Societies Overpowered by a Headscarf: It’s Time for Change

Muslim women in Europe and the United States who choose to wear a headscarf or face veil are placed under tremendous societal pressures almost every day. On the streets, some people look at them as if they are freaks of nature. Many find it difficult to get jobs or even to be accepted as tenants. And in France, women who wear the face veil are now affronted with legal action. Some women hold their heads high and persevere despite all this. Some women find it difficult to cope, they cringe under the heavy fist of society, and they decide to take off their hijab or their face veil and conform to the societal norm. Other women decide that the hijab wasn’t for them anyway and that this is as good an opportunity as any to take it off.

The struggle of the veiled Muslim woman in Europe has reached the hearts and minds of Muslims all over the world, including mine. Her struggle is their struggle. A woman has the right to choose, we all shout. Muslim women do not wear the headscarf/face veil out of oppression, we explain. In so many cases, they wear it as a matter of choice.

A woman, we shout, has the right to choose.

But do we Muslims really believe this or do we use this argument when it suits us?

Do women in Muslim countries – or for that matter do women living in Islamic communities all over the United States and Europe – truly have the right to choose? Does a woman truly have freedom of choice if the societal impacts of that choice have the potential to devastate the very core of her existence?

In recent years in Egypt, a growing number of women are deciding to take off their headscarves. This growing number is still small, mind you it is no phenomenon, but there are enough women doing this that most Egyptians know someone who knows someone who has taken off the hijab. Their reasons for taking off the hijab vary as much as their reasons varied for donning it to begin with. Most of the women I know who have taken off the hijab live in circles of semi-liberal families and friends. This makes the choice relatively easier for these women. Every one of these women, nevertheless, has faced harsh judgment by some family members and friends because they chose to doff the hijab.

These women are immediately analyzed to their faces and behind their backs. Their original reasons for wearing the hijab were the wrong reasons. Her faith is weak. She has been moving in circles of friends who have tainted her soul. She has no proper understanding of the Islamic faith. She has opened too many doors to the devil and this is the result. The list goes on and on. And the snobby advice does as well. We’ll pray for you, dear sister. Remember to keep up your five daily prayers. That will save you. Be careful because you have started down the slippery slope to hell. We will pray to God to protect you and give you guidance.

She is immediately interrogated over and over and over about her reasons to take off the hijab. She is forced to entertain long discussions about the obligatory nature of the hijab in Islam. She is subjected to long explanations about how accepting Islam as a religion means accepting the doctrine. She is not allowed to disagree. She is not allowed to have her own opinion or her own interpretation. She is not even allowed to be uncertain – not really knowing in her heart whether the hijab is obligatory or not and deciding that it was not for her and that she would have faith in God’s understanding.

The woman must be convinced. She must be made to see the light. She must be saved.

The right to choose has all of a sudden gone to hell along with this woman who has chosen to take off her hijab.

These women I refer to above – those living among semi-liberal family and friends – are the lucky ones.

Women who come from more conservative circles barely stand a chance. Mere whispers of uncertainties are strongly guarded and sworn to secrecy. Even in the minds of these uncertain women the devil is made to blame. Should a woman in this situation wish to consider doffing the hijab, it would seem her only choice would be to do so where she is not known. She would need to resort to living a double life. If unmarried, a woman living in a conservative Muslim family who takes off her hijab could face being disowned by her family. A woman married to a conservative Muslim man could face him divorcing her if he does not support her choice. A divorced woman – already looked upon negatively by many members of Egyptian society – who considers taking off her hijab will be seen as a woman gone loose. A woman taking off her hijab could destroy the reputation of her children. And it is very possible that she would not be allowed to raise her own children if her family and spouse decide that this particular action is a sign of heresy.

A piece of cloth – a simple piece of cloth on the head or the face – has come to have too much power over society, whether a woman’s choice is to wear it or discard it.

Everyone is trying to save the Muslim woman; Western society must save her from Islam and Islamic society must save her from Western influence.

