Hijab, “empowerment” and “choice”—the darker side

Audre Lorde famously wrote that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”

In the last post, I examined several reasons why I, and a number of other North American converts I knew in the ’80’s and early ’90’s enthusiastically embraced hijab. We believed it was our religious obligation, we found identity and community through it, hijab allowed us to have a sense that we were actively participating in our religious communities, and it seemed to be a way of laying our issues with our bodies and sexualities to rest.

There is a less sunny side to all this, however.

If I were to try to sum up the darker side of hijab as I experienced it, I would say that while we often felt that we were taking on both the patriarchy of our Muslim communities as well as the patriarchy of the wider society and winning, carving out a place for ourselves to flourish as “believing women,” this was more illusion than reality. We were using the master’s tools, in the final analysis. And, not only did we run up against the limitations of the master’s tools again and again, but we began to slowly realize how our actions often negatively affected other women, who had made different choices—as well as our own children. In the end, I had to leave the confines of the master’s house, both as a matter of physical survival, as well as for reasons of integrity.

In the ’80’s, most of the religious rhetoric about hijab that I was exposed to stressed religious obligation, as well as women’s dignity. Supposedly, hijab would protect our dignity, by focusing (male) attention on us as believing women, rather than on us as female bodies. I don’t remember the word “choice” being used much, because the focus was on how believing women must obey God by putting on the hijab. Most of the authors of this type of the rhetoric on “Islam and women” (including of course how women should dress) in North America were conservative Muslim men, and occasionally conservative women (often though not always converts).  Words such as “choice” and “empowerment” were often shunned in the circles I frequented, largely because it was feared that they would be “misunderstood” as implying that women can choose for themselves how to dress.

But by the early ’90’s, the rising star on the hijabi rhetorical scene was young, usually middle-class immigrant-descended Muslim women, often university undergrads. They increasingly attempted to harness overtly feminist terminology to the hijab debate, partly because they were trying to justify their own decisions to wear hijab to their fellow students, professors, and employers. They often presented hijab as a “choice” that “empowered” them.

At the time, I and many other converts I knew welcomed this new development. After years of reading depressing media stories that equated hijab with oppression (as well as even more depressing ultra-conservative Muslim pamphlets and books presenting the most virtuous woman as the one who entered her husband’s house as a bride and seldom if ever left it until her corpse was carried to the cemetery), this seemed like a breath of fresh air. Now at last we had a language to discuss hijab in what seemed to be a contemporary, woman-affirming and liberatory way. With it, we could both assert the legitimacy of our clothing in the face of the wider society, AND combat the often patronizing and sexist rhetoric on “women in Islam” of conservative Muslim leaders. Or so we thought.

But it is one thing to throw around words such as “choice”, “liberation”, “reclaiming,” and “empowerment,” and quite another for them to have traction in our lives, as we found out.

A very popular article of this type (which until today is all over the internet) is Naheed Mustafa’s “My Body is my own Business” (published in 1993 in The Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper).  It is a good example of the type of rhetoric that I am talking about. Here, I am going to “speak back” and dialogue with it.

Mustafa begins the article by acknowledging that many people likely assume that she is either a terrorist, or a generic oppressed Muslim woman. But, she goes on, women today are “reclaiming the hijab, reinterpreting it in light of its original purpose to give back to women ultimate control of their own bodies.”

This article is actually less about the hijab per se, and more about a young woman of color’s struggle to define her own identity in a modern liberal society that is nonetheless racist and sexist. Which is entirely understandable. But her issues with identity do shape what she has to say about hijab in a number of crucial ways. The claim that hijab’s “original purpose” is to “give back to women ultimate control of their own bodies” is a statement that makes sense as an attempt to assert identity and agency, but it has little or no basis in the Qur’an, or in the hadith, or in Islamic law, or in any other source or religious pronouncement made by Muslim scholars past or even present.

