Oppression, Violence, and Why Voluntary Hijab is Irrelevant

Claire V
Claire V
May 1, 2018 · 7 min read
Vida Movahed, 31, became an iconic symbol after she was photographed removing her hijab and waving it on a stick in public during the Iran protests, 2018.

As a feminist, the hijab is violence. The fact that some women volunteer to wear enforced religious garb is irrelevant. Whenever a discussion regarding the hijab takes place, there’s a rush to point out two things: one is that women in the West are not mandated to wear the hijab by the state, and that some women volunteer to wear such an item. This knee jerk response has become an accepted truth because it leads to a softening of the idea that forced religious clothing is oppressive. It’s hard to dispute the fact that in Western nations the hijab is state-enforced, but you can argue the scale and harm of internal communal expectations. Forced wear of religious garb is not unique to Islam but the topic at hand is not the bhikkuni nor the habit, it is the hijab. And as we dive into the profundity of how such a simple piece of religious cloth can be devastating to the development of our posterity, it is good to remember that not all violence is physical. In fact, psychological violence can do far more damage on a long enough timeline. And the discard of emotional respect from those who say:“the hijab is culture, values, respect”, have rejected Lundy Bancroft’s famous quote of: “Abuse grows from attitudes and values, not feelings. The roots are ownership, the trunk is entitlement, and the branches are control.”

Dear Reader, have you ever found yourself in a gun control debate hearing the argument: “Well most gun deaths are by suicide anyway, so why all this talk about guns or gun control?” Somehow the fact that one with a gun on hand and chooses in the moment to end their life, negates all other possible meaningful conversation revolving around gun control. As discussed above, this accepted axiom of guns not being so inherently dangerous has dribbled its way into other aspects of cultural apologia, except this time it’s not those clutching their guns. It is instead those clutching their wives, children, and mothers and dragging them into darkness.

The as explained idea of the hijab is female chastity and modesty, a belief that in order to be honored (Both by herself and others), she must cover her hair, neck, chest, and shoulders. This concept is entirely antithetical to feminist ideals. The idea that a woman is not worthy of respect unless she covers and hides herself from society is not freedom, and it’s not female empowerment. I’ll call it what it is: oppression of women. And the poisoned well of hijab-endorsing feminists is not of a benign amount, nor are their actions irrelevant. By sheer numbers, there are more forced hijabis than none, so whichever way a woman finds herself choosing the hijab, she has submitted to these ideas and is now normalizing them. Worse, she calls it empowerment. Submitting, normalizing, volunteering, and making excuses for oppressive ideas does not change the nature of this idea. Any forced clothing that is set to determine a woman’s chastity is a form of oppression. And oppression is violence.

The hijab should be understood with context though, especially through the lens of religious oppression. Any Soldier traveling to Iraq or Afghanistan will tell you there are plenty of female children wandering the roads, uncovered, without any fear. Indeed, the idea that girls will not be honored by other surrounding boys only becomes evident initially at the age of 6–9, with the introduction to the Quran. This demonstrates the intersectionality of the oppression of women, religious oppression, and the begininng of the psychological damage that is done to children. Ironically, in the first verse commanded by Allah in regards to this topic, men were simply told to avert their eyes. (An-Nur, 24:30) However, by this indoctrination, little girls learn that they aren’t worthy of respect unless they cover their bodies, and little boys learn girls arent worthy of respect for the same reasons. While this may not be violence in and of itself, it absolutely leads to it.

We often think of the word “violence” and picture a grotesque bloody scene. The concept of violence is most obvious in this form. It is glaringly evident in Muslim states that some form of violence has occurred when we see women flogged and stoned to death for not covering themselves. It is such a dark and foreign image to the rest of us that it makes religious indoctrination seem unreal, unimaginable. And part of this juxtoposition to the treatment of Muslim women in different parts of the world tends to lead some of us external observers to downgrade our concerns of the oppression of women in some communities in Western nations. After all, how could you possibly compare a woman’s problems in the West to state-sanctioned physical violence against an “unchaste” woman in certain Muslim majority states? Still, as feminists, westerners, and liberals, we must still maintain a critical eye towards religious indoctrination as the harmful and violent thing that it potentially is. But what is psychological “violence”? This is a well detailed and defined concept:

When a parent psychologically harms their child, we call it violence. When a religion psychologically harms an entire population, what what do we call it? We don’t. Somehow when the masses are put on trial, we excuse the damage out of political expedience. The “subtle” damages to our fellow women are forgotten in an attempt to remain at an acceptable level of discord.

But it is a hard term to weild properly. VIOLENCE. And often when used by one party, you are brought into a false equation instantly. “Oh, she has it bad? She’d be killed in X country for not covering her hands!” Equating the two scenarios is normally used to discard one is an attempt to reduce the idea of religious oppression and specifically the oppression of women whose lives depend on covering their faces and bodies. Even then, and this should be noted, it is not guaranteed that any other clause of indecency will necessarily affect your life or well-being. Does someone think the hijab is the extent of the persecution a hijab-wearing woman is under? It is well understood that the Hijab is not necessarily only a physical covering, but one that covers speech, and expression as well. It is a form of the “gun to your head” analogy. Is it violence? Is it forced if the trigger was not pulled? Religious doctrine held by a prescribed threat for apostasy is the invisible gun to your head. As long as you conform, it’s possible you survive. But do we let abductors go free if they didn’t physically harm their victims?

The scale of threat, violence and oppression varies from individual to individual. One may only have to deal with an angry father, one may have to deal with a prepuscent death sentence. Oppression, which manifests in violence, cannot be erased or downplayed simply because not all women are threatened. At the same time, it needs to be said that the hijab, just as the gun, is not doing the killing. But it is the concept of the hijab, and specifically the cultural evolved machinations of the Quran that are inherently oppressive. And oppression does not survive without the threat of violence psychological, emotional, physical, or mental.

Scale is everything. My intention is not to paint a picture where we must ban head covering. Thinking that this conclusion is a natural progression of my line of thinking is simply an overreaction and not my intention. I’m using terms acceptable by psychologists as well as the WHO to amplify the seriousness of this issue for women who are forced to cover, not to malign the ones that choose to do so. I call them irrelevant not because their opinions don’t matter but because it doesn’t help the ones that do require the attention. Many other things are oppressive yet we don’t shy away from being bold and loud about them. For example: forced births. When a woman is forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term and she is threatened with prison if she seeks an illegal abortion, the threat of prison is what makes this oppression violent.

On a smaller scale: you have behaviors such as shaming which, in the right contexts, are considered a form of violence. Continuously telling your teenage daughter that she’s a whore (slut- or body-shaming) if she doesn’t cover herself is a form of abuse and psychological violence. Violence is and will always be a crucial component in the origin and maintenance of oppression. Violence (and the threat thereof) constrains group actions to fight oppression. Thus, violence harms the victims and benefits the correlative privileged social groups. Oppression with no threat of violence is a request.

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