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.