Islamic law as it has historically been interpreted has most often been framed in ways that are intended to prevent girls or women from ever having “ultimate control” over their own bodies. To take but one example, North American conservative Muslim leaders of various stripes until today often understand a woman’s consent to marriage as permanent consent to sexual intercourse with her husband, so many continue to insist that marital rape is an impossibility. The point here is not that Mustafa is ill-informed, or misrepresenting “the truth about Muslim women”—I very much doubt that she was attempting to mislead anyone. Rather, it is a good illustration of the kind of double-think that we were mired in, that the rhetoric about “liberation” and “choice” helped to cloak.

Mustafa goes on to say that the Qur’an teaches that men and women are equal, and the only thing that distinguishes humans in relation to one another is their character. Likely, this is what she means by the claim that hijab was originally intended to give women control of their bodies, but this interpretation would find few conservative takers. For Muslim conservatives, the Qur’an’s statements that seem to present all humans on the same footing before God do not have any social ramifications in this world; simply because God might have a higher regard for X woman because she is more pious than her husband does not at all mean that she shouldn’t have to obey her husband. This is a good example of how we tended to take certain types of rhetorical claims–the alleged equality of all human beings before God—in literal, concrete ways, which conservatives would never agree to. (But the whole “soft patriarchy”/”hard patriarchy” thing is yet another post.)

After discussing the often condescending and exoticizing ways that “mainstream” (presumably white) Canadians perceive and interact with her, Mustafa asserts that wearing hijab “gives me freedom” because girls are taught that “their worth is proportional to their attractiveness.” She sets up a polarizing dichotomy: either girls and women buy into media notions of beauty, spending money on cosmetics and trying (and failing) to make their bodies conform to the latest fashionable notion of what is attractive, or they refuse to use cosmetics, shave their legs, or wear revealing clothes, attracting “ridicule and contempt.” There seems to be no middle way possible; girls and women are apparently forced to choose between the devil (poor self-esteem, internalized self-hatred, eating disorders) and the deep blue sea (scorn, social marginalization).

But wait! Islam has the solution—put on hijab, and force people to deal with you as an intelligent human being with ideas. Because no one can see your hair, or your body, or your stretch-marks, nobody will be concerned with these things when they interact with you.

Mustafa highlights some serious and pervasive social problems. Poor self-esteem, self-hatred, and eating disorders are realities, as is the misogyny and homophobia implied in the all-too-common distaste for women who won’t play the “beauty” game,at least not by “mainstream” rules (She doesn’t shave her legs?! Is she a lesbian, or what?). But issues with self-esteem, self-hatred, and eating disorders also are problems faced by hijab-wearing women, as are misogyny and homophobia. Putting on hijab doesn’t actually take the onus off girls and women to conform to either Muslim cultural OR wider societal ideals of “appropriate” femininity.

As converts, some of us were quite shocked to discover this, especially once we gave birth to daughters. The emphasis on my daughters’ looks, and speculations about their future marriage prospects began when they were still babies. (The conservative Muslims who surrounded me didn’t have the same inhibitionsthat many middle-class non-Muslims did about picking apart a child’s looks in their hearing…) The community’s concern with what they were wearing had little if anything to do with treating them as people rather than objects, and much with trying to limit their abilities to make “wrong” decisions. (But the impact of hijab on our daughters is yet another post.)

As married women, the community pressure on us to “make ourselves attractive for our husbands” was intense. I got lectured by other women on how I did my hair, and what I wore at home. We were expected to keep slim and trim, and to wear cosmetics, jewelry and fashionable clothes in order to please our husbands. We were repeatedly warned (and we read) that if we failed to do this, we were failing in our wifely duties, God would not be pleased with us, and it would not be surprising if our husbands looked elsewhere for sexual pleasure.  Talk about being objectified and reduced to our bodies—and in the name of God, no less.

