Muslims (along with everyone else) have no right to police personal choice
Religion and spirituality – or lack thereof – are deeply personal issues, and the way that followers practice their faith can change drastically over time according to each individual’s journey. But within many Muslim communities, women are subjected to constant monitoring of their behaviour and are assessed on whether they are ‘Muslim enough’. Despite the irrelevance of community opinion in spiritual matters, the pressure to conform is debilitating for too many women, as ‘Atheist in Hijab’ explains:
Discussions surrounding Muslim women and choice tend to focus only on the initial decision to put on the hijab in the first place. Yet for many of us who chose to wear the hijab at one point in our lives, we only realise the limits of our supposedly free choice when we try to remove it – or when we try to engage in supposedly “immodest” or “impious” behaviour after we have put it on.
As a woman from a strict South Asian, Sunni community, my experience has been that the decision to wear the hijab is celebrated and applauded. Yet once worn, the wearer becomes bound by it; bound by both its presence, and by the modesty doctrine it symbolises. Once worn, the hijab cannot come off, not without intense scrutiny, judgement and pressure – even, and sometimes especially, from women who have never worn the hijab themselves. What’s more, once it is worn, the wearer can reluctantly find herself bound by a higher standard of piety and modesty than other women.
For example, consider these responses and exchanges to a Muslim woman to chose to remove her hijab in one picture, on one day, in solidarity with women across the world who are forced to wear it:
Another example which encapsulates the struggle faced by women who take their hijabs off can be seen in this video, made by a former hijabi who eloquently describes her journey. Some of the comments below the video also provide an excellent example of the sort of backlash women face when they speak out about removing the hijab.
The sentiment that once you wear a hijab, you cannot remove it was all too common when I was deciding whether or not I wanted to wear mine any longer. Sadly, the women who had stood by me proudly applauding the choice to wear the hijab were suddenly telling me that I couldn’t choose to take it off; it was as though the choice to wear it, once made, was forever binding and unilateral, set in stone, never to be reversed or retracted.
I was told by women who had never even worn the hijab themselves that I was just being weak and selling myself to Western fashion, or that I was sacrificing my religion to look good in front of men. I was told by men who had delivered beautiful sermons about how their wives or sisters had chosen to wear the hijab out of their own free will that I had betrayed our community and betrayed God, and that I would go to Hell. I was compared to unwrapped sweets and told I was possessed by a Jinn.
I have always been a feminist who supports the right of women to dress however they choose, and so I felt deeply betrayed by the “sisters” who had stood by me when I wore the hijab, but refused to support or even accept my choice to take it off. I was suddenly treated as a pariah and worse, treated as though my decision meant I had less worth and dignity now than I had before. What happened to never judging a woman’s worth by her dress?
I began to dread going out for fear of being judged and criticised; for a brief few months, I wondered if I really was being possessed or if Shaytaan, the Devil, was whispering my doubts about the hijab into my ear. I fell into a deep depression, and it took years of unlearning the modesty narrative to feel comfortable in my own skin and to accept that I was not a bad person or an attention-seeking whore simply because I wore skirts in the summer or tops which showed my arms. This collective slut-shaming from my wider community may not have been direct force, but it was intended to coerce and pressure me into keeping the hijab on, or at the very least, shame me for having dared to remove it. This is what well-meaning, non-Muslim women who try those “wear a hijab for a day” experiments in supposed solidary with Muslim women completely fail to understand – the hijab is not just a piece of fabric which women can simply whip off our heads when we no longer feel like wearing it; for too many of us, it signals our piety and our worth, and symbolises the modesty doctrine which is then projected to us by our wider communities.
In my own case, the pressure to keep the hijab on is so intense in my family and community that I still have not worked up the courage to let my family know I no longer wear it. Despite the fact that I have been an atheist for the past seven years, I still wear it every time I visit my family. Every female in my entire extended family wears the hijab, and I can’t remember a time in my childhood when I didn’t wear it. So the extent to which it was a choice for me to wear it in the first place is questionable to begin with. I have never liked wearing the hijab, but there was a point in my teenage years when I at least embraced the duty to wear it – even if I didn’t like wearing it, I felt I was fulfilling Allah’s command and that I would be rewarded for this in the Hereafter. Now, that willingness to please and obey God no longer exists, yet I still cannot escape the confines of the hijab, at least on the days when I venture back into my old community.
Women who keep the hijab are not exempt from such judgement and slut-shaming, either. Their bodies, clothing and attire can be judged just as harshly and their behaviour is constantly policed – every “improper” or “immodest” action is carefully watched, subjected to scrutiny and criticism. Consider, for example, the derogatory term “hoejabi” which is used by some to denounce and slut-shame Muslim women who wear the hijab but are still not seen as being “modest” or “pious” enough.
Similarly, the notion that a hijab on one’s head symbolises virtue is just as insulting to Muslim women who choose never to wear the hijab, as it implies that they can never be as pious or virtuous as their hijabi sisters. Yet of course, there are many Muslim women all over the globe whose faith and commitment to God is not determined or diminished by what they wear – or don’t wear.
I am all for the right of adult Muslim women to choose to wear the hijab. But let’s be clear: if that choice is truly free, it must be a choice which works both ways and allows a woman to both wear the hijab and to remove it – and to never wear it at all. As with consent to sexual activity, the choice to wear the hijab means little if there is no corresponding ability or freedom to withdraw that choice at any given time. And in order to create the sort of environment where we are all free to choose both ways, we must look deep within our communities and confront the pressure, judgement and slut-shaming to which too many women who remove their hijabs are subjected.