In my experience, the argument about Muslim women wearing hijab can go to a very simplistic place: either the hijab (or other forms of modest dress) represent a woman’s right to express her own religious choices in her own way, or it is a form of oppression against women which should be combatted at all costs. Unless, of course, it’s an appropriate demand placed on women based on a thousand-year religious tradition which should not be questioned–but I don’t tend to be in spaces where that argument is presented.
Masih Alinejad and Roya Hakakian, writing in the Washington Post, have rethought this argument in a really useful way (this article is also available in Arabic at the link):
There are two vastly different kinds of hijabs: the democratic hijab, the head covering that a woman chooses to wear, and the tyrannical hijab, the one that a woman is forced to wear.
In the first kind, a woman has agency. She sets the terms of her hijab, appearing as ascetic or as appealing as she wishes. She can also wear makeup and fashionable clothing if she likes.
In the second kind of hijab, the woman has no agency. Where we lived, the terms were set by Iranian government authorities under a mandatory dress code that banned women from wearing makeup in public and forced them to wear a baggy, knee-length garment to fully disguise the shape of their bodies, over a pair of pants and closed-toed shoes. For a while, the authorities even decreed the colors that women could wear: gray, black, brown or navy.
Thinking this way moves the question from the hijab, which is just a scarf until it’s draped over a woman’s head, to the question of choice: are you wearing whatever you’re wearing because you want to, or because you are compelled to? What do you risk by not wearing something? (The article authors reference a Saudi activist, “Nasrin Sotoudeh, who has been sentenced to 38 years in prison and 148 lashes after defending the women who have defied the hijab laws”.) Who governs your choices?
Talking about Iran (and Afghanistan, which is facing a potential return of the hyper-misogynist Taliban), Alinejad and Hakakian say:
They also imply (without discussing, since it isn’t their topic) that in the U.S. and other western countries, a hijab can be an act of not just choice but courage in the face of white nationalist violence.
Last week, I was in Sacramento lobbying at the California State Capitol. It was Muslim Day of Action, sponsored by the California chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations. Literally five hundred Muslim residents of California were there to engage with their elected representatives, and most of the women were wearing hijab. I really appreciated seeing the people there.
I have certainly known for a long time about the importance of choice in all areas of life, including clothing and religious clothing; nonetheless, Alinejad and Hakakian have given me a clearer framework to recognize what I am seeing.
Just as Americans must distinguish between violent radicals and ordinary Muslims to successfully fight the former and honor the rights of the latter, so must they recognize that not all hijabs are created equal. [U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan] Omar and other Muslim women who benefit from the freedom that America has bestowed on them are especially well-positioned to speak up for women forced into hijab.
By itself, the hijab is a mere piece of cloth. Tyranny turns it into a symbol of oppression. It is democracy, with its embrace of diversity, that turns hijab into an emblem of power or beauty for those who choose to wear it.