Shaming Women Into (and out of) Hijab

Muslim women wear the hijab for a variety of reasons: worship, convention, or perhaps a desire to exist outside of a reductive male gaze. Often, we are told that we should wear hijab so that we don’t get reduced to our looks anymore and in that sense, it is ironic that the hijab leads to just that — being reduced to what they wear, how they wear it, what color, camel bump or not, turban or not, abaya or not.

It’s frustrating enough that Muslim women have to face policing by non-Muslims regarding whether or not they should wear hijab and how an integration into a “Western” society should be characterized by stripping yourself, quite literally, from your own religio-cultural identities. However, that discussion is for a different day, as the focus of this piece lies elsewhere: I take issue with the policing within the Muslim community — the shaming, the discouraging, the backbiting and the incessant judging. A woman’s piety seems to be dependent on whether or not she wears hijab. And ironically, a woman cannot seem to exist outside the parameters of that hijab. If she wears it, she gets a whole new identity: she is a “hijabi” now, with all the expectations and obligations that somehow come with that. Either she lives up to those expectations and continues her existence on a dehumanizing pedestal that doesn’t leave room for shortcomings or she fails to meet those unwritten standards and is considered a hypocrite unworthy of the hijab she wears. And if she doesn’t wear hijab, then she is a “non-hijabi” and, somehow, must be lacking in her commitment to her faith. This kind of binary thinking is problematic because it disregards any nuance that exists between the two extremes of the perfectly pious “hijabi” woman and the gone astray “non-hijabi” woman.

Firstly, wearing hijab, at least in the context of a society in which it isn’t a social convention, is an extremely personal choice and taking that step requires a lot of strength, courage, and patience. Piety is not the only determining factor. For example, a very pious woman could have a very unsupportive family or a job she can’t lose and hence she might not be able to wear the hijab, while another woman could be of a familial background that had her wear the hijab from a very young age, while she might still be struggling with parts of her faith. I should not have to give these kinds of examples, it’s a given that as Muslims, we have to give others the benefit of the doubt. Nevertheless, many within the Muslim community feel entitled to not only judge but actually police Muslim women based on what they wear or don’t wear. This phenomenon, of course, happens to women everywhere and isn’t unique to the Muslim community, as patriarchy everywhere entitles people to the female body. Yet, it stings a little more because it is justified through the religious rhetoric of a faith that, at its core, teaches mercy and forgiveness. We don’t experience the same kind “concern” in other, more pressing fields of personal spirituality; I have yet to see someone get as upset over a missed prayer as they do over an exposed ankle or a strand of hair peaking through a scarf. That is because prayer is considered as part of ibaadat, acts of worship, and as such, many consider it a personal matter between that person and Allah. Similarly, many of my own mentors have explained to me that hijab, too, falls under ibaadat. However, based on how some Muslims treat it, one might believe that it is actually part of mu’ammalat, civil interactions which deal with things such as interpersonal relations and rights of others. It is difficult to shake the feeling that this discursive miscategorization comes from a subconscious entitlement to the women’s bodies and actions; it’s almost as if we owe our hijab to other people.

Secondly, the kind of scrutiny Muslim women face in their communities regarding the hijab creates a very discouraging and hostile environment. Suddenly, her piety is reduced to how tight her pants are, her level of taqwa measured by the length of her shirt, and don’t forget, “sister, if you’re going to wear nail polish, you might as well not wear hijab at all!” So many women I know don’t start wearing hijab because they don’t want to be judged by their own community while many others have taken the hijab off because they felt that the scrutiny they faced made them focus on the opinions of others more than pleasing their Creator. Every small (or grave) mistake is amplified disproportionately and made out to be a reason why a woman should not wear hijab anymore, why she doesn’t deserve the hijab anymore. The logic behind, “if you’re going to have a boyfriend, you shouldn’t wear hijab” doesn’t work any more than the logic behind, “If you’re going to make money from usury, you shouldn’t pray salaah.” We all sin and being sinners neither excuses nor disqualifies us from following God’s commandments. In other words, being wrong in one area of faith does not mean that you cannot be right in another area of faith. It might well be possible that a person commits every other sin in the book but holds on to one little piece of Islam, whether it is those Muslims who sin in every way but won’t eat pork or the Muslim women who wear hijab but sin otherwise. And if that publicly visible act of worship they hold on to is the only “Islamic” thing that person does, it might just be the last strand holding them on to the deen. And who are we to deny them that link? After all, it isn’t up a stranger in the community who likely barely even knows us (or people close to us for that matter) to proclaim the ways in which we are “allowed” to follow God’s commands. Wearing hijab is not a trophy you get once you have accomplished impeccable piety, it much rather is a single step in a long journey towards that common goal we all have.

Long story short, stop reducing women to their looks and then policing them for them. This goes both ways, as neither the pedestal those of us who wear hijab are put on nor the condemnation of those who don’t is healthy. I know plenty of women who do not (or can not, based on their circumstances) wear hijab who are much better Muslims than I am. And I know plenty of women who are considering taking off the hijab because they do not feel like they can live up to the unattainable standards of beauty, demeanor and values that society sets for them.

This piece is a plea to stop confining us woman to the hijab, to allow us to exist outside of its parameters. Just as it is wrong to reduce a woman to her looks, it is wrong to reduce her to a hijab or a lack thereof. Humans are dynamic, fluid beings with potential for change, improvement, and shortcomings. To reduce a woman’s identity to whether or not she wears hijab and to not allow her to exist outside of that category is not only dehumanizing, it is counterproductive because it pushes far too many away from hijab and, ultimately, the deen.

(A version of this piece was originally published on SalaamCal, which has since become inactive. I decided to republish it after some edits and additions because the phenomenon is still pressing and prevalent.)