It seems that controversy over the hijab – the Islamic tradition of covering a woman’s hair and body – will not die down anytime soon. Governments such as France and Germany seem to be dead set against it, while theocracies such as Saudi Arabia go the other extreme by forcing women to cover. But ask the average Muslim woman, and she will probably wonder what the fuss is all about. Since when is dress a political statement, even a weapon? FEMEN – a feminist Ukrainian protest group – seems to think it is, and is up in arms over the hijab, declaring April 4 as International Topless Jihad Day. What FEMEN activists perhaps did not expect was that Muslim women who wear the hijab are a tad possessive about their right to wear it, and don’t take lightly to a declaration of jihad (Arabic for struggle) against it.
FEMEN predictably reacted with the following dismissal and trivialization of Muslim women’s concerns:
They say they are against Femen, but we still say we are here for them…They write on their posters that they don’t need liberation but in their eyes it’s written ‘help me.’
More and more this is becoming a childish argument about who knows best for the other party. So here’s a few popular myths propagated by organizations such as FEMEN, debunked for those who really want to know what the hijab is all about, and what it’s not about at all.
Myth 1: Muslim women are forced to wear the hijab.
Fact: The hijab, burka, or any other form of head/body covering is a choice for Muslim women such as me. Many Muslims consider it a commandment of God, similar to prayer and fasting, and its wisdom is rooted in protection and morality. Perhaps that’s why women living in countries with high rates of poverty and crime and low rate of education prefer to cover themselves from head to toe, while those in Europe and America wear only headscarves. While it is true that Muslim women in some countries like Saudi Arabia are legally obliged to cover themselves, that unfortunate situation is an indication of cultural norms, not religious practices.
Myth 2: Muslim women who wear the hijab are dependent, less educated, or not as successful as their uncovered counterparts.
Fact: No research has ever shown that hijab leads to mental or economic retardation. In fact, many Muslim women who wear the hijab report an increase in confidence, higher self-esteem and a greater sense of freedom. Muslim women who dress modestly have been successful in all walks of life, from politics to business and everything in between. They also understand that, contrary to what the entertainment industry would have you believe, nudity is not freedom. It is in fact just another form of oppression and victimization of women.
Myth 3: Hijab and feminism are opposing ideologies, with hijab being a way to suppress and oppress women, and feminism being a way to liberate them.
Fact: The reality is that according to Islam, hijab and feminism are two sides of the same coin. They go hand in hand, with hijab giving women the freedom to go wherever they like, do whatever they want, without feeling dependent upon anyone. Women wearing the hijab are able to study, work, go out and have fun, or stay at home. By giving them that choice, the hijab goes a step further than feminism and empowers women regardless of whether they work or not.
Myth 4: Muslim women who wear the hijab don’t have a voice and need to be spoken for.
Fact: Granted that women in some countries don’t have a voice, but religion has little to do with it. If the hijab was a tool of oppression, the millions of Muslim women who choose not to wear it would be the first to denounce it, and help their supposedly oppressed sisters in becoming free. The fact that only non-Muslim feminists speak out against the hijab makes their actions look downright suspicious.It is also disrespectful to Muslims to malign our religion because of the actions of a few. Muslims agree that those who oppress women in the name of Islam are liars and don’t deserve to be called Muslims. It’s frustrating that twelve years after 9/11 we should all still be saying essentially the same thing. “Bearded men with knives” do not speak for Islam whether they are killing innocent people or forcing women to cover themselves.
What disturbs me the most about this whole fiasco (and no, it’s not the offensive photos) is the way that FEMEN has been making its protest very public, protesting in front of embassies, consulates, mosques and even political gatherings. What exactly are they trying to achieve other than attention? With the exception of Saudi Arabia and Iran, no other country in the world currently makes the hijab legally binding on its female citizens; protesting in front of embassies and foreign offices of nations where large numbers of women don’t cover themselves stinks of political strategy rather than social justice.
The International Topless Jihad Day, in my opinion, is nothing more than a new and more insidious form of Islamophobia. How is this any different than France fining women who wear the veil, or Germany banning the headscarf in schools? Let’s face it, when we base our actions on assumptions, we face the danger of making things worse. Instead of building bridges and giving everyone the right to live (and dress) in the way they want, organizations such as FEMEN compound the view that ‘it’s my way or the highway’.
The reality is that Muslim women, or women of any faith, don’t need to be rescued, and they have avoice with which they can speak if they so choose. Furthermore, in countries where they don’t have a voice, it is not so because of the hijab. If FEMEN really wants to free oppressed women, there are a host of other issues they could work towards… education, healthcare, democracy… and hijabi women will strive (or do jihad) in those causes right alongside them. That’s a promise.