Mainstream hijab fashion dismisses the reality of women’s experiences

hijab colourfulHaving followed news about the onset of global hijab fashion trends and ‘modest’ clothing lines, I am conflicted about whether the normalisation of Islamic attire is a good step forward or whether in reality it dismisses the brutal experiences of some who wear hijab.

When I used to wear it, the idea of putting earrings on, or a attaching a sparkly, colourful chain on my scarf would have been unacceptable, because the whole point of it was to remain modest and deter male attention. But the hijab of the fashion world seems to be little more than a pretty accessory. This raises so many questions for me, because by emptying the hijab of religious meaning there is a dismissal of the fact that many women are coerced into wearing it. I am all for adult hijabi women who truly choose to wear the headscarf to do so in whatever way they want, but I also recognise that perhaps the young girls who follow changing hijab fashions are doing so because that is the only form of self-expression allowed to them within their communities. I am all too aware of the many young girls who are forced to wear it and who now only have the ‘choice’ of a few colourful trends to console themselves with. Does this enforce their subjugation or does it give them an outlet for self-expression?

By way of background, I used to sport the hijab and jilbab in my teenage years as a Muslim. After 6 years I took it off for several reasons, not least because of the fact that I am now an ex-Muslim. Below is a snippet from a journal entry early last year. I wrote it after an incident with my parents, when my mum insisted that I resume wearing it again to hide my ‘disgusting female body’.

“I cannot wear the hijab because it means more than a headscarf. I despise it for many reasons, such as the fact that I am perceived as a sexual object requiring covering. I cannot, for the life of me, separate the ‘cloth’ from all the symbols and representation that comes with it. I cannot wear a hijab because it reminds me of dark days when I was trapped, and I promised myself I would never go into that cocoon again. The hijab comes with expectations and a strict code of behaviour. The hijab incapacitates my ability as a woman to be seen as a human being, to be on an equal standing with a man. The hijab restricts my movement, it makes me hide and feel incapable of socialising in public and with men (without guilt and long stares). The hijab removes my femininity, dismisses my aspirations and desires as woman. The hijab mutilates my sexuality. The hijab makes me feel like a sex object and completely worthless.”

In my opinion I think it is dangerous and misleading for the fashion industry to promote hijab fashion. Of course there is huge demand from some consumers in this spiritual supermarket for pretty hijabs and jilbabs. What the industry forgets – or simply does not care about – is that it removes every bit of meaning and conditioning attached to that piece of clothing. For them it is little more than a money-making strategy, and an irresponsible one at that. When you look into what the hijab means, it is defined as a piece of clothing to cover the awrah, or ‘private parts’. In simple terms, the woman is reduced to awrah and must be covered. Many women around the world are coerced into wearing hijab because their religion dictates that they should – or they will face the burning flames of hellfire. The hijab is a symbol of ‘modesty’ that promotes an unjust purity culture. This means that a woman’s character is judged on whether she is sporting it or not. It is a tool (given legitimacy by religion and promoted by conservative patriarchal cultures) used to control a woman’s behaviour: it is a weapon of subjugation.

I personally am against the idea that hijab can be a mere fashion trend. I feel that it perpetuates a misguided perspective that wearing it is always a choice. I do not support a culture that celebrates hijab and the oppression of many women. I know some hijabis who claim it is, but I find it hard to believe it is a choice when the consequences of not wearing the one for all too many women is the accusation that they are not obeying Allah and that they are destined for hellfire simply for displaying her hair. Or perhaps they are perceived as loose and immodest without appropriate veiling. Nonetheless I am also a secularist, and as such, I do accept an adult woman’s sincere choice to adorn herself in whatever she may wish despite, my personal views against it. But I am strongly against the promotion of hijab for children (such as the hijab Barbie) – this is just plain wrong. Children cannot make a reasoned choice to wear a hijab and neither should their bodies be sexualised.

I had a damn hard time taking off hijab, and I still suffer the shaming consequences of it.

Halima Begum

Halima Begum

Halima Begum is an ex-Muslim, feminist, campaigner for secularism and blogger. Following her decade-long journey of exploring both the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam, as well as Islamism, Halima is now an outspoken advocate of gender equality and secular liberalism. Her study, British ex-Muslims: Negotiating the Essential and the Revolutionary", won the Best Dissertation Award at Birkbeck University in 2014. Halima's core aims are to promote freedom of expression and uphold rights of personal autonomy. She hopes to share her journey and help others dealing with faith-related issues to find a way to live according to their own values. You can follow Halima on Twitter (@thumbalima), or through her personal blog, Tales of Courage (talesofcourage.wordpress.com).

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6 Responses

  1. Garabet Tahmajian says:

    I know one thing for sure, the point is that the burden of male “desire” is put on women,
    and to cover-up this “desire” women are blamed for this, they impose “hijab” , or make it legal and sew it up with religious misunderstood concepts ….
    just to cover-up the real problem in the first place and which is “DESIRE” especially when it turns into an animal desire

  2. Alan Flynn says:

    To briefly state my own position, I perceive the hijab as sexist because it imposes a higher degree of covering for a woman than a man; females are thus by definition, ‘sex objects’. I understand that women who opt to wear hijab do not regard it as sexist. They may wear the scarf for a variety of reasons – religiosity, identity, habit, fashion – and do not draw the conclusion that I have. I think that most anti-sexists who perceive the hijab as sexist will find hijab fashion to be somewhat irritating because in glamorising sexist attire it therefore validates it. On the other hand, the ultra-religious will likely oppose this ‘liberalisation’ because it is a nod toward freedom of choice and may run counter to the aim of deflecting attention from the female form. Whilst regretting that hijabi muslimahs do not see the ‘wrong’ in hijab, I feel that the positive side to hijab fashion is that it does provide more scope for self-expression – better a trendy hijab than a regulation burka – and where a chink of freedom is opened up, there is hope that people will further open their minds to deeper issues of freedom of personal identity and of equality.

  3. Shing says:

    In reality, if you have a pretty face, a hijab is not going to deter male attention. If you really want to deter male attention, wear a moustache! 🙂

  4. Thanks for sharing. it is good to encourage people to comment.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Meh. I thought about this a lot, as someone whose thoughts about hijab changed a LOT whilst studying (and wearing) it for years. To me, saying that because hijab was (and in Islamic practice or texts, often is) oppressive or joined with oppressive ideas, it is inherently “bad”, is giving it too much inherent power. Sex has been a tool of oppression for years – yet we don’t forsake it because of it being associated with rape. Stripping women of the right to wear certain clothing was often a symbol of lower status in many cultures – that doesn’t mean that we should continue to associate it with that and refuse to dress less. Certain colors were often reserved for the wealthy, or for only men, or for only women, in ways that held up loads of elitist structures – yet we don’t forsake those. The reason people don’t like “hijab” is because of what is symbolizes to them, not because of the headscarf in and as of itself – so to me the idea of “hating” the headscarf and what women choose to do with it, doesn’t make sense – hating the system that assigns morality based on covering, does.

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