Feminism | Posted by Helen H on 12/30/2009

The Headscarf

 the hijab

the hijab

Right. Islam and feminism. What’s the deal? I really don’t know. I do appreciate the religion, though, as a lapsed Muslim, I’m probably not the best person to talk about this.

Still, I think I’m qualified enough to say Islam is a patriarchal religion, especially in the way it’s practiced. It’s not the only patriarchal religion, and I’m sure that, like other religions, Islam is open to more feminist interpretations. But there will be some parts of it that will tick off most feminists.

One example would be the hijab. Being brought up by a rather religious family, I used to consider it a predestined (but unacknowledged) fact that I would grow up to wear one, just like most of my female relatives. But I’ve never been one to swallow things without questioning. And this, of all issues, is something to wonder about. The idea, if any of you don’t know, is that in front of males who are not their relatives, women are required to cover up all but their face and hands. The opposite applies to men, except they’re only required to cover from their belly-button down to their knees.

That in and of itself annoys me. There’s blatant objectification in it, the idea that the female body is a walking invitation to sin, the idea that the female body needs protection. And hey, there’s quite a bit of male-bashing in that, don’t you think? Do men have so little control over their sex drives that women around them need to be completely covered up?

women fighting for the right to wear the hijab

women fighting for the right to wear the hijab

Still, though, I don’t think it’s fair to leave it at that. There are tons of intelligent, educated women who choose to wear a headscarf by themselves. There are Muslim feminists who wear head-scarfs proudly. Calling every woman who wears a hijab a docile creature who accepts oppression without a word is unfair. Stereotypes are bad.

I think in the end, it’s a matter of choice. I hope I’m not using that like as a tack-on label, but I appreciate and respect every woman who seriously has a think over something and then takes her own initiative, no matter what it is.

There’s a lot to be said about this, and I can only say so much. I was really looking forward to seeing what all of you think. What can you add? What are your impressions of a woman wearing a headscarf, and how do you think it measures up against feminism?

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  • Zoe @ at 10:40 am, December 30th, 2009

    I have really no authority at all on this issue but I do agree with you, that although it does represent patriarchal control, as long as the woman who wears the head scarf chose to do so, then it is not oppressing.

  • RebJ @ at 12:26 pm, December 30th, 2009

    The way I see it, the hijab and head scarves are not necessarily reducing women’s bodies to a sexual object/reproductive commodity. Outside the west, there are different ideas about public vs. private. Bodies are private, shouldn’t a woman have the choice about who gets to see her body? A woman who chooses to wear a hijab may simply be excersizing her right to privacy.

    The assumption that all Muslim women cover up from men also reinforces negative stereotypes about Muslim men. Where I come from, stereotypes brand Muslim men as hypersexual, rapists, promiscuous, assaulters, etc. Yet another example of how patriarchy hurts men too.

  • ACW @ at 12:27 pm, December 30th, 2009

    I find it interesting that some of my relatives can point to a woman wearing a headscarf and claim that it’s a symbol of the control inherent in a patriarchal religion, but not see the crosses hung ’round their own necks as similar in any way.
    When I see an Islamic woman with her hair covered, or a Mennonite woman in traditional garb, or a nun in her habit… I perceive it as simply an outward expression of her faith and culture. Of course, most women I meet are here in the US, where some level of choice is possible. Granted, women may be ostracized by their families for going against their traditions, but it is possible for them to go their own way and make it in the world. I suppose my view of women in strictly Islamic countries is different because when a nation’s laws adhere to those of the dominant faith, it’s difficult to determine whether there really is any level of choice available to these women.
    To take it to a simplistic level: we are socialized not to speed in our cars, rob from others, murder, or use drugs. Do we actively *choose* not to do these things, or is it just ingrained? One might argue these norms are for refraining from certain actions. Fine: I’m also socialized to cover – at a minimum – about 50% of my body before I go out in public. I select, buy, and put on my clothes without even thinking about it. Is it a double standard that men can go outdoors topless in the summer but I can’t? Yes. Do I *want* to go outside topless? No. Is it really ‘choice’? Perhaps if I were raised in a nudist colony, I’d have a different perspective.

  • Alex Catgirl @ at 3:10 pm, December 30th, 2009

    Much can be said about the hijab, but ultimately it boils down to it being an artefact of a patriarchal religion. Feminism’s ultimate goal is to destroy the patriarchy, so the two things just do not go together.