But because hijab (and all the rules that went with it) were marketed to us as our salvation from either self-destruction or societal rejection, it was much harder for us to see that we hadn’t managed to escape these problems—that in fact, the ideas we were being taught about our bodies and sexualities were exacerbating them. Because, if the thing that was supposed to be our only way out of these problems was itself part of the problem, then where could we turn?? Especially since it had the name of God on it?

Finally, Mustafa states that “Women are not going to achieve equality with the right to bare their breasts in public… That would only make us party to our own objectification.” Rather, she says, women will be equal when “women don’t need to display themselves to get attention and won’t need to defend their decision to keep their bodies to themselves.”

As a mother who breast-fed her children, I think that the common squeamishness in North American “mainstream” culture about women’s breast-feeding is not only objectifying, but makes breast-feeding moms’ lives unnecessarily difficult. Laws preventing women from baring their breasts are often used today in order to banish nursing mothers to washrooms in order to feed their babies—in some cases, even if the mother’s breast is not visible to onlookers. I don’t think that breast-feeding in public (which I often did, discretely) made me a party to my own objectification.

And while in conservative North American Muslim sub-cultures today breasts and breast-feeding are often sexualized, this does not reflect the situation in all Muslim cultures worldwide, even today. I still remember my surprise at seeing a mother openly breast-feeding her baby in a family gathering, with men who were not her unmarriageable relatives present. It was explained to me that the onus was on the men to look away. This was not a liberal family, nor did they come from anything like a liberal society. What this brought home to me is how different cultures construct women’s bodies differently. They didn’t think that a woman feeding her baby is a sexually charged act. If we do, that is not “natural” or “inevitable,” that is cultural.

From the experience of breast-feeding (and dealing with some prudish Muslims’ responses to it), I came to the realization that issues of sexual response, questions of what types of “exposure” are or are not sexual, sexual temptation, our own senses of what is or is not sexual… are cultural. We learned them. They are not graven in stone.

As for the need to “get attention” by “displaying” oneself, unfortunately, hijab does not prevent self-display. Hijab can be self-display in a different mode. Hijabis can be attention-seeking, even exhibitionist in attempting ever-more demanding feats of modesty. Hijabis can also seek attention by being fashionable. And so on. Hijab in my experience was often the entry-ticket needed in order to be taken seriously by conservative Muslims. Women who refused to wear hijab, or who questioned its necessity were often treated as lesser Muslims. While wearing hijab gave some of us a sense of belonging and community, this feeling of being “in” depended on some (the non-hijabis) being “out.”

And finally, the whole notion of hijab as empowering seemed to rest on an implicit contempt for the female body. Empowerment was somehow equated with hiding your body, which meant presenting oneself as a believing woman who supposedly puts spiritual things first. Female spirituality became ethereality. Except when you were being judged in relation to your role as a wife, when your ability to be sexually attractive to your husband was first and foremost.

Finally, I should note that Mustafa dehijabed several years ago at least. But this old article of hers is still being actively circulated on the internet by Muslims. While she has evidently moved on, these ideas still have cachet in the minds of some, apparently.


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  1. #1 by MK on June 8, 2012 - 12:08 pm

    These are great posts and answer the questions I had following your post analysing modesty. I see how women would want to be taken more seriously in more conservative settings such as: mosques, Islamic events, Islamic learning institutes etc, but as a matter of interest did that work? Any initiatives that they may have had, were they given consideration or implemented?

    As you point out that there are many different motivations and wearing a hijab does not automatically mean that the person is conservative in every aspect. Though there is a tendency to assume that about women who choose the veil–I have certainly made that assumption on occasion.

    While I don’t agree with enforced veiling; in some cases it has allowed women to pursue goals that otherwise would be difficult.

    Certainly in many Muslim majority countries such as Iran & the ME the fact that the women veiled gave more conservative families the confidence to let let them study, work and run their own business. Did you find this sort of attitude in any families within your community?

    Some veiled women tend to take another woman’s choice not to veil as a personal affront and outrage. It probably boils down to people wanting validation for their choices and feeling frustrated by others who do not share the same views.

