Wearing the hijab doesn’t have to be about religious dedication. For me, it is political, feminist and empowering
When you think of the hijab, you probably don’t think “political”. Or “independent”. Or “empowered”. Feminist? Certainly not – feminism is far better known for burnt bras and slut-walks than headscarves.
There is much misunderstanding about how women relate to their hijab. Some, of course, choose the headcover for religious reasons, others for culture or even fashion.
But in a society where a woman’s value seems focused on her sexual charms, some wear it explicitly as a feminist statement asserting an alternative mode of female empowerment. Politics, not religion, is the motivator here. I am one of these women.
Wearing the hijab was not something I deliberately set out to do. It was something I unexpectedly stumbled upon as a twentysomething undergraduate, reading feminist literature and researching stories of women’s lives in the sex industry. From perfume and clothes ads to children’s dolls and X Factor finals, you don’t need to go far to see that the woman/sex combination is everywhere.
It makes many of us feel like a pawn in society’s beauty game – ensuring that gloss in my hair, the glow in my face and trying to attain that (non-existent) perfect figure.
Subconsciously, I tried to avoid these demands – wearing a hat to fix a bad-hair day, sunglasses and specs to disguise a lack of makeup, baggy clothes to disguise my figure. It was an endless and tiresome effort to please everyone else.
Sure the hijab was not the only way to express my feelings and frustrations; but knowing that our interpretation of liberal culture embraces, if not encourages, uncovering, I decided to reject what society expected me to do, and cover up.
It was not a decision I made overnight. It took several months of agonising over the pros and cons – will it change the way others treat me? Will I get hot in a headscarf? Is it possible, at all costs to avoid the all-black look?
I rarely discussed the decision with others – I wanted it to be mine and mine alone. Like so many women, my main reservation was the discrimination I might face. Things like looking for a job, or socialising and being judged by others based on prejudices about Muslim women (because now I would look like one) before they even got a chance to know me. And not just the prejudices of non-Muslims, but also the simplistic assumptions of Muslims who think that a veiled woman is a holier woman.
The first day I stepped out in a hijab, I took a deep breath and decided my attitude would be “I don’t give a damn about what you think”. The reaction was mixed. One friend joked that I was officially a “fundamentalist”. Extended family showered me with graces of “mashallah”, perhaps under the impression that I was now more devout. Some, to my surprise (and joy), didn’t bat an eyelid. I was grateful because, ultimately, I firmly believe that a woman’s dress should not determine how others treat, judge or respect her.
I do not believe that the hair in itself is that important; this is not about protection from men’s lusts. It is me telling the world that my femininity is not available for public consumption. I am taking control of it, and I don’t want to be part of a system that reduces and demeans women. Behind this exterior I am a person – and it is this person for which I want to be known.
Wearing the hijab has given me a new consciousness of this. Though my mode of expression may appear Islamic, and my experiences carry a spiritual dimension, there is no theological monopoly on women’s empowerment; I really believe that a non-Muslim woman could do this if she chose to. My motivations have been explicitly political, and my experiences human.
The result has been refreshing. In a world as diverse and changing as our own, the hijab means a multitude of things to the many women who choose to wear it. I speak as a woman who just happens to come from the Islamic faith, and for me the hijab is political, feminist and empowering. This dimension is increasingly important for many women who choose to wear it; it’s a shame it is understood by so few.