No one – NO ONE – assumes that the Muslim woman can make up her own mind about what is best for her.

On February 12, 2011 we woke up to a new Egypt. Change that none of us had expected ever to happen in our lifetimes had happened. A dictatorial regime was removed and there was hope for a better life. But in Egypt and in so many other countries, it is not only political reform that we are in desperate need of. It is also cultural, societal, and religious reform that we cannot do without if we hope to live the lives of freedom that we long for. In Egypt, France, the United States, and so many countries around the world, it is time for a reform of the societal mindset. It is time to give women the right to choose.

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28 comments

  1. Some really striking thoughts in the last three paragraphs. Nice.

    I’m facing writer’s block, but yesterday finally posted something on a personal blog after ages. Thanks, you’ve unlocked something in me :)

  2. Very well said and vital to say it. It grieves to know that in fact 25 to 30 years ago – at the beginning of that unfortunate Mubarak-era – a woman weiring a headscarf could barely be seen in the streets of Cairo. It was the other way round: she was the one stared at, because that was – in Cairo at least – almost exotic. 30 years of dictatorial rule later the tables have turned. People have fled into religious sancturies to somehow survive the perils of the Mubarak repressive regime. The result is the opposite: nowdays it seems as if almost all women in Cairo – with very few exeptions – wear at least the headscarf.
    One should ponder on how this came about in 30 years and why Egypt today is only very timidly thinking about a freedom that once had naturally existed. It is so easy to lose a freedom and so very difficult to restore it.
    Your post says it all: It is now after the toppling of the dictatorial regime high time to get back to a more open dealing with religion. It need no longer be the refugium it was under dictatorship. And urgently needed in a society that lost this value is to respect the woman again not only as an important part of society but much more as a living individual human being with the equal right to make decisions. It is not time to give women the right to choose. It is time to respect (again) that they have it. Both in Egypt and around the world. And if men don’t want to hear this it is time for them to learn to listen.

  3. Hi Nadia,
    I read your fantastic blog “Time for a Confession” and then this one where you speak of Egypt needing different types of reform – I agree and had been thinking about the niqab, hijab etc – my thoughts turned into a blog http://bit.ly/i7xjdv on the subject – I think you might be able to clarify my thoughts on the headscarf that I rambled through? I think what women wear have deeper issues needing to be addressed. Thanks for a great blog!

  4. Excellent and thought provoking article. One is reminded of the images of Afghanistan in the 1960′s. With modern women in modern dress in modern professions. The current practice IMHO is an act of repression and regression. Although I would defend anyones’ right to wear anything (s)he damn well pleases!

  5. I think there are serious problems with your argument. Every country has it’s societal and cultural red lines – this is not unique to Egypt or Muslim societies. Some things may be seen as taboo, such as certain religious disobedience (and i’m not talking about opinions on the hijab – that’s not considered necessarily taboo in Egypt), in Egypt, and is acceptable somewhere else. Just as what might be considered taboo in the United States for example, would be acceptable in Egypt. My point is that, in every society, there are things that are going to make people judge. It’s only human nature. The issue of abortion or even adoption in the U.S for example, is very controversial – and the women who decide to do it are definitely judged by many around them. But just because there are societal pressures to do a certain thing, which there always will be, does not mean they have no choice.

    And lets not compare the women of Saudi Arabia and Iran to Egypt – because we all know that when wearing the veil is codified in law, that’s a very different situation. In that case, yes, we can argue that many do not have a choice – at least those who wear it solely because it is the law.

    You say she is not “allowed” to disagree or have her own interpretation. According to who? How many times have we discussed with other women/men/watched tv/etc and heard plenty of interpretations on hijab and other religious matters? I personally had many discussions with former hijabis and non hijabis and i’m PRETTY sure, they were allowed to, and did in fact, disagree. I think that’s quite an exaggeration.

    I don’t believe societal/cultural pressures justifies the argument that women have no choice – I think it’s an excuse. As women, we are always under pressure to do certain things and be a certain way, and if you succumb to those pressures, instead of your own beliefs whatever they are, well in the end, that’s your problem. There are plenty of women who do not succumb, whether it be strides towards a conservative or liberal lifestyle,- and if they can do it, anyone can.

