What is it about seeing a woman in a hijab that makes us feel uncomfortable, fearful, or sometimes threatened? Does it represent a radical expression of religion, absolute subjugation to men, or that women are dismissing Western social structures and establishing new gender politics? Whatever it is, the hijab makes people afraid. We fear the thing we don’t understand, but sometimes we fear the thing the media and politicians are subtly (or overtly) telling us we should be afraid of.
On one hand, we realize that there are oppressive systems and governments that restrict what both women and men can wear. Often, these restrictions are framed around religion, values, morality, society and family norms, cultural traditions – and almost always it is a combination of all these frames. On the other hand, it is sometimes these frames that force, or inspire, a woman to choose what she herself will wear and project to her family and her society. As women, we know full well that even in the most ‘free’ societies, women are forced to choose how modest or free they want the world to perceive them. It is a deeply personal choice, and a lot of our choices have to do with our level of courage and our spirit of resistance. Like women’s career choices, we decide how much we will push societal norms – whether we will stay within traditional roles, or whether we have the inner strength to rock the boat and go against tradition. Muslim women face these choices in a more defined, visual way. Sometimes they are rocking the boat when they wear a particular type of hijab or abaya, and sometimes they are choosing to conform on the outside so they can rock the boat in other areas of their lives — at school, at work, through an unconventional hobby, or an economic endeavor.
It is fascinating to consider that these are many of the same choices women activists around the world face. “Will I stand up against this conflict?” she might ask, or “Will I rise up and organize people for equal rights, or for my land, or for a better future for my children?” And equally, whether a Muslim woman chooses to wear the hijab and fights for the right to wear it at her office or school, or whether a Muslim woman wears the hijab and organizes to fight against being imposed to wear it – it’s a fight that Muslim women undertake each and every day. These are complicated choices that they must navigate, and often we, as outsiders, get lost in the policy discussions around perceived fear and threats directed at us.
We asked Muslim women in Palestine about their choices, and whether traditional wardrobe is a form of oppression, freedom of expression, or simply a kind of traditional social custom that publicly affirms a women’s commitment to her religion and her family. The following is an honest and revealing video clip of our conversation with a Palestinian woman in Bethlehem, Abeer Qasim.
Upon watching Abeer express herself on wearing the hijab, we are reminded of the universal experience of women. Abeer speaks about the hijab in two ways; its symbolic representation for showing respect, and its weight, which women carry as a visual symbol of what is “best” for women. Who decides what is “best” for woman? At the policy level, often it is men. At the personal level, it is often women. At the provincial level, it is often male family members, neighbors, and the village busy-bodies!
For women around the world, the choices around dress are common. As in so many societies, men and older women enforce beliefs that if women are ‘free,’ meaning, if they don’t cover up and hide or ‘protect’ their bodies, then they are ‘unsuitable for marriage.’ Certainly, this pressure coming from different directions serves as a strong incentive not to rebel against gender customs. But, let’s consider that sometimes making that choice is a Muslim woman’s carefully thought out strategy. If she chooses a path of least resistance in one area, then she can push the boundaries in other areas — for her job, university, for activism and political work. The hijab is in some ways a physical representation of the deeper, underlying struggles that all women face — the desire to intellectually express oneself in the company of men, and to be truly accepted and respected by society while trying to be yourself and participate to your fullest potential.
We couldn’t resist comparing Abeer’s experience to that of women in the United States. Today, young women are assured that they can express themselves, even in the same way as a man, because in America ‘we are all equal.’ Most women know this is not true, and the evidence lies in the continued disparity between men and women in wages, in the lack of female political, financial, judicial, business, and media leadership, and even in the advanced educational sphere where women hold few senior roles. Could it be then that women limit their sexual and professional choices in part because of the societal implications they might face if they choose to express themselves, — to be ‘free’ and participate as openly as men? Will it make us the ‘marrying kind’ if we choose a particular career field, or dress this way or that, or stand up and fight for our rights and organize our community? We begin navigating these choices at a young age, just like Muslim women do. Women’s dress and what society dictates they wear is a universal way of keeping them in confined roles. Should women cover their bodies because we are implicitly sexual, at risk, and because it’s more acceptable, or should women find ways to see our bodies as a tool of expression and a container of power? Can we do this best by being covered, or uncovered?
The debate never ends, and women, not policy makers, must lead it. And women, both in the West and among Muslim societies, must lead the discussion around dress and fear, dress and freedom, and dress and equal opportunities. Muslim women must lead the fight around dress, if they feel a fight should be waged. They certainly do not need Western powers leading wars against their nations in order to protect women’s ‘freedom’ while leaving them worse off — widowed, displaced, homeless and without security or infrastructure. Why not invite Muslim women into the discussion, into negotiations and post-conflict decision making, especially at the highest levels?
The next time you see a woman in the hijab, consider the activist that lies behind it. Is she fighting quietly, blending into society and forcing her way into other social and political spheres, masked as a conformist? Is she wearing the hijab in defiance of her government’s rules that impose secularism, or is she fighting to be seen as an intellectual rather than a sexual being? Behind the veil, we often see women like us – nonviolent strategists, rebellious visionaries, and women in resistance. And always, we’re looking at an extraordinarily normal girl.
Vanessa Ortiz and Rachel Lynch