    I am doubtless being quite unkind but when reams of paper have been used to justify just how wonderful, empowering and uplifting the veil is and its supposedly other fabulous qualities; the tone of its ardent champions suggests they are still trying to convince themselves as much as others.

  2. #2 by Saliha on June 8, 2012 - 11:41 pm

    Hijab can be empowering insofar as it reinforces the idea that female bodies do not exist for every man’s sexual enjoyment. It undermines one of the principle ideas of rape culture. Hijab can be oppressive so long as it reinforces the idea that a woman’s body exists primarily for the sexual enjoyment of her husband.

    Unfortunately, the idea that agreement to the marriage contract is an offer of nearly unfettered access to a woman’s body for sex is not limited to “North America conservative Muslim leaders.” It is an idea that is deeply rooted in the fiqh of all Sunni and the largest Shi’a sects of Islam. In short, marriage as it’s been constructed in Islamic jurisprudence is a woman offering a man access to her body for sex (excepting when she is menstruating or engaged in acts of obligatory worship) in exchange for an agreed upon sum of money (mahr/dowry) as well as being fed, housed and clothed according to pre-agreed upon standards. It’s sexual indentured servitude.

    This is also one of those areas where “Islamic” sexism has been recast as feminism. In Shi’a Islam, at least, women have no obligation to cook or clean or engage in any sort of household labor. Women don’t even have to feed their own children! Many believers (often in ignorance) and scholars (with full knowledge) tout this as some sort of liberation for women. What they don’t mention is that the reason women don’t have these obligations is because her sole obligation is to be sexually available to her husband at ALL times, to such an extent that she is sinning if she leaves the house, even to care for a sick or dying relative, if it interferes with her husband’s access to her body. In the fiqh, a married Muslim woman certainly does have rights, but those rights barely elevate her above a beast of sexual and reproductive burden.

    There’s been a patchwork approach to modifying this by some Shi’a scholars that I know, but even their work doesn’t touch the underlying philosophical problem. Well, I think one ranking scholar did work on this, but then in a highly controversial and likely unprescendented move, he was “kicked out” of the ranks of scholars. It’s like having your Ph.d snatched away because your colleagues don’t like your research.

    Hmmm. I guess I will go ahead and make public my post on this.

  3. #3 by xcwn on June 9, 2012 - 1:27 am

    MK–No, not all hijabis are conservative. Not by a long shot.
    To some extent, I would say that hijab allowed us to play roles we might not have been able to play otherwise in the communities I was in, but only up to a point. Our attempts to do practically anything were often vulnerable to someone objecting that it would be immodest—and then we’d be shut down. But that is a whole other post.
    Yes, I agree that some hijabis take non-hijabis’ choices personally. Unfortunately.

  4. #4 by xcwn on June 9, 2012 - 1:37 am

    Saliha—Yes, you are absolutely right; the idea that marriage = a man’s basically unfettered access to his wife’s body is sexual indentured servitude. And this notion is a mainstay of traditional fiqh. (Kecia Ali’s book, _Sexual Ethics and Islam_ makes this quite clear.) But my posts focus on my experiences as a convert in North America, not on a more global view of Islam or Muslims.

    Your comment brings back a whole raft of memories—I well remember the claim made by some (often Shia, but a few Sunni) Muslims that women’s lack of responsibility to do housework, etc. is liberating, and I used to make that argument myself. Talk about intellectual dishonesty. Anyway, that’s another post.

    Please make your own post on this topic public!!