    1. The writer is correct women in egypt have almost no choice and have to wear the scarf. Most don’t want to but it is virtually impossible to remove. I live in Egypt and am not even a muslim but have been asked to wear it by complete strangers just to conform to their likes.

  6. Hello! I just read your thoughtful essay. I live near the largest mosque in Seattle, USA, but I have never spoken to a woman wearing the face-covering headscarf. While I also suport the right to choose, I think it would creep me out to talk to a woman wearing the hijab. Pictures of women wearing it are disturbing, and I am studying Arabic! And I wonder how someone can be indentifed, by a bank or security person? Fingerprints? I don’t know. How is this handled in Arab societies? Thank you!

    1. It’s normal to be wary of something you aren’t used to or that is foreign to you. But under that face veil is a normal woman. Regarding identification, in most Arab societies there will either be a female security guard available or just any security guard. Most veiled women will not object if they are asked to take off the face veil for a few seconds for purposes of identification.

  7. Great post Nadia. Very well thought of and written. I live in Kuwait. From the 5 veiled women I know closely, one nurse from a certain village in Egypt is veiled because “every woman in our place is veiled, the men of the village won’t have it any other way” .The second because” I want to be closer to God, the Sheikh convinced me of this last time I was in Saudi for Umra”.The third, because ” my husband wants me to”. The forth because ” it is the right thing to do”. The fifth because, ” I don’t want to wear burga like the women of my family/culture so I am wearing a veil”.
    I know many hijabi professional and well educated women. 3 have removed the hijab in the past few years and 2 started wearing it because “it is expected of me in our society”. Many wear it because”it is mandatory in Islam”.

  8. I could relate to every word that you wrote.. This piece is meaningful and inspiring. Thanks for expressing my recent feelings towards hijab and people’s perceptions of myself as a muhajabba! I think this issue is collective now, and whether in Saudi, Egypt, or any other country, we are facing similar experiences as women with hijab, Islamic society and Western influences.. Yes, indeed, it’s time for us to choose for ourselves what suits our current needs & circumstances.

  9. I admit: As a european woman it is easy for me to say: Stand up women and burn your hijabs, veils and burcas and start a selfdetermined life. As feminists did in the sixities when they stopped wearing bras! And there was no one who gave these women any rights. They took them bei theirselves.

    And that is the point. You can´t sit down and say: It is time to give women the right to choose.

    You all have to stand up and just do what you want. Because it is your life!

    And to be honest: Who will this secretive person or institution be who give you the right to choose? A politician, a lawyer, a humanist, an activist, family, friends, collegues?

    No one is going to give you any rights unless you take it by yourself. Your revolution proved that. Mubarak would never have given you any rights. Then you all stood up and took it by your own.

    Ånd don´t forget: It was men who put the women into this embarassing role to wear hijabs etc. And why? Because they regard a woman as a personal belonging. Not as an equal, not as a human being with rights. And this is a very comfortable role für men which they won´t give up easiliy.

    So there is no other choice but standing up and stop this comfort of men on the expense of women.

    1. Feminists never initially burned bras. It was an idea tossed around, and although never practiced, a journalist took it to the press and incited the media fire storm. Of course afterwards it was adopted as a practice, but initially this was not the case.

  10. The reason France took such a bold step is the amount of robberies carried out wearing islamic veil. It could be the reason french has banned it completely. Muslims always are cry babies feeling sorry for themselves and blame everything going against them an act against islam and want special rights. If muslims can decide not to have a church built in saudi arabia then the west can also decide whatever they want as well. Muslims should be happy for having the permission to atleast build mosques.

  11. Also France has not banned the headscarf but the niqab which is a “veil” that covers the entire body and only allows a small slit for the eyes. Furthermore, the law does not ban the niqab per say but rules that people in public spaces must have their face visible so that they may be recognizable.
    That doesn’t sound unreasonable to me at all.

