Hijab and Public Participation of Women in Western Society

What about hijab so intrigues the Western observer? Muslim women wearing hijab are the flag-bearers of Islam when outside private or gender-separated space. There’s a click-click sound on your Aunt’s tongue as she walks by a visibly-Muslim woman in public. The very idea of bringing a non-Western religion into a public space is one that shocks and appalls most Westerners. There are some, even, who object strongly to any show of religiosity. Hare Krishnas at the airport are one thing, but here is a religion seeking to integrate itself within society completely. So before we even consider the hijab as a feminist subject, we must first address it as a religious one. To be anything other than respectful and adherent to the dominant culture is considered strange and inappropriate. Take the African American community, for example. Despite being just as indigenous to the continent as their European-descended compatriots, they are still required to mimic their white neighbors in the style of their hair, for instance, or else face scrutiny and disapproval from the dominant class of society. The African hair-care industry is a billion dollar industry (1).

Muslim women choose willingly to separate themselves from the dominant class. A recent parliamentary candidate in France, Ilham Moussaid,  was ridiculed not because of her politics, but because her politics were presented in coordination with her hijab. It was thought to be impossible to be a feminist and wear hijab – the French citizenry are not completely comfortable with the concept. Therefore she is ridiculed at her “hypocrisy”, and the rest of France must gently remind her to reconsider her oil-and-water mixture of politics and religion (2).

Asserting one’s rights in Western society has become atheistic in nature. This is perhaps why the revulsion of religion is on the upswing. If a Muslim woman explains that she wears hijab because “God has commanded me to,” the listener recoils, unwilling to be reminded that God can micromanage such minutia in addition to the whole of reality. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent and inalienable rights;” states the Constitution. Today’s reality in America is that our inherent and inalienable rights have suffered right along with the acceptance of where they come from – an authority you can’t bargain with.

The second subject is feminism as it relates to hijab. Despite the news stories, shock politics, and open ridicule, I’ve had more than a few women confide to me that they believe hijab is a good idea. There are even women who observe hijab without being Muslim! The relief in going out without exposing your flaws and your vulnerability is a pleasure I’ve enjoyed since my youth. Perhaps I thought I’d grow out of my shyness and discomfort and one day feel perfectly comfortable putting my breasts, thighs, and ass on display. Some feminists argue that the hijab indicates that the hijab is used to make women and society in general feel shame about a woman’s body. On the contrary, I think the opposite is true. Without lanky models on billboards being sold like meat in the market, the incidences of anorexia and bulimia are lower in Middle Eastern or Islamic countries – though this trend is curiously on the rise, perhaps due to the cultural globalization of Western values (3)?

A woman in hijab claims herself as a public actor who has side-stepped the requirement of appearing to conform to Western visual orthodoxy, as discussed above. Women in the West are still reprimanded at work for not wearing makeup or high heels, they are pressured to expose parts of their bodies that men are not pressured to expose. Compare a teetering businesswoman in an A-line skirt, high heels, coiffed hair and flawless makeup to her male counterpart, who stands tall and firm in his suit and tie. Instead of worrying about whether his eye makeup is running, the male counterpart is worrying about his work. Likewise, the Muslim woman in the West who observes hijab is exempting herself from a whole gambit of requirements and worries. Herein lies the real danger of hijab in the West: instead of being a consumer and a sexual object, the woman observing hijab is admitted into public society without being subject to these requirements. By showing women in the West that it is not necessary to dress for public consumption in order to participate in public society, the hijab represents a refuge from Woman-as-Consumer, one of our leading billion dollar industries in the United States and other Western (or Westernized) societies.


(1) http://clutchmagonline.com/beauty/taking-back-the-black-hair-care-industry/

(2) http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/feb/10/french-election-headscarf-candidate

(3) http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/487413

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