Hijab, the head cover Muslim women wear in keeping with their religious traditions, has become in modern times a politically charged issue in several Muslim countries, and more recently in Europe. In the early eighties, Iran imposed hijab on its female citizens, while Syria banned it from schools during the same period. Syria gradually came to term with the hijab, as the number of Syrian women who chose to wear it increased drastically during the nineties. Hijab is enforced today in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and banned in Turkey. France banned the hijab in 2004, and far right politicians and pundits are calling for similar ban in other European countries, and have already succeeded in doing so in the Belgium city of Antwerp.
The Turkish parliament passed last week a constitutional amendment that practically repealed early constitutional provisions that allowed the Turkish government to ban the hijab from government buildings, universities, and schools in the late nineties. Although the lifting of ban is not in force yet, the confrontation over this issue with secularists who control the military and the courts has already started. Secularist Turks are up in arms, protesting the new amendment, and preparing to challenge it in court
The debate over the hijab is emotionally charged, with secular Turks presenting the move as the first step toward ending democracy in Turkey and forcing all Turkish women to wear headscarf. This alarmist language has clouded the debate and created a sense of panic, as the choices presented are based on the logic of either/or, as if the only choices society can make is that between banning or enforcement the hijab. These are of course false choices, as society can choose neither to ban nor enforce. The third choice is the one available to women in most Muslim countries. In most societies, the decision to wear headscarf, or to take it off, is a personal choice.
Yet, the real problem is not in the decision a woman makes, but in the politicization of that decision. The problem lies in the moral inconsistency and the use of double standards in addressing an issue concerning individual choice and freedom of expression. The only morally defendable position is in denying the state the right to either force or prohibit people to follow practices they genuinely believe to be required by their religious traditions, particularly when these practices do not violate the rights of others.
The argument to ban hijab often rests on a paternalistic attitude derived from the dominant position enjoyed by the group to which the person who advocate the hijab ban belongs. For decades now, anti hijab writers refused to consider it as a personal choice and an individual right, protected under international humanitarian law. Reza Afshari, for instance, insists that wearing the hijab must not be seen as a self-expression of Muslim women, but rather as a symptom of a male-domination culture. He, further, argues that Muslim women have internalized the “male-dominated culture.” He even claims that, in addition to being sub-consciously misguided, Muslim women have another reason for wearing hijab, namely to avoid “those sanctioned practices that permit harassment of women in public, forcing them to comply with repressive norms and rewarding them by according them a marked difference in the ways men treat women in public.”
The argument is both flawed and sexist. It is flawed because it can be equally used to undermine the right of women who chose not to wear hijab by those who could argue that the latter style of dressing is not a personal choice, but is rather influenced by the dominant culture. The argument is, more importantly, sexist as it assumes that women cannot have a mind of their own, and are always vulnerable to manipulation by male members of their society.
Even if we grant, for the sake of argument, that the above assertion is correct, then the remedy cannot by banning the hijah and denying women the right personal choices, in violation of equal protection of the law. The remedy must rely on persuasion, education, and enactment of laws that would empower women to act on their on volition, instead of being forced by the state to wear the headscarf of take it off.
A similar argument was recently made by Cheryl Benard in a report that was published by the RAND Corporation in 2004. Benard refused to see the Muslim headscarf as a religious practice, and chose instead to castigate it as a provocative political statement and a challenge to Western democracy. Benard insisted that the hijab is worn by women preserving old habits. “In the United States,” she claimed, “hijab is typically worn by the following groups: recent immigrants from rural, traditional parts of the Muslim world; fundamentalists; unassimilated traditionalists belonging to the strongly observant minority; the elderly;” and, the author states that when it is worn by “young women,” these women “want to get attention and make a provocative statement in their schools, colleges, or workplaces.”
What is provocative is not that Muslim women are choosing to wear the hijab, but that there are still individuals that lay claim to intellectualism who, in keeping with orietalist strategies, continue to deal with the follower of the Islamic faith as silent objects of research that can be describe and analyzed, but never allowed to define themselves in their own voices. This sad state of affairs has been eloquently highlighted in an article by Manal Omar that was published in the Guardian in April 2007 under the title “I felt more welcome in the Bible belt.”
Manal narrates in the article her ordeal during a short stay in Oxford, England, when she was challenged by an angry man who did not approve of her wearing a swimsuit that covered her body. Not only did the man speak with her in condescending voice, but the newspaper that reported the event with a negative spin refused to interview her, and relied solely on the account of her accuser.
She ellequontly described her painful experience as she was rendered an object of ridicule, and her story utilized as a springboard for attacks on multiculturalism and immigration Muslims. “Looking back,” she wrote, “what disturbed me the most about the debate was that my very identity was reduced to a cluster of cliches about Muslim women. I was painted in broad strokes as an oppressed, unstable Muslim woman. I was made invisible, an object of ridicule and debate, with no opinion or independent thoughts. The fact that I had dedicated the past 10 years to working on women's issues on a global level, led a delegation of American women into Afghanistan in 2003, and put my life on the line in Iraq struggling for women's constitutional rights were clearly beyond anyone's imagination.”
Politicians and pundits who question the right of Muslim women to practice their faith do not only ignore the leadership role they play, but also fail to recognize their capacity to be inspired by their faith. The claim that hijab is worn today by oppressed women is seriously flawed, and is remnant of 19th century orientalism. Many women who chose hijab today are highly educated and actively involved in public life. They include lawyers, journalists, politicians, directors of non-profit organizations, human rights advocates, professors, and leaders of religious groups and grassroots organization.
It is about time that Muslim women’s personal choices are respected and their voices are heard.
Dr. Louay Safi serves as the executive director of ISNA Leadership Development Center, an Indiana based organization dedicated to enhancing leadership qualities and skills. He writes and lectures on issues relating to Islam and the West, democracy, human rights, leadership, and world peace. His commentaries are available at: http://blog.lsinsight.org