  12. Great post, Nadia! For Western women is difficult to understand the dilemma “to wear or not to wear” the veil, and to know when a Muslim woman wears the veil due to social, religious or family rules, or out of her own mind. I have known Muslim women that had that double life that you mention: wearing the veil in their countries or other Muslim countries, and taking it off in western countries. But was that a double life? Or were they themselves when they felt free of uncovering their heads?

  13. How odd. We are told that in an islamic society, “The right to choose has all of a sudden gone to hell”. In the next breath, people who wish to defend this right to choose are told “No one – NO ONE – assumes that the Muslim woman can make up her own mind about what is best for her.”

    *Given that* the “right to choose” goes to hell, is it so wrong for a westerner to entertain the possibility that a woman wearing the headscarf might not be 100% free in her choice to do so? The continual dripping pity might be a bit annoying, but know one actually knows your personal situation but you. For you to complain that people’s assumptions about you are wrong it to complain that other people can’t read your mind and know, somehow, that you wear the scarf by choice and it’s ok.

    Kinda makes you wish Allah would start paying attention and sort out the whole mess, doesn’t it? Why can’t he just send a bulk email or something?

  14. Been wearing hijab since I was 19. BTW, I’m Malaysian. No such law in Malaysia that Muslim girls/women should wear hijab & yet many of us choose to wear it. Why? For me, men respect me more. Work wise, we share the same equal opportunities with men. As far as I’m concerned never went through something you call gender discrimination. Not that to say it never happened in Malaysia, it does. In Malaysia, we’ve women leaders holding high/key positions not only in the government departments or private sectors but Ministers in the Malaysian Government. Yes, they wear hijab. I don’t see any harm wearing hijab in multiracial Malaysia. Guess we’re blessed! Understanding Islam which also includes reading the Holy Quran with your common sense & knowledge is mandatory for every Muslim. In fact an urgency. Otherwise you won’t be able to co-exist & learn to respect people of different races, culture & beliefs. So read your Al Quran using your logical reasoning.

    1. It depends. I also live in Malaysia but I find myself not in good faith to wear veil. My family is very nice to me, but having to wear veil is not something I am willing to do. Whenever I wear veils, I will always question myself why God obligate this. Or whether veils are obligated by moslems – not by God. Even if I read the Qoran, it explains something different. Where in the Ayaat stated that veils are mandatory? And the aurat definition?

      But in Malaysia, most people are respected whether you are veiled or not. The acceptance of veil is high there. It is good in my opinion, but the issue of moslems in Malaysia is not really good though.

      To author, I still am looking for myself, because I have the belief that veil is not obligatory. I want to take it off, but it s hard. My parents might be sad. The society might hate me. :–(

  15. An excellent article. I truly believe that women could achieve much more in these so called revolutions if they just took off their scarves and burned them in Tahrir Square and demanded equality in all fields. Without this all these revolutions are totally meaningless.

  16. My sister were good at making articles, a God-given capability and to be grateful.

    You wrote about HIJAB but departs from basic rights. As a Muslim sister would know that the hijab has a basic command of Islam. Then try to write an article about HIJAB and depart from the base of Al-Quran (Quran 7:26, 24:31, 24:60, 33:32-33, 33:53, 33:55, 33:59) and am waiting to see if the sound the article will be up to the opinions above.

    At age baligh we faced with the choice of faith: Islam or not. Each has its consequences. Running from the consequences would enter the category class hypocrite.

    HIJAB is the command of Allah, a must  for those who choose Islam as a religion. Any pressure or complexity arising from the devout woman in full hijab is a test that must be passed. HIJAB for Muslims is not an option, but an obligation – a woman wearing it, man is obliged to preserve, teach and supervise. Each one of the Muslims could get a reward or punishment from the command HIJAB, not just women.

    Your opinion will bear a lot of followers, you dare to bear the consequences in the hereafter? Sisters who blessed with good ability in writing by Allah, write something that would be a reward rather than a burden or a punishment for you later.

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