  5. #5 by Chinyere on June 9, 2012 - 5:44 am

    I love this series…it spells out all of my misgivings about hijab while highlighting other gender issues with Muslims. Right on about your assertion about the assumption of hijab because of other sexual issues. Quiet as it’s kept, with my own sexual interests, so to speak, I probably adopted hijab to ensure that I wouldn’t have sex before marriage, haha. Unfortunately, so many aspects of my being Muslim assure that I will never have sex. But that’s a story for my own blog, hahahahaha…

    And the concept of saving oneself for one’s husband…never liked that, didn’t sit right with me, but I hadn’t found anyone else who agreed with me on that except for my very liberal, often agnostic friends who nonetheless found it puzzling that I was waiting, anyway. For me, I said! They didn’t understand, hehe. But the notion of marriage as legal sexual access/ownership of a female body for men…yikes! What’s scary for me as a Muslim woman who desires to sexually express herself at some point with a lawful partner sometime before menopause is that this “lawful” partner may just be in it for the legal sex(ual ownership) as what he thinks is his legitimate right according to contemporary scholarship, and aahhhh the world is scary! 😦

    And it all started with me just trying to be right with God, hahaha…

  6. #6 by al Sudani on June 9, 2012 - 11:15 am

    Ok, I take in everything you said and I understand your statements about the inflexibility of much of the conservative discourse around hijab. However the basic point remains, regardless of how it’s been framed, the order to dress in hijab is clearly outlined in the Qur’an. Surely, this is the primary reason many women choose to wear hijab, especially from places and in situations where there is absolutely no pressure on her to wear it or take it off as in my case.

  7. #7 by al Sudani on June 9, 2012 - 11:21 am

    *In the article you wrote “Muslim” and were referring to a specific incident of cultural bias, maybe saying “culture” and not “Muslim” would be more accurate because the gulf between Islam and culture can be a wide one.

    But you’re generally very careful about the term though, which is commendable.

  8. #8 by MK on June 9, 2012 - 3:55 pm

    al Sudani, with all due respect–thats your interpretation. I am tired of people defensively insisting its in the Quran and that is supposed to end all discourse. If it were quite so clear cut as you imply the entire issue would not be so contentious and rouse strong emotions either way.

    The Quran is pretty vague aside from a comment about covering the bosom. The reason its so vague is that Islam was meant to cross all cultures and be for all people, so that people can decide for themselves what is modest, as this in itself varies across cultures and regions.

    As for dress codes described within the Quran: Taqwa as being the the best of raiments.

  9. #9 by xcwn on June 9, 2012 - 9:21 pm

    Chinyere: Ah, saving oneself for one’s husband… that’s another post.

    al-Sudani and MK: This post is not intended to discuss the questions of whether or not wearing a head-scarf is mandated in the Qur’an, what sort of clothing women “should” wear, etc. There are plenty of other sites on the internet that already deal with all sides of these debates.

    My concern here is to talk about how the teachings that I was exposed to on hijab have worked out in reality, for me, my family, and some other converts that I know. I think that it is important to look at how these theories impact individuals’ lives, acknowledge that the results weren’t always positive, and help people who were harmed by such ideas to move on with their lives.

  10. #10 by MK on June 9, 2012 - 10:03 pm

    Sorry xcwn. Got sidetracked on this issue.

  11. #11 by ashrubhaleeb on June 15, 2012 - 8:25 pm

    There are some amazing posts on your blog :). I have been reading through a few and find myself looking at ideas I have thought or discussed in private but not felt totally comfortable to say in public. I was looking at that bit about hijab being empowering and about hijab making people see you for your mind and not your body. I do wear hijab and do go about as a totally normal being in the little public sphere of my life. I do think modesty is a worthwhile pursuit butI totally agree that the almost competitive aspect of it is ridiculous and I also know I am not invisible. I still wear colours and want to look attractive. I do get influenced by people on both sides of the fence. I dont see hijab as particularly empowering. . . or any clothing for that matter . . . choice is what is empowering. If people ask me I tend to answer that wearing hijab to me is somewhat like a Christian wearing a cross. It can be a comfort and a reminder. I in no way see it as any real measure of piety. I hardly think about it one way or the other in relation to other people. I dont like things being forced on people and I dont like people being put into unnecessary pain or discomfort. Anyway, I am totally rambling. Maybe I have no real perspective on this issue. . . I am a muslim convert who pretty much lives far away from any other muslims besides my husband. So for me everything has been about what I wanted to do and what worked for me. I see lots of stories about other people and what happens to them and even how they are treated by other muslims and it is so frustrating and feels so wrong and I am happy to be away from that. . .but at the same time I do feel a little sad to be missing out on a sense of community. Anyway, I am not sure what my point was but it is amazing how huge the subject of clothing (womens clothing in particular is). As if we dont have enough problems we have to go and add all of this moral weight and pressure to bits of fabric. I suppose it is just part of the human condition. Excellent thoughtful blog by the way 😀

