• Trisha Bhattacharya

Hijabis- Empowered or Oppressed?

Hijab is an Arabic word meaning barrier or partition. Hijab can also refer to the seclusion of women from men in the public sphere, or it may denote the veil which separates man or the world from God.

In Islam, however, it symbolises standards of privacy and modesty in behaviour as well as dress for both males and females.

According to the Encyclopedia of Islam and Muslim World, modesty in the Quran concerns both men's and women's "gaze, gait, garments, and genitalia.

So are hijabs (headscarfs) empowering or oppressive?

To many, Hijab is a style statement, to them it's empowering as it gives them an identity to be confident and comfortable about themselves, to distinguish from others, to uphold their religion and culture and also have a privacy of themself.

Supporters of the niqab (a veil to cover the face except the eye) often highlight the spiritual benefits of the sense of physical closure it creates.

The sense of physical closure attained by the face veil operates both outwards and inwards which can have people turning in on themselves, enabling them to concentrate fully on self-discipline, self-restraint, self-mastery, devotion and prayer.

Wendy Shalit in her book- A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue defines modesty as an empowering and a feminist tool whereby women can, not only accord themselves self respect, but also demand respect from others.

In her TED talk at UVA, A Feminist's Choice to Wear the Hijab, Attiya Latif explains how she considers her hijab as empowering to her as she says, "I'm only showing you what I chose to show you. And the only people who get to see special parts of me are the people who I wish to see to those special parts of me. For everyone else, look at my personality, my identity as an individual, my identity as a fellow human being, regardless of what is on my head and what is not on my head."

But to some, it's oppressive because they are forced to wear the veil, no matter what, since they belong to the Islamic community or in the case of Iran after the Islamic Revolution where every women irrespective of their religion or nationality were forced to wear the veil. On 8 March - International Women's Day - thousands of women from all walks of life took to the streets to protest against the law.

Again, to some Muslim women, it opens up choices and opportunities-

One woman gave the example of her grandmother, who temporarily adopted the burqa to enable her to attend university and have access to public space, education and work.

But the fact that the veil is the only way to enable them to claim modesty without having to radically limit the range of activities they pursue outside their homes feels oppressive to me though.

The moment it remains no more a choice, it takes away freedom and imposes order, it becomes oppressive.

There have been many protests by women against the compulsory wear of hijabs since the Islamic revolution of 1979.

The revolution brought in humongous changes that involved women's dressing habits. In the early 1980s, the new Islamic authorities imposed a mandatory dress code that required all women to wear the hijab.

Before the revolution, the hijab was already widely worn but many women also chose to don Western-style clothes, including tight-fitting jeans, miniskirts and short-sleeved tops.

Women were even detained for attending sporting events like football with men after the revolution. An incident of a Hijabi women getting slapped by a female police authority just because her hijab was loose and didn't fit the societal standards proves how deep-rooted the patriarchy existed there in the name of religion. Basically, most of the freedom women deserved were taken away by the new rule.

Women and men both have been part of movements to protest against the unjust strict law of women mandatorily having to wear the hijab.

It has been 7 years since Iranian Masih Alinejad started a movement - since joined by thousands of women - protesting against the compulsory wearing of the hijab, or headscarf, in her country. It spread on social media and led to an unparalleled demonstrations in the streets.

The post captured a woman driving on a mountain road in Iran, enjoying the simple freedom of feeling the wind in her hair.

Masih, via her post, then encouraged other women, who were very quick to response, to also share their secret moments of freedom.

That was the beginning of #MyStealthyFreedom, a social media movement opposed to the mandatory headscarf.

Some others were- #whitewednesdays, #girlsofenghelabstreet, #mycameraismyweapon

Men in Hijab is a movement in Iran and other parts of the Persian world in which men wear the hijab, or female headscarf, as a show of solidarity with their female relatives and wives. It aims to end the requirement of women to wear the hijab outdoors.

Hear from the men:

"I simply wanted to show that my understanding of honour has got nothing to do with compulsion or forcefully imposing a dress code on women."

"The reason I participated in this new #MenInHijab campaign is that I wanted to offer my own support to the women of Iran who have long been forced to wear the veil.

Women have been forced to cover their hair in public since the Islamic Revolution of 1979."

Leila Khaled, a female member of the armed wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine wore a keffiyeh in the style of a Muslim woman's hijab, wrapped around the head and shoulders. Keffiyeh is usually associated with Arab masculinity, and many believe this act to be something of a fashion statement by Khaled, denoting her equality with men in the Palestinian armed struggle.

Lastly to quote one of my Muslim friends:

" I feel comfortable in my hijab and it's my choice when to wear it. I know of orthodox families who force their girls to wear it but again I know a lot of Hijabis (Muhaajaba) who are very much successful in their lives and are social influencers too, so it depends on one's thinking.

If a person really has the will to do something, a piece of clothing shouldn't affect her."

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