Unveiled Feminism: Where Does the Hijab Fit?
Alia Bhatt in a still from the movie ‘Raazi’.
Alia Bhatt in a still from the movie ‘Raazi’.

Unveiled Feminism: Where Does the Hijab Fit?

Cultures, through the people that embody them, are constantly evolving into newer heterogeneous versions, adapting to real-life complexities, trends, and sometimes the law. The reason for such changes partly lies in the need to globally work towards the definition of what a new age civilised modern society (should) look like. A place where people from all walks of life enjoy, and stand for, certain basic human rights and standards of living. These ideas of right and wrong encompass all aspects of human life - behaviour, communication, businesses... even clothes. The only question is, who is deciding what these standards are? And on what basis?

The Hijab, a head covering worn by women from the Islamic faith has been a topic of hot debate for a minute now. When it comes to what women wear, you’ll never run out of opinions.

That’s fair - considering half the world’s population is the “fairer” sex. Sure, all good with that. The problem, however, lies in the fact that neither side is willing to listen. Or building towards acceptance. On one side of the ring are women liberators. Deeming it a symbol of patriarchal oppression,a number of European countries have called for a complete ban on the Hijab/Niqab. Some bring up security and lack of dependable identity as a reason, and to be fair, a covered face could potentially cause those problems. Opponents also point out how a number of women are forced into covering themselves, and with it, giving up a part of self expression. The other side, on the contrary, calls it their religious right. They see the discourse as Islamophobic, a way to wipe out Islamic culture and representation from the constantly westernising world. So is Feminism not inclusive of certain sections? Have we really adopted white culture as the sole standard of growth and living - or is there more?

Whether the Hijab is oppressive is an inconclusive discussion. However, a few factors should be considered before we start imposing our values on a whole community. In an age where women have started to take things into their own hands and are constantly climbing ladders of representation and self-sufficiency, we need to trust their narrative.

In an age where movements like #MeToo are changing the way people think, it is important to not be dismissive of a woman’s ability to think and make decisions for herself.

Perhaps the longest standing argument has been that women do not KNOW they are oppressed. However, we fail to consider the fact that the concept of freedom is very subjective in itself. What might be freedom to one person could be captivity for another. Such individuality lies within communities as well - and is perhaps the most human reality of our world. We are all similar, but none of us are the same. Then how do we allow ourselves to make sweeping statements like these, questioning and dismissing the very people we try to “liberate”?

In such a way, liberating women from Hijabs becomes something like the US “liberating” countries to help establish democracy. We all know how that went.

Perception of threat is not a threat.

Another important reality is that rules for women change from border to border. Their bodies are policed by different laws from country to country. While women are forced to cover themselves in countries like Saudi Arabia, acts of violence against women of the Islamic faith are not uncommon in others. Where China is carrying out a mass Muslim-purification that no one is talking about, Japan is selling Hijab kimonos. As people who stand outside the group in question, it is easy to adopt the larger narrative that blares on news channels as our own. The point of movements like #FreeTheNipple isn’t to see every woman walk around bare-chested, it is to give them the agency to do so, if that is what they please. By defining what percentage of your body one can clothe, you only build on women’s oppression by stripping them off a choice they must be allowed to make for themselves, whatever understanding of the world it is based on.

If I can be inspired to wear ripped jeans because a Kardashian wore one, why can’t a girl who is inspired by and follows the Quran as her Vogue choose to cover her head? (God knows I would love that on the days my roots are greasy, but anyway.) By barring women from choosing something as simple as an outfit, we belittle them as human beings, driving them from public settings, further silencing them. A community that is already so misunderstood is further marginalized, alienated, made to feel like the “other”. A lot of times, it is our own cultural illiteracy that drives us to think that the other person is choosing wrong for themselves. But doesn’t that come from a place of superiority and privilege?

Hooma Hoodfar, a canadian scholar wrote about how women in Iran before the Islamic revolution were banned from wearing Hijabs. This forced them to stay indoors, they were driven away from public settings, becoming invisible. For people to truly thrive, they must feel free to be themselves. How are we defining what that should be? We cannot choose which women deserve authority and voice, which women deserve to tell their stories, and which women should be believed. This is against everything Feminism stands for. What good is Feminism if it isn’t inclusive of people from all walks of life?

Another debate against Hijab is that it is an unnecessary declaration of the Islamic identity and does not fit into a secular setting.

But since when does secularism mean the lack of religion? And if it were that, would a nun have to give up her veil, a Sikh man his turban, a Jewish man his kippah?

While helping others up is important, we cannot achieve that by threatening and mocking them. By isolating communities, calling their women oppressed, we do what white Feminism has been doing wrong from the start - not been inclusive. The point isn’t to say one thing is better than the other. What is important, right now, is to give women power. Be it in whatever way they choose. Shoving ideas down people’s throats will only result in retaliation.

The only way we can truly liberate people is by educating them, by giving them access to the rest of the world, by giving them resources to understand and discover themselves, and to finally choose what they think is best and accepting them for it. Time’s up for selective Feminism and woman-bashing. Let’s remember that the next time AR Rahman’s daughter bravely walks up a stage. Give her a mic, hear her speak. All we can provide, is choice, knowledge - and everyone - hair covered or not, deserves that.

(Participate in the second edition of The Quint's My Report Debate and win Rs 10,000. Write an essay on how to fix India and Pakistan's relationship. Submit now)

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