Khadija Khan argues that coincidence of World Hijab Day, on the 1st of February, with the return of Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran in 1979 in order to, among other things, impose purdah, is a bitter irony. It is a poke in the eye for Muslim women who are fighting for the freedom their Western counterparts enjoy. Muslim women living in democratic states can choose whether to wear a hijab or not. If some are teased or bullied, and part of that includes derogatory reference to the hijab (or any item of clothing targeted), the act itself needs to be dealt with in ways that are appropriate to the context and individual individuals involved. World Hijab Day, as an official policy that celebrates the hijab, ignores the plight of many women who do not want to wear the hijab. They do not live in nations that respect their status as autonomous individuals, and they do not have the freedom of Muslim women who live in democratic states.
The first World Hijab Day took place on February 1st2013. It was the product of New York-based resident, Nazma Khan, who felt that inviting non-Muslim and non-Hijabi Muslim to wear a hijab for a day would foster ‘religious tolerance and understanding’ of why women choose to wear the hijab. Since then WHD has accrued an international network of ambassadors and endorsement from New York State and, in Britain, the House of Commons, in 2017. In Britain, the event was organised by SNP MP Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh who proclaimed WHD to be a celebration of not just religious tolerance but of ‘women’s rights around the world.’ Ahmed -Sheikh is not the only one who thinks that a political promotion of wearing the hijab is good for women. In 2018 the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei tweeted that wearing the hijab would help women avoid sexual abuse. Yet he is head of a country where dozens of women have been imprisoned for protesting against the mandatory imposition of strict dress codes, including the hijab. Ahmed-Sheikh, and others, no doubt support WHD because they think it is a legitimate initiative in combatting prejudice against Muslims in the West, or Islamaphobia, to use the latest neologism. DDU disagrees with this position. DDU supports the right of any woman, as an autonomous individual, to dress as she wishes. But why should Britain, a secular and democratic nation state, officially endorse the hijab, or any particular item of clothing, as a political statement?
1 February 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Tehran from Paris to lead an Islamic revolution. Ten days later, he, in the capacity of Iran’s supreme leader turned Iran into an Islamic theocracy that imposed mandatory hijab laws on women across the board. It is bitterly ironic that WHD falls on the same date. Citizens of America and Britain are called upon to celebrate something that for many in Iran, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, is a symbol of their continued subjugation to men in a way long superseded in Western democracies. In many parts of the Muslim world laws and customs impose the hijab; an act used as a tool to abridge or deny women their basic rights. Women are required to cover themselves from head to toe or face cruel and horrific punishments for not complying, and also if they protest.
Thanks to the British media’s widespread acceptance of claims of micro-aggressions as incontrovertible evidence of racism, we are more likely to hear about offensive and hurtful behaviour than the courageous women who continue to fight for their liberty. Prominent Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul, for example, has been imprisoned where, reportedly, she has been physically and psychologically tortured by electrocution, waterboarding, flogging, sleep deprivation and sexual abuse. Her alleged crime? Defending women’s right to live with dignity .In Egypt, morality charges have been levelled against women for merely posting videos on social media in a clear violation of their right to freedom of expression. An Iranian woman was brutally attacked by the so-called guardian of religious morality in front of a jeering crowd for dancing and not wearing hijab. In Pakistan, a university has made “loose” black abaya with white or black scarf mandatory for female students in a bid to promote ‘modest culture’ in educational institutes. An Indonesian woman was publicly canned for violating religious morality that prohibits sex outside of marriage. A young Afghani female journalist and women’s rights activist, Malalai Maiwand, was killed by ISIS for defying the stereotypical role of a woman in a sexist society.
To draw attention to laws and customs of highly conservative cultures and social orders that promote hijab culture and subjugate women by waging war over their sexuality is not prejudice against Muslim people, or against the religion per se. It is tragically ironic that Malalai Maiwand was named after a late 19th century Afghan heroine who also defied stereotypes of her time: the original Malalai of Maiwand was killed fighting for freedom against the British in the Second Anglo-Afghan War. The original woman faced an imperial enemy; her contemporary namesake faced an intolerant theocracy that espouses archaic ideas of female modesty and sexuality. Women who refuse to comply are labelled as “vulgar”, “whores”, and subjected to inhuman treatment by religious fanatics, including Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other Islamist organisations.
Therefore, it is safe to say that hijab has never been celebrated worldwide as a matter of choice for women of Muslim heritage. Women are coerced, intimidated, harassed , and forced into conforming to such discriminatory traditions that exclude the right of women to refuse to wear it. WHD risks promoting an ideal of the ‘modest woman’ which runs counter to the freedoms women in Britain have won over decades; freedoms that extend to the right of young females to drink, dress, dance, sing, get drunk and participate fully in public life without fear of complete social ostracization or worse. Britain’s liberal culture, weakened as it is at present, includes the right of women who want to wear the hijab. For the most part, women who wear the hijab in Britain do so without incurring the wrath of the state or other forms of social sanction. But while WHD will do little to help those suffering from material inequalities in Britain, it not only risks fuelling cultural divisions and an illiberal culture war, but also overshadows the scorching realities women in many Muslim parts of the world experience every day. As a symbol among the Muslim community, the hijab can represent both women’s oppression for some, and women’s empowerment for others. Our national government has no place in favouring one interpretation over the other, especially in a context where any criticism of the hijab is likely to be called out by the cultural elites as bigoted or racist.
World Hijab Day, as the name suggests, presumes a consensus among Muslims that, in reality, is not the case. For example, in Quebec, some Muslim parents supported province’s ban of religious symbols (known as Bill 21) in a court hearing that protects their children from being exposed to the practice of hijab in schools. They believe that the hijab represents a “pernicious” sexist mindset. It seems that for some Muslim women wearing the hijab is more of a cultural choice than adherence to religion. A parent said, ‘For me the hijab is a symbol of inferiority even if they [the Muslim teachers] say they don’t feel inferior or superior or equal to men. It’s a symbol of inferiority and I insist on that point’. The duties and responsibilities of a state committed to Laïcité are often highly contested; the point here is that WHD, with its interpretation of the hijab as empowering, does not have the consensus that its advocates assume.
There are other Muslim voices that don’t readily receive official patronage from politicians, public officials and cultural gatekeepers. Voices of those of us who remember that oppressed women have long refused to bow to centuries’ old patriarchal definitions of modesty in the face of fear and brutality, and yet today some privileged women celebrating hijab culture are conveniently giving up hard-earned freedoms to comply. The former is courage, the latter is betrayal.
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