes for both hijabis and non hijabis.

I want 2016 to be the year where a piece of cloth stops defining a whole religion. I want 2016 to be the year where people stop politicizing the hijab, both Muslims and non Muslims, hijabis and non-hijabis alike. I want 2016 to be the year Muslims start addressing our problems without feeling the need to ostracize dissenting voices.

The recent op-Ed by Asra Nomani and Hala Arafa in the Washington Post was one of great controversy for many. Many Muslims expressed their frustration with the article, saying that the authors are forcing their opinions on others and that they have no authority to speak on hijab. Some even cited one of the author’s private life and their perceived wrongdoings in an effort to shame her out of speaking her mind. This is one of the many ways women have been silenced and discredited when sharing their narratives and opinions.

If you haven’t yet read the article, it’s basically just two Muslim women making a case against hijab, using different interpretations of Quranic verses concerning modesty to back their opinions. They argued that hijab is a fairly new trend for some Muslim majority countries citing the example of Egypt, which in fact only saw the rise of hijab as we see it today in the past couple generations.

The article was deemed offensive by many and caused outrage; something that I did not expect being that it was an opinion article written by two Muslim women on the ever relevant issue of hijab. As a Muslim woman and a former hijabi, I would like to share my take on hijab, Asra Nomani and the almost synchronized backlash from many in the Muslim community whenever dissenting opinions are voiced.

First of all, modesty is not a scarf you wear on your head. Period. This goes for both hijabis and non hijabis. The concept of “modesty” is one that has not been so kind to women, holding us to standards that are difficult and sometimes unnatural to meet. As a Muslim woman, I grew up with two very different narratives. One is that a woman is a “awra” or something shameful meant to be covered. The other is that women are so precious that, like jewelry or candy or a lit match or a sheet of glass (all very real metaphors I’ve heard) they should be protected from the outside world lest we be damaged.

I reject both narratives. I am neither shameful nor am I candy. I’m a human.

Another very interesting and recent narrative tries to politicize hijab by arguing that it is in fact a feminist statement and not one that degrades women. As controversial as it might be for me to say this, but I also deeply reject this narrative.  Nothing screams feminism about being told that to be respected for your personality and merits, you have to cover something as basic as your hair or else suffer the consequences of being sexualized and objectified. As if women can not claim both their bodies and their intellect without having to compromise one of the two. It has to be one or the other in the eyes of society. Misogyny does not stop at the feet of hijabi women nor do sexist patriarchs have any more respect for a woman that covers her hair than for a woman who doesn’t. In my opinion, the way hijab has been practiced and pushed onto Muslim women by conservative thinkers is nothing more than an appeasement to men who believe it is a woman’s fault for being sexualized for something as simple as her hair. That respect for a woman is decided on how many layers she has on and if her hair is covered or not.

In the eyes of a former hijabi and someone that has struggled with hijab for many years, the headscarf is neither a feminist statement nor does it protect women from the outside world. It should not be controversial for women who share that same opinion to voice our perspectives neither should we be accused of trying to speak on behalf of other Muslim women. Men and women who interpret the hijab in the form of a headscarf share their opinions with hardly any backlash and are seldom accused of speaking on behalf of the rest of the Muslim community.

However, those who choose to wear hijab should be very free to make that choice on their own. If people truly believe hijab is mandated by God in the Quran, then it should be practiced only to please God and not to make a political statement. People should be free to dress however way they want without having to think long and hard about how best to explain the political and social implications of their choices.

Returning to the article: I do not believe Asra Nomani and Hala Arafa were trying to speak on behalf of all Muslim women, but that they were arguing their own opinions. Many people, me included, agree with some of the points they made. Others did not agree. That’s the beauty of an opinion article. There are always two sides to each story if not ten. It saddened me to see so many Muslims attack these women for their beliefs and for speaking on a subject, that as Muslim women, they have every right to speak on.

I do however understand and even agree with those who are critical of Asra Nomani’s political views regarding the Middle East and Islam. Some would go as far as calling her a sell out or that she feeds into the conservative machine that is so blatantly Islamophobic. Her interviews alone have many talking points that would make a great case against her let alone her writings. Figures like her and the more extreme version Ayaan Hirsi Ali, have been used by Islamophobes as “evidence” to back their bigotry.

Would that have happened if Muslim scholars were open to hearing and discussing dissenting opinions? Maybe, maybe not.

I believe that it has become increasingly difficult for Muslims to voice our opinions about our own faith. Many who do not conform to the mainstream’s views are cast off as misguided at best. Our opinions are hardly taken seriously and we are discredited because, apparently, to have an opinion on your own religion, you must have a degree in Islamic teachings. As if religion is purely academic and not a personal relationship with the individual and their Creator. Is there a harmful conservative thought process amongst some Muslims? Yes there is, same as there are many conservatives in other religions who believe their opinion alone deserves recognition. This is not a problem specific to Muslims, but a problem that can be attributed to all of humankind. We generally do not find it easy to accept those who are different from us and will go as far as using religion to justify our bigotry.

I would hope that in the years to come, Muslims become an ummah that encourages individuality and different thought processes. I hope that we stop being so afraid to hear different interpretations of the Quran and of our religious culture as a whole. We owe it to ourselves to have open discussions about what concerns and sometimes even plagues our communities. As a Muslim woman, I urge all Muslims, whether Shia or Sunni or somewhere in between to stop being so strict in our ways that we forget that there are different ways to worship a God so great, that it really shouldn’t matter how we choose to display our love for Him. I would also hope that we stop politicizing hijab regardless of which side of the spectrum we stand on.