In honor of Women’s History Month, Fashionably Informed will be focusing on notable women in fashion history, as well as the issues women continue to face today pertaining to fashion.
The hijab, otherwise known as a headscarf, is worn by Muslim women around the world. It indicates a piece of cloth worn on a woman’s head to conceal her hair and occasionally her neck and chest. But it also refers to broader concept of modest dress in which women are required to cover their arms and legs.
In some instances, women wear the burqa or niqab, an example of which is shown below. The former is a full-body covering with only a mesh of semi-transparent cloth covering the eyes. The niqab, by comparison, veils the entire face except for the eyes. Though these religious garments are ubiquitous throughout Islam (the second-largest religion worldwide), they continue to be highly politicized.
As Islamophobia increases at alarming rates in Europe and North America, many countries have begun implementing bans on these garments. In France, where I’m completing a semester abroad, the issue is particularly contested. Since 2011, France has prohibited people from wearing any garment that covers their face in public, including the niqab and burqa.
When it comes to the hijab, though no countries explicitly ban wearing the hijab in public, many prohibit it under certain circumstances. In France again, for example, students are prohibited from wearing the hijab in public schools. Similarly, in Germany, teachers and other civil servants are prohibited from wearing headscarves.
Empowerment or Oppression?
Proponents of such bans cite gender equality and freedom as their motivating factors. To them, the hijab represents a form of female oppression by subjecting women and men to unequal standards of sexual modesty. These critics argue that the hijab places undue emphasis on women’s sexual purity without imposing similar requirements for men.
But what about the other side? Muslim women wear the hijab for a number of reasons. Many believe that the holy book, the Qur’an, mandates women wear the hijab (though a number of Muslims in countries like Bosnia and Lebanon don’t hold this belief). Regardless, the Qur’an mandates modesty for both men and women that encourages many women to chose to cover their hair.
As a result, the hijab can be extremely empowering for many women. It serves as a symbol of their faith and devotion to Islam. It may also serve as a visible marker of group identity and community inclusion.
What’s more, many Hijabis (the colloquial term for women who wear the hijab) state that they feel more comfortable wearing the hijab because it makes them less susceptible to male objectification. For proponents, dressing modestly and wearing the hijab frees women from patriarchal beauty standards by placing the emphasis on their character instead of their appearance.
Here critics often counter that this places the burden of preventing objectification with women rather than men. They argue that unequal standards of modesty fail to hold men accountable for objectifying women and instead blame women. But until this changes, is it wrong to fault women for wanting to prevent their objectification?
Uniformly denouncing the hijab as oppressive is both reductionist and culturally insensitive. It ignores the agency women have in choosing to wear the hijab. As Sarah Yasin describes in the New York Times:
Wearing a hijab isn’t inherently liberating — but neither is bearing one’s breasts. What is liberating is being able to choose either of these things.
Ultimately, that’s what it comes down to. It is important to respect women’s right to dress how they choose. If a woman finds skimpy clothing, a hijab, or anything in between to be liberating, she should be able to wear it.
What do you think about this debate? Is it liberating or oppressive to dress modestly? Or is this not the right discussion to be having? Let us know in the comments below!