Hijab and Islam
In our conversation on Women’s Rights in Islam, we discussed different issues pertaining to not only rights in the Muslim belief system, but also how individuals view the faith. One criticism levied at Islam is that women–in the religion, are told to (and forced to (by governments, family members, or others)), to wear a headscarf. However, as we shall see, this is often inaccurate.
There are many reasons as to why women in Islam choose to wear the hijab. In this article, we shall discuss what these different reasons are. As we shall see, the reasons include political, economic, cultural, and personal.
Why Do Women Wear the Hijab?
Unfortunately, there is often a perception and belief in the West that women who choose to wear the hijab (headscarf) or a form of veil do so because they are oppressed. However, for the vast majority of individuals, they choose to wear the hijab freely, without anyone forcing them to do so.
Below, citing Bullock, we have outlined the various reasons (or meanings behind why) women might wear the hijab.
For a number of women who were not covering, revolutionary politics within their respective countries was a primary reason that individuals choose to don the hijab. For example, in Algeria, many women chose to wear the hijab as part of the anti-colonialist movement against the French occupiers. In Algeria,
“Women of all ages from across the socio-economic spectrum joined in the nationalist struggle, and came to play a crucial role.9 French-educated middle-class urban women, who had been born in the 1930s and who had lived until then without covering, decided to cover to help in the urban guerrilla warfare. As Fanon wrote: “spontaneously and with- out being told, the Algerian women who had long since dropped the veil once again donned the haïk, thus affirming that it was not true that woman liberated herself at the invitation of France and of Gen- eral de Gaulle.” Bullock goes on to note that “The veil served a symbolic and practical role in the Algerian revolution. Its use was dictated by the tactics needed at the time: some women wore European dress so that they could walk around the European city without suspicion, other women put on a veil when it was needed to carry messages or military equipment from place to place without being detected” (88).
The French government continued to portray their rule as one of progress, and Islam as a system of backwardness. In fact, “French-Algerians, campaigning for Algeria to remain part of France, re-enacted colonial attempts to ‘liberate’ Algerian women by making them remove their veils” (89). Acts that had unveiled women publicly only further upset Algerians. The hijab and veil was thus an-anti revolutionary symbol for women in Algeria.
Similar reasons for wearing the veil (chador) were found in Iran. In the 1970s (as noted in the history of Iran), the Shah was becoming increasingly authoritarian. He went after various democratic groups and actors, and continued his oppression through violence, jailings, etc… Plus, his regime was built on ideas of secularization, and many within society criticized the moves away from Islam. Thus, antigovernment groups (which included religious-based activist groups, and also Marxist based groups). For the religious groups, the veil was a symbol of the faith, and also of anti-Westernism. For the Marxists, the chador symbolized a women’s right not to be commodified in a capitalist structure. Both groups saw the veil as an important symbol for their fight against the Shah (Bullock).
A related but slightly different reason for a person choosing to wear a veil is for political protest. Post 1967 in the Middle East, there were concerns about the political and economic conditions of countries (and people were worried about their own country’s conditions). Much of this was driven by the fall of Arab-nationalism in the 1967 War. Following the defeat of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s forces by Israel, this lead to a lot of questioning about politics in the region. This was also an important factor for the rise of political Islamist groups in the region (the Muslim Brotherhood was already popular, but they gained new support during this time period). So, following what many viewed as the end of Arab nationalism, Islamic based identities in the political space increased.
One of the other main reasons that women choose to wear the hijab is because of religion. For many women, the hijab is part of their religious beliefs, and also their religious identity. Some choose to wear the hijab because of a belief that it is duty in the Islamic faith system. The important point here is that there is a desire by women to want to wear the hijab for reasons of faith; in this category, no one is forcing them to do so.
Access to the Public Space
For some women, wearing the hijab allows them entry into the public space, something that they may not have before doing so. For example, in the case of Egypt in the 1980s, women vest that by wearing the hijab, they could still allow for existential male and female roles to be in place, while working; it combined modernization with existing structures of “traditional Islamic rights” in place (Hoodfar, in Bullock, page 99).
Related to this is also access to employment. For some women, they might live in more “traditional” households where a significant other, or other family member may not want them to work outside of the home. However, they may be able to do so if they wear the hijab.
For others, wearing the hijab allows for respect to be given. For some, they have faced many forms of discrimination, and when wearing the hijab, people have treated them differently.
Of course, it is important to say that it should not take a women wearing a hijab to be given the utmost respect. Yet, some women feel that they are not treated the same way by others. They wear the hijab to avoid harassment (Bullock, 2003).
A number of women choose to wear the hijab because it helps them express their personal identity. This could be because they want to express who they are, or the importance of faith to their personal identity. This has also been the case for Muslims in non-Muslim societies, where there is a need for some to show their Islamic identity in a society that not only might not be Muslim, but one where Islam has at times been portrayed negatively. But again, the reason of pride is not limited to Muslim women in the West, but is also the case for Muslims in Muslim-majority societies (Bullock, 2003).
Social Equality; Social Status
Some women choose to wear the hijab as a sign of social equality with other women. As Bullock (2003) writes: “Personal identity is asserted in another way: as a way to declare one’s position in the social hierarchy. This is how covering has traditionally been used, with different social classes using different styles, patterns, and materials. The new covering initially was a rupture in this kind of social meaning since it was a sort of uniform, stressing the egalitarian aims of the Islamic movement. Perhaps it is inevitable that as covering becomes more widespread people will use it as a way to distinguish themselves from others” (108).
Others might do it for the opposite reason; if there is a social status tied to the hijab, then a women might want to go about wearing it for that particular reason. This could also include the cost and/or materials of the hijab.
While we shall discuss the category that some are forced to wear the hijab shortly, many women wear the hijab for cultural reasons. While they are not officially told they must do so, there may be an informal pressure or expectation that the woman wear the hijab. As Bullock (2003) notes, this sort of pressure is found in other places such as the West. While one is “free” to dress how they like, there might be societal pressures to dress a certain way, or criticism if someone does not choose to dress according to what me “custom” in that particular society.
Some are forced to wear the Hijab
It is also true–and of course should be noted–that in some cases, women are forced to wear the hijab. This can be seen in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, in Iran post-1979, in Saudi Arabia, or in territories controlled by the Islamic State. It is a human rights violation anytime someone is forced to wear the hijab, and thus, it is important to speak out against such human rights abuses.
While much of the attention on the hijab in Islam is from the belief that women are forced to wear the article of clothing, we should remember that the vast majority of reasons as to why women choose to wear it is not because they have to, but rather, because, for one reason or another, they want to. The hijab in Islam is an important part of the daily life of millions of Muslim women, and also something not worn by millions of other Muslim women. The important point is to offer the full freedom of an individual to be able to choose what they want to wear. In addition, it would also be a mistake to think that someone who does choose to wear the hijab is being oppressed, when, for them, they might feel that it is a point of liberation, political statement, identity issue, etc…
Bullock, K. (2003). Chapter 3: Multiple Meanings of Hijab, pages 85-135.