Hijab: Ally or Enemy of Women

My cousin shared this clip from The Daily Show on Facebook and it got me thinking.


Does the Muslim practice of wearing a hijab oppress women? 

The woman in the clip argued that drawing a connection between the garment and oppression was in itself offensive. Her argument is based on three assumptions. One, the hijab neutralizes sex appeal. Two, sex appeal is a reliable determinant of female empowerment. Three, we can objectively separate the garment from the custom.My initial reaction to the video was that she made an interesting point. But something didn’t sit right.


If neutralizing sex appeal brought about empowerment, where was the effort to safeguard men’s sex appeal? There isn’t one because men are disenfranchised by class, sexual orientation, and/or race, but not by sexual objectification. That’s our bag and ours alone. So, if every woman walked around encased in a giant beehive, would we all escape sexual objectification? I think not. The mere fact that we have to take special action negates the perceived benefit. Or in other words, what they receive is a false reward because it supports (rather than challenges) the expectation that women don’t inherently deserve access to the same opportunities, that in our natural state we are somehow unworthy.


I think we can go even deeper. Sexual objectification isn’t really about sex appeal. It’s about power and submission. Now let’s consider that in relation to religion. All the major religions struggled to treat women in a way that was equal to men. Men were thought to have a greater capacity when it came to understanding God and his word. So, when the leaders of the world’s most popular religions determined there should be separate rules and customs for women and men and then bound, published, and passed that down to the masses, you have to take that with a heap of salt. Actually, your spider-sense should go off anytime someone uses religious doctrine to justify subjugation of women.


Which brings me to the third assumption, that we can consider the garment apart from the custom and history. I don’t think we can afford to ignore context, not if our goal is to be informed participants of society. But let’s say there is this Berlin Wall between the present and the past. In that case, the original intent of the hijab might be irrelevant if the intent is different now than what it was then. Is it different? Well, the only way that it could be is if the orchestrators of the present-day custom were the women in question. Meaning the Muslim woman who wears a hijab does so of her own volition, not at the behest of her family or mosque or her nation’s laws. Based on her own interpretation of God’s word and the relationship she seeks with him (or her). It’s not inspired by fear or shame or blind obedience. This is the best case scenario, but it still has to contend with points one and two.

The bottom line for me is this: I hold no animus towards the hijab. My problem is with the expectation that any woman must wear it. And no man is ever expected to do so. That said, I also have a problem with school uniforms and yarmulkes and older women trying to shame younger women into modest clothing. I suspect I just don’t like anybody telling me what to do. And I don’t care if that pisses off anybody’s God. My God says that all that external stuff is extraneous anyway.

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