Every once in a while you come across an exhortation by a Muslim woman in a hijab urging other women (non-Muslim usually) to wear a hijab so that they can experience the Islamophobia that Muslim women in hijabs experience in the West. Here’s the most recent example: Nilufa Dahlia in Brighton speaks of being harassed for wearing a headscarf and tells other women to put one on for 15 minutes to know what it feels like.
Then, on the other hand, we have other Muslim women in the West testifying that when they took their hijab off, they were subject to abuse and vilification from within the Muslim community, even though they may have been supported by others within and outside it.
— BBC Asian Network (@bbcasiannetwork) April 27, 2017
So, what are we to conclude from these two opposite situations? That the hijab has gone past the territory of being a personal choice and turned into a symbol. But what kind of symbol?
A symbol of personal choice is how the pro-hijab lobby in the West spins it. Yet where is the choice? In some countries, hijab/abaya is mandatory. In some countries, women would be punished for not wearing it. In some countries and communities, the social pressure is so huge or the conservatism so high that women “choose” to wear a burqa or niqab to alleviate that pressure, to gain enough agency to leave the house or go to school or hold a job.
I think we can agree that hijab is not a choice when you’re excoriated for removing it, or punished for not wearing it.
(And don’t get me started about four year old girl children in hijabs or scarves on their heads. “But she has to get used to it, so why not start now” is possibly the worst argument you can make for the willful sexualization of underage girls.)
We’ve got countries in the West that propose burqa bans or niqab bans. They too want to take away choice from Muslim women who feel that it’s their right to dress how they please. So let’s amend our proposition to this:
Hijab is not a choice when you’re excoriated for removing it, or punished for wearing it.
I do not think the hijab should be turned into the universal symbol for Muslim womanhood. There are enough Muslim women in the world who do not wear hijab for this to be an invalid association. Yet it’s becoming lazy shorthand for the portrayal of Muslim women in almost every visual medium around, denying the plurality of women’s dress in Muslim countries and elsewhere. Need to show a Muslim woman? Stick a hijab on a random brown woman and job done!
If you want to show solidarity with a Muslim woman, instead of putting a piece of cloth on your head, find a Muslim woman and talk to her. Reach out and be friends with her. Donate to organizations that support Muslim women in your country or abroad. There are plenty. Read books by Muslim women or about Muslim women, written by Muslim women. Listen to Muslim women. Understand their hopes, aspirations, and dreams.
Wearing what even Nilufa Dahlia says is “literally just a piece of cloth” on your head is lazy. Finding a Muslim woman and attempting to understand her life is harder, but it’s the real path to solidarity, and eventually, understanding.