The Hijab has become a feminist statement

By Sharmen Rahman

Whether Muslim women wear the Hijab or not, the choice has become a statement of defiance. When worn in British or French societies that problematise it as a symbol of oppression, or when not worn in Afghanistan and Iran where it is forced upon women, the defiance itself has become a statement of empowerment. The inconsistency for Feminism is that one defiance is often celebrated, the other is often denigrated

This World Hijab Day let’s celebrate both as the absolute right of Muslim women over their bodies. Both are consistent with female empowerment. Both have become statements of Feminism.

Male policymakers spend an awful amount of time pondering the clothing choices of Muslim women. In recent times, we have seen Muslim women in France being told they cannot cover up, Muslim women in Iran being told they must cover up, and a thinktank in the UK warning that Muslim women and girls may be at risk of covering up.

The Iranian government has introduced new legislation to enable stricter enforcement of the Hijab. The Iranian Government has even deployed the use of facial recognition technology to crack down further on Hijab enforcement. This follows the death of Mahsa Amini who died in custody after being arrested for allegedly breaking hijab regulations. In some cases, even those that have protested following Mahsa Amini’s death have been punished. Male legislators brutally policing women’s bodies and robbing them of their agency.

In 2023, the French government announced that Abayas would be banned in French schools. The reason given was that an Abaya constitutes a ‘religious symbol’. In practice, girls that were wearing maxi dresses and kimonos were turned away from school, the only apparent violation being that they were Muslim and wore it. In effect it was not a ban on an item of clothing, it was a ban on the agency of Muslim women and their Muslimness. Some were even told to wear a belt to “show off their curves”. This is the latest in a series of orders the French state has issued effectively policing what Muslim women and girls can and cannot wear. Again, male legislators policing women’s bodies and robbing them of their agency.

The parallel is clear and yet the response is so remarkably different. Celebrities, commentators, and politicians were quick to show their disgust at the misogyny of Iranian legislators – and rightly so. Many women chose to publicly chop off their hair in solidarity. There was remarkable silence from those very quarters when women and girls in France were having their choices policed by male legislators. This misogyny it seems, is acceptable.

This double standard is not restricted to the French. In the UK, calls for the government to take stronger stances against Iran and Yemen where Hijab is enforced are also coupled with lobbying the government to “refrain from publicly endorsing or promoting any specific religious attire, including events such as World Hijab Day”. This comes from the same organisation.

There is the argument that the Abaya and modest dress is a symbol of patriarchy and thus must be rejected. This projection is made without any real consultation with Muslim women, with no irony lost on the fact that it is largely male policymakers now trying to police what Muslim women put on their bodies. The agency of Muslim women to make this decision for themselves does not seem to be acknowledged.

For Muslim women, it’s simple; ‘our bodies, our choice’.

The freedom that women in Iran are fighting for is the same freedom Muslim women in France are fighting for. The freedom to choose is a right that must be universally respected for all women whether they are fighting for their agency in the US, UK, France, Iran, or Afghanistan.

Women that embrace modest dress are just as deserving of our solidarity as women who reject it. Allyship should not be conditioned upon Muslim women choosing to dress in a certain way; instead, it should be conditioned upon Muslim women being able to choose, full stop. Otherwise, let us not pretend we are standing “for freedom”. We are simply imposing our own views with the added feel-good factor of pretending to champion women’s rights. That is not sisterhood, it is an extension of the patriarchy we claim to despise.

This World Hijab Day should be an opportunity to acknowledge these double standards, to reaffirm our commitment to support a woman’s right to choose, whatever that choice may be.

Sharmen Rahman is Senior Policy Analyst at the Community Policy Forum. She holds a BA in Economics and an MA in International Relations. She has an experienced background in both policymaking and frontline politics with a particular focus on equalities.

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