  12. #12 by mark jessup on June 17, 2012 - 3:33 am

    get rid of it it just makes you look like slaves to men and religion..i wouldnt date a woman with hijab because she would want to be treated like a slave and i would only treat her like a lady

    • #13 by xcwn on June 19, 2012 - 3:49 pm

      mark jessup: Wow. You are making a lot of assumptions here. Such as that a woman in hijab would date you. Or that women should want to be treated “like a lady”—personally, I’d much rather be treated like a human being. But your comment does point to a benefit of wearing hijab for women who date men—it might help to weed out guys you’d just rather not date.

  13. #14 by Saliha on June 19, 2012 - 6:30 pm

    Oh Mark, how gracious of you to take time from your day to mansplain to us poor, ignorant women how best to live up to your standards of womanhood. Mark wants to liberate Muslim women from hijab (aka slavery) so that we can date him and be treated like ladies.

    So, here’s the thing Mark, ladyhood is rooted in a classist system that allowed only certain women to be treated with certain kinds of respect, that respect never being equal to the kind of respect deserved by a gentleman. Being a lady is loaded with all kinds of assumptions about sexuality and self-expression that demand more from women than from men while paying out less benefit to women than to men.

    If you’re at all concerned with having quality and mutually fulfilling relationships with other human beings, then treat others with respect, kindness and assume we all want to have equal opportunities to succeed or fail by our own merits.

  14. #15 by Krissa on November 17, 2014 - 6:00 am

    This was an interesting look at hijab. I wear the hijab head scarf, but as a liberal Protestant Christian (an oddity I know), I completely see it as a choice between me and God. It has never been about hiding myself from men, or an obligation of my religion for me. It’s something I choose to bring ME closer to God. There was no pressure, it was all me. I’m not conservative or Muslim and my family is very open minded, so I’ve never really experienced this. Food for thought.

    • #16 by xcwn on November 18, 2014 - 12:53 am

      This was where some of us started out as hijabis—doing it because we thought it would bring us closer to God.

      But it’s not a neutral item of clothing. It’s tied up in a whole bunch of issues, and it’s linked to particular religious communities (and stereotypes about them). Wearing hijab for me meant having to constantly deal with others’ perceptions of me and why I was dressed that way. Since it was such a visible act, and so few women back then wore it where I was living, my scarf could never remain “just between me and my creator.”

      Looking back, I have to wonder why I thought this was something that would bring me closer to God. It had less to do with what the Quran says, and more to do with having grown up and seeing pictures of the Virgin Mary and female saints who were usually wearing coverings over their heads, as well as nuns in habits and Mennonite women in bonnets… and girls at their First Communion or Confirmation wearing veils. So, I associated women’s head coverings with being religiously devoted. But I didn’t ask searching questions about the symbolism of this, whether in Christianity or in the Muslim communities I was coming into contact with. Now, I wish I had asked these questions.

      As far as I’m concerned, people should be free to wear what they want. I don’t blog about hijab in order to tell women what they should or should not wear. Though, I would say that non-Muslim women wearing hijab (as opposed to some other kind of headcovering which is unlikely to be mistaken for a Muslim one) raises a number of issues that I have blogged about before.

  1. Modesty, Body Policing, and Empowerment: The Hijab (Part One) « The Phoenix and Olive Branch
  2. Wortwhile Reads: Hijab Series

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