    Yes, the hijib and/or burka have been singled out in many Western European nations, but that’s because those nations are secular, some staunchly so, thus blatant displays of religious devotion in the public square are vehemently opposed.

    The US is different, we have devout Christian and Jewish nutjobs as well, so it is discriminatory there.

    The other problem with Islamic/Christian/Jewish/Hindu/etc teachings extolling modesty is that they promote girl-on-girl hate and slut shamming.

    I’m attending the University of Chicago, we are suppose to be, in theory, among the crème de la crème of intellectuals, er ummm we act an awful lot like high school cliques.

    Seriously, we fight the culture wars in the classroom when it is warm. I show a lot of skin, the devout Muslim and Hindu girls do not show any – they hate me, I hate them back and so it goes.

    Like I would steal their boyfriends, those guys are looking for docile wifey/mummy things, I wouldn’t date them for all the money on Wall Street and the City of London combined.

  • michelle @ at 5:16 pm, December 30th, 2009

    I think that when women choose to wear the hijab, or headscarf or any other variation, then it is okay. But the keyword there is CHOOSE. And, how can we truly know when a woman has chosen and when she has been forced?
    I know that this is one of the core debates in the headscarf ban fight in France. Some people are claiming that these girls, who are still school age, cannot truly choose to wear it. People of this opinion feel that these girls are influenced by their families or told that they have to wear the headscarf.
    But, if I am not mistaken, in Islamic tradition girls are not supposed to veil until they fully understand what they are doing and are prepared to stay veiled their entire life. So, in this way it was seem that a girl who is only 9 or 13 cannot really be “ready” to choose to veil.
    It seems, in my opinion, that this whole thing comes down to choice and there is no easy solution to the question.

  • Brenna @ at 12:13 pm, December 31st, 2009

    A really good book to read about this topic is Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah. It’s about a teenage girl in Australia who decides to wear the hijab full-time, and it provides great insight into the life of a young Muslim girl.

  • RebJ @ at 7:14 pm, December 31st, 2009

    @Alex Catgirl
    You have just offended a lot of people in a lot of different ways. Non-western men seek out “wife/mummy things” (things!?!)?? Hinduism and Islam teach slut-shaming (how are you an expert on so many religions?)??! Feminism and religion “just do not go together”?? Stop generalizing, simplyfying, and reducing what you do not know.

  • Alex Catgirl @ at 1:15 pm, January 1st, 2010


    Something about assuming comes to mind, where did I say non-western men? Granted most people tend to seek out mates of their own culture, but it’s not a hard and fast rule, never has been.

    Traditional or religious men seek them out as they ascribe to the laughable wifey/mummy/help-mate mentality aforementioned losers are looking for.

    As for defending the Abrhamic faiths, Hinduism, or even Buddhism , how are they not patriarchal? Many religious dumpkins have written apologetic thesisses trying to defend or justifty their sexist…homophobic…anti-modern laughable belief systems from criticisms based on empirical fact, all have failed, so good luck with that.

    I personally do not bother trying to understand the nuisances of other people’s delusions(a/k/a theology), preferring to call them morons before moving on to more important concerns=/

    Why worship gawd/the gods if you can be a Goddess.

  • RebJ @ at 2:56 pm, January 1st, 2010

    @Alex Catgirl

    As an atheist myself, I choose not to wave off the deeply personal issues of religion and faith as other people’s “delusions”. You are free to do so, of course, but can we remember that women also practice these “patriarchal” religions, and not all of them have been brainwashed? Feminism that disrespects the cultural and religious identities of other women has never worked, and never will.

    There are patriarchal elements in society all around us. I’d rather rethink the contexts behind those elements, than reject it solely based on their patriarchal origins.

  • diza @ at 10:46 pm, January 3rd, 2010

    An element to consider is perhaps that in this (western) society Men are expected (and in some arenas required by law) to wear a suit that buttons to the top most button which is a covering of the whole body bar the neck, head and hands and yet women in this society are expected to take a more sexualised and frivalous approach to looking acceptable/attractive and we’ve been taught to think this is us being liberated but actually it is an oppresion of sorts as varying statistics show for example the more attractive a woman is the more likely she is to get a job and being slim and wearing makeup will greatly increase your chance of getting a job from an interview, this is not the case if you are a man.

