Today, I tripped over a modern neo-traditionalist Muslim scholar’s discussion of reasons why hijab is a Good Thing when I was looking for something else.
According to him, there are three main benefits to wearing hijab. First, because women supposedly always dress with the idea of whether or not men will find them attractive (even when they are supposedly dressing in order to impress other women…), hijab protects women from being constantly concerned about the male sexual gaze. Second, because wearing hijab trains the wearer to behave in a chaste and self-disciplined way. And third, because it marks gender difference, allowing women to look like women while not also being sexually alluring to men.
This type of pro-hijab rhetoric was all too typical in the conservative community that I used to belong to. Back then, I used to say similar things when I was asked why I wore hijab. While the argument that it marks gender difference always made me uneasy—after all, if gender differences are so “natural,” why do they have to be highlighted through clothing?—I was very happy to go on about hijab as a shield against the male gaze. As a young woman who experienced street harassment (which had sometimes turned quite threatening…), the idea that I could wear what amounted to a magical harass-repellent suit was appealing. (Even though in my experience, hijab didn’t really repel harassment so much as change its tune—instead of receiving frankly sexual comments, I routinely got told to “go back to where you came from” and worse.)
But anyway. Pro-hijab arguments claiming that hijab averts the male gaze functioned for me as a secular-white-feminist-repellent, because they sounded like an enlightened argument that any social progressive should be able to get behind….
Ok, that was me over two decades ago. Back before we had the internet, with its hijab memes. And looking at those memes, I shake my head and wonder how on earth anyone at all is still able to believe the argument that hijab protects women from the male gaze.
The ideas expressed in these hijab memes are all too familiar, unfortunately—though, when they were taught to us, they were often dressed up in flowery language about “respecting women” and so forth. But when they are so crudely expressed in these cartoonish ways, it becomes easier for me to see their internal contradictions.
It is commonly claimed that hijab is an expression of dignity and chastity. First of all, the idea that a woman’s “dignity” and “chastity” are linked in this way is highly problematic. Are we to understand that a woman is only dignified if she not only behaves “chastely” but wears her chastity on her sleeve? So, a woman who, say, dates is undignified (and therefore can’t complain if she is not treated with respect)?
Positive-sounding words such as “dignity” are being used here in order to conceal a sexual double standard. Women are constantly told to “be dignified” and “respect themselves”, but few people seriously argue that a man who isn’t perfectly chaste and modest is somehow “less dignified” or “not respecting himself”—or, that if he isn’t treated with respect, he has brought it upon himself. Why is it that men’s transgressions aren’t seen as permanent stains on their character, but women’s so often are?
In the end, we believed that what “dignified behavior” is for a girl or woman is determined by the Sharia. But we never really pursued this belief to its logical conclusions. So, we never asked ourselves why it should be “dignified” for a woman to be married to a man who had decided to marry her because he wanted a halaal outlet for his sexual desires, while a woman who decided that she wanted to take her committed relationship with her boyfriend to the next level by moving in together was “not respecting herself.”
We were told that hijab would protect us from being viewed by men in a sexual manner—and that a woman who didn’t wear it had no one but herself to blame if men lusted after her. In fact, she was guilty of a sin because she was tempting them. At the same time, we were taught what amounted to a check-list of conditions that a woman’s attire must meet if it was to be considered “true hijab.”
We soon learned that some check-lists were more restrictive than others. We read (and heard) the arguments about whether a woman’s feet must be covered or not, or if wearing a jilbab is always necessary, or whether a woman should or must veil her face. We read about (and heard) different opinions as to how long a woman’s hemline must be, whether women can wear pants (and if they can wear pants, can they wear jeans…), and whether a woman’s wrists are or are not awra. We were preoccupied at the time with determining what the “right” opinion was on all these (and more) controversies, so that we could wear “proper hijab” and please God. We were also concerned about practicality to some extent. So for example, if a woman’s feet had to be covered when she was out in public even in the summer, how could this be done while remaining as cool as possible? Or perhaps it would be okay to not cover the feet even though we weren’t Hanafis, because following that opinion would make our lives a bit easier?
And so on and on. What we didn’t notice was that regardless of whether we were measuring ourselves against a more or a less restrictive check-list determining “proper hijab,” we were nonetheless forever measuring ourselves in terms of an imagined male gaze, which we had internalized. We told ourselves that this had nothing to do with the male gaze, because what we were concerned with ultimately was obeying God. But coincidentally enough, the gaze that those check-lists had in mind was the male gaze. According to those check-lists, a woman has to always be aware if her clothing is “too” tight, “too” bright, “too” short, “too” fashionable, “too” eye-catching, “too” insufficiently Muslim… mainly, in the judgment of men—the generations of male scholars who had debated and determined these matters, and the male leaders of our community—and to a lesser extent, of a censorious and judgmental community generally.
We internalized that male gaze, and because we had internalized it, we honestly thought that this gaze was our own. Even though, at the same time, we would avoid wearing pretty colors because they were “too attractive”—knowing that the attractiveness was primarily in the imagined eye of men who would judge sisters who weren’t wearing “proper hijab.”
These memes—and there are definitely worse ones online—caricature female bodies, and dissect their attire in a dehumanizing manner. I am not sure how this is significantly different from teenage boys “rating” girls and women on a scale from one to ten. At least such teenage “ratings” don’t pretend to be voicing what God thinks of the women in question.