by Sagal Khandid
The concept of the hijab has been contested and debated both among non Muslims and mainstream Muslim communities. In the Quran, the term hijab means a covering and in many instances it is not used to describe a dress code for women exclusively but a code of conduct for men and women. For example, the Quran states that men should lower their gaze to prevent them from leering at women, which is referred to as the “hijab of the eyes.” Therefore in this instance we see that it is a code of conduct for men, and the concept of hijab is exercised through their behavior towards women. On the other hand, the Quran refers to the fact that the hijab is a dress code for women. There are many debates on what the hijab should cover and opinions range from the niqab (a face covering) to many people arguing that the hijab does not mean covering the hair but simply wearing loose clothing. This idea of women clothing is topic couched in ideas of gender, religion, patriarchy and xenophobia among other things. However at the center of these discourses, lies the understanding of woman emancipation, which is debated.
Who gets to define what is considered liberation and what is oppressive?
To many Western academics and Feminists, the Islamic veil worn by women is a manifestation of oppression and to remove the veil is a form of liberation. However, the belief in Islam is that a woman is the owner of her body and she controls what she reveals and how much of it and to whom. The various opinions of what constitutes as a hijab illustrates that there is plurality of voices and opinions that attempt to deconstruct the meaning of the hijab.
It is also worth noting that the hijab is not just limited to clothing, however it views the human code of conduct in a holistic manner. For example, to live a dignified life, is more than looking the part, it is manifested in the way a woman walks, talks, in how strong her yes’s are but also in how strong her no’s are. We see Muslim women who choose to wear a veil in various positions and as active and engaged citizens in there communities. Take for example, Nobel Peace Laureate Tawakkol Karman who is known for her tireless efforts in fighting for the equal participation of women in conservative Yemen. Women like Tawakkol and Malala Yousafzai who wear the veil build the definition of liberation on the foundation of their cultural and religious backgrounds and their lived experiences.
This obsession with veiling and de-veiling legislations illustrates that there is a power struggle over the definition of women liberation. Will de-veiling solve the issue of income differences, the feminization of poverty or violence against women in the “Muslim World.” Will it stop the harassment, xenophobia and marginalization of Muslim women in Western countries? Rather if we are to achieve lasting and meaningful change for women regardless of religion, there needs to be constant examination of the structural institutions that uphold gender imbalances both in the West and the “Muslim” world. We need to understand that the word liberation means different things to different women. For women who choose to wear the hijab, it could be an emblem of personal values, a form self identification, an opposition to the objectification of women or an expression of their religious commitment. Ultimately, when we choose to only see the hijab as an extension of oppression, we marginalize veiled women by overlooking their personal commitments, agency and choice to wear it.
About the writer
Sagal Khandid is a graduate student at the University of Ottawa of International Development and Globalization. She is finishing her book on the history of Somalia’s political culture.