Different Feminisms and Hijab

Darby Matt
May 1, 2017 · 5 min read

A video went viral earlier this year of what turned into a debate of what sharia law is, particularly when it concerns women’s rights and hijab. Many in Western culture claim that Islam is a misogynistic religion that forces women to be subordinate to men, especially reviewed through hijab. Hijab (حجاب) is not only a type of head covering, but is also the Arabic word meaning “to cover” or “to veil”. There are two feminist interpretations of hijab, Western/European and Islamic. Interestingly, many of the younger generation living in the Western world prefer hijab when given the choice, and if they don’t hijab, they at least recognize it as an important choice and important to their culture. Hijab is just as important to secular society as it is to Muslim society for the implications the choice hold about these societies.

Western Feminism, also known as feminism because it sets the international norms for equal rights, has a hard time figuring out hijab and its many variations. “The feminist debate over Muslim women’s head coverings reflects the larger ‘feminism/multiculturalism’ debate.” Western Feminism can be used to promote an “assumed superior model of democracy and freedom”. Thus anything that challenges this norm (set by Western standards) is “othered” and posited as not feminist.

Types of Head Coverings

Western standards fear hijab. It is not a part of the norm, and neither is the religion it represents. It appears that head coverings like the hijab or shayla are more accepted because they are more easy to fit into the Western narrative (thinking of Audrey Hepburn and the 50's-60’s having fashionable head scarves). Burkas and chadors are less easy to fit into the narrative, because Western feminism is built on women breaking away from stiff Victorian norms and thus the breakdown of societal dress codes. These various head coverings totally break away from this mold, so it is easy for Western Feminism to see a woman in a head covering and assume she has no agency. “Within the orientalist framework shaping Western representations of the hijab, there is no point in hearing out veiled women’s points of view on the matter since they are assumed to be either coerced by their men into wearing it, or alienated by an overwhelming culture”.

The motivations for Western-raised Muslims to hijab range “from religious observance and modesty, to avoiding the male gaze, resisting sexual objectification and taking control of their own bodies, to asserting a Muslim identity and resisting assimilation”. The direction for modesty and hijab can be found in Chapter 24 of the Qur’an. In it, Allah gives the command to both men and women that they should “cast down their glances and guard their private parts (by being chaste)”; by casting down their glances, they are in use of “hijab of the eyes”. In case studies throughout the Western world, those who wear head coverings or support hijab use justify it through the same verses of the Qur’an.

Sharia, also known as Islamic law or Islamic jurisprudence, is often blamed to be the cause of the subjugation of women to wear head coverings. Sharia differs from the holy books of Islam, as it is created and constructed by man (specifically men) and is not ordained by Allah, and thus leads to cultural interpretations rather than strict religious mandates. Sharia was created because God’s law was not specific and once the Prophet died, there was no one to interpret the word of God. “Islamic feminists distinguish between the sharia itself, which they understand in terms of divine principles, and the laws that are derived from these principles”. Thus it can be argued that forced hijab (as in Saudi Arabia and Iran) is of cultural interpretation and not fully representative of Islam. This is a significant understanding of Islamic Feminism.

A study found that young women who chose to hijab in a Western society (Quebec, Canada) believe that Western women are the ones who are subjected to submissiveness, being objectified through their commodification to sell things (like burgers and perfume). The right to hijab challenges Western Feminism’s ideals of the empowered women, but does not contradict these ideals, resting on the choice of covering up or dressing down. Hijab has been found to legitimize women’s presence on society by discouraging “lewd or disapproving gazes”, which shows the distinction between how Western Feminism and Islamic Feminism takes on challenges to gender equality.

The Right to Cover Up or Dress Down

Islamic feminism is generally grounded in the Qur’an and Islamic practice, and is articulated predominantly… within an Islamic paradigm”. Islamic Feminism can be more effective than Western Feminism in Islamic majority areas, because it uses a paradigm with which Muslim citizens are familiar. Ideals of this feminism can be traced to the early days of the religion and the Qur’an (women don’t take their husband’s last name; hijab can be seen as a legitimizing force of a women’s presence in society rather than being seen as an object).

Western Feminism is viewed as based in modern and developed countries, and being held as such, sets the normative standards. In setting the standard as feminism representing one part of the world, different feminisms, such as Islamic Feminism, are “othered” and not seen as a legitimate route. Other feminisms can be hard to understand when approached in contrast to Western Feminism, thus delegitimizing these feminisms.

The constructs of Western and Islamic Feminism are often seen as contrasting each other and as opposition to each other. This does not have to be true. The choice of hijab illuminates this, because it comes down to choice and agency. Many in the Western world view hijab as subordinating women to men in the Islamic faith. Even when Muslim women say they choose to wear head coverings, Westerners will not believe them because they argue that husbands or fathers are watching over these women so they are obligated to say the right thing. Western Feminism needs to legitimize Islamic Feminism by recognizing that women, of their own agency, choose to hijab. People identify hijab as a source of their empowerment, and provide them with a sense of respect and dignity, as well as allows them to control who has control of their bodies.

Hijab is often seen, in Western Society, as a misogynistic tool used by a sexist religion to subordinate women. In Islamic society, the choice of hijab is a crucial understanding of identity, as well as a choice to legitimize oneself in society. Through analyzing Islamic and Western Feminism, the value of Muslim women, and Islam in general, lay in the Western understanding of feminism and are thus “othered” by Western society. The choice to hijab in secular societies reveals much about both Islamic and Western societies and argues that hijab specifically, and Islam generally, are feminist.

Darby Matt

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Just a little blog-like thing to unpack complex historical, political, and social issues.

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