    Not to say it can’t be an item of oppression or a tool for control of women because it can be but so can a bikini (in this society I actually think attractiveness and purity is the tool men use to oppress women look at all those old gross men with 50+ sexual partners and young hot pure women you see in movies and shows and walking down the street but I digress). As a floating in and out headscarf wearer I can say its just an item of clothing. Nuns wear one, Audrey Hepburn wore one, American apparel sell them, variations of it it are part of many peoples national dress as it is a practical garment for both men and women to wear in dessert conditions and they can be really cute and were all the rage in the 40’s 50’s before all this anti islamic stigmatisation came along. Boo oppresion but definatly yay headscarfs

  • R&R @ at 6:43 am, January 13th, 2010

    Hi My name is Rebecca. I am 34 years old and live in The US. I am engaged to a Muslim man. One day I was taking to my fiance about traditional wedding clothes in his culture. I was raised by a jewish mom and a catholic dad. My fiance sent me a link to a website about Hijabs. My first impression was they are beautiful. I read about the meaning behind them and asked my Fiance if he would like me to wear on our wedding day. He was so touched. I did further research on the meaning behind them. On our wedding day I will be wearing a Hijab out of respect for myself and my fiance and his family. I believe if a woman chooses to wear one it is very different than being told to do so.

  • -Z- @ at 9:04 pm, January 18th, 2010

    @ Alex Catgirl:

    1. “Much can be said about the hijab, but ultimately it boils down to it being an artefact of a patriarchal religion. Feminism’s ultimate goal is to destroy the patriarchy, so the two things just do not go together.”
    – For the record, Islam requires modesty from MEN and WOMEN. The interpretation of the Q’uran is up for CULTURAL debate, which explains why Muslims have differing opinions on the necessity of Hijab. As far as your discussion, Alex Catgirl, of hijab…have you ever given any thought to Hijab as a Western construct of Eastern women’s oppression? Hijab and the Veil is used by western people (women and men) as a culturally uninformed critique of all Muslims. If you ask Muslim women about the oppressions they face in a PATRIARCHAL world that we all share, trust me, “being forced” to wear the veil, is not their primary concern. Muslim women have the same concerns as non-Muslim western women, adequate education, care for their families, access to medical treatment, fairness in the workplace, etc. Your critique of hijab is a stagnant, uninformed critique, which makes YOU, Alex Catgirl, a system of oppression to Muslim women.

    2. “I’m attending the University of Chicago, we are suppose to be, in theory, among the crème de la crème of intellectuals, er ummm we act an awful lot like high school cliques.

    Seriously, we fight the culture wars in the classroom when it is warm. I show a lot of skin, the devout Muslim and Hindu girls do not show any – they hate me, I hate them back and so it goes.”

    -Alex Catgirl. It sounds like you are part of the problem. Why don’t you use some of your “creme de la creme” intelligence and offer yourself to the “other side” as a friend- one that is willing to learn someone else’s point of view.

    You tried to define feminism as a ideology that seeks to deconstruct patriarchy. Aren’t you perpetrating patriarchy by judging “devout Muslim and Hindu” girls who don’t show any [skin]? I think you flatter yourself that these girls think you’re trying to steal their boyfriends.

    Seriously. Do better. Your entire conversation was incredibly disappointing to read.

  • A @ at 10:11 pm, September 21st, 2010

    An **excellent** book to read about the decision to wear the hijab is Does My Head Look Big In This by Randa Abdel-Fattah. It’s standard YA realistic fiction yet educational about modern Islamic culture.

  • DR. ANWER JAMAL @ at 12:07 pm, October 30th, 2010

    Nice article . Please come to my blog if you know hindi .

  • Renee @ at 10:01 am, May 28th, 2011

    @ Alex Catgirl
    your entire comment can be boiled down to assholery as states before the Q’ uran dictates modesty for ALL I have indian and muslim friends it is ultimately there choice as to whethe they cover up or not and in “destorying patriarchy” aren’t you also destroying these womens CHOICE of how they want to live their lives..oh and about that whole ignorant boyfriend comment many indian girls don’t have boyfriends and are in arranged marriages which as hard as that is for you to believe prefer it that way…

  • Ameera @ at 5:45 am, January 15th, 2013

    What the point in a woman wearing a hijab if at the same time wearing jeans or trousers with her bottom showing and lots and lots of facial make-up? This women attract attention, and in my opinion, hijab is not necessary if the woman wears her clothes in a respectable way which means not showing her bits and bobs, wearing a head scarf should be a matter of choice and if i was a religious leader i would definitely BAN it!!

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