The Complicated Culture of the Hijab

By Ashley Begley

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Several weeks ago, I wrote a piece about the school dress code and how young women were rebelling against the strict rules of “no shoulders, no knees” by wearing crop tops. Their point? They are much more than just their bodies.

But that got me thinking—if young women assume that to “disrobe” is to assert their independence, where does that leave women who choose to wear the hijab, the traditional head covering worn by women of Islamic faith?

Because I do not identify as a Muslim woman, I invited my friend Lina, who was raised Muslim and currently defines herself as a spiritual, moderately practicing Muslim, to sit down and chat with me. Though she herself chooses not to wear a hijab, and though her views cannot be assumed to be the views of every Muslim, she knows the culture of the hijab well as many female members of her family choose to wear the traditional garment.

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Starting off on a personal note, why do you choose not to wear a hijab?

Lina: Well, I don’t wear a hijab because growing up in a majority Christian school, I didn’t want to stick out. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not ashamed of my religion. I just come from the perspective that I don’t want to preface meeting someone new with my religion. If I wore a hijab, they would know right away that I was Muslim and I really want people to get to know me as a whole person first. Especially living in a post-9/11 world, identifying as a Muslim brings with it so many stereotypes and, for some Muslims, that turns them into a target of hate. I guess I didn’t want to be the “token” Muslim. For me, religion is a very personal thing.

Have you ever considered wearing a hijab?

Lina: Yes, I actually wear a hijab when I pray to Allah so that my focus is completely on my prayer. But I have considered regularly wearing a hijab because I’m a “white halfie.” Usually, when I first tell someone I’m Muslim, they end up questioning my religion and my ethnicity because I don’t have an accent or anything. Some Muslims believe that if you don’t wear a hijab, you’re not 100-percent Muslim. It really is a part of identity, and I sometimes feel that by “passing” I’m breaking solidarity with my religious community. It’s weird because wearing the hijab can sometimes bring offensive comments, but I also feel the hijab can be a protective mechanism because it doesn’t leave any ambiguity. I feel it would protect me because it’s a very distinctive identifier and no one would question my religion anymore.

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A lot of people often assume that when a woman wears a hijab, she is oppressed, even to the point that some states and institutions ban the hijab in public places. What are your thoughts on this?

Lina: I wholeheartedly believe that any type of dress is a form of expression and is, therefore, protected under the First Amendment. Orthodox Jewish women wear a wig; Jewish men wear a kippa; it wasn’t so long ago that Christian women wore a veil. So in my view, banning a head covering is an imposition on freedom of expression and of religion. Has the hijab historically been oppressive? It depends on who you ask and in what culture you look at. There are so many different hijabs that mean so many different things throughout the Arab world, so it’s definitely not a uniform piece of cloth. Again, it’s very personal. For some women, it’s a way of being in solidarity with other women. For others, it’s a deeply religious symbol. Some women do feel pressure from other women in their community to wear one. But in the U.S., if you wear a hijab, you have to be a strong woman. You’re going against the grain and are basically in opposition to mainstream principles about what it means to be an independent woman.

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I recently did some research, and this idea of wearing the hijab as a kind of resistance to colonialism kept coming up. Do you think that is still part of wearing the hijab today?

Lina: Yes, definitely. I think some women choose to wear the hijab as a way to keep alive their religion and tradition and history that was passed down to them since the time of the prophet Muhammad. It can serve as a way to keep the culture alive, especially in the face of globalization and whatnot. It can also be a way to go back to your roots, but it’s definitely not an easy thing to do. It takes a lot of self-discipline and, believe me, girls who wear the hijab still judge other girls who wear the hijab. It’s not something you can generalize. Take me, for instance. My choice to not wear a hijab is a personal one, but so many women make the decision in the midst of factors such as cultural context, personality, age, level of religiosity, identification within a culture, and familial pressure.

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Any final thoughts to share on the hijab?

Lina: I guess I really want to challenge the popular rhetoric that surrounds the hijab today. People think Muslim women are oppressed because some women choose to cover their hair, faces, and bodies. But it’s rare that we—and I’m speaking from an American perspective now—it’s rare that we reflect on our own society’s expectations and oppressions. For example, there are many articles that suggest that the expectation for women to fit into a particular dress size is an oppression that is not readily talked about.

I personally don’t think that showing your body is disrespecting it, but there are some Muslim and non-Muslim women who choose to dress modestly because they view their body as a sacred temple that is not to be “consumed” by the male gaze.

Of course, it is important to acknowledge that in some historical perspectives the feminine was considered shameful and thus needed to be covered. This viewpoint, though still around, I think has largely shifted to one of women’s choices. Some women focus less on their physical appearance because they are covered, and this allows them to focus on other priorities. Some women wear the hijab as a dis-invitation to look at their body. Still, others wear the best designer hijabs with full-on makeup and six inch heels. The hijab really is so versatile and so personal.

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All photos courtesy of Wikimedia.org.

 

 

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