Choice, Courage and Cloth: The Chaos of Conflicting Freedoms

The winds of the west blow fierce and aggressive, engulfing all that is on its path. The cloth flutters, flaps and struggles mid-air, in a battle between these fierce winds and the strength of the woman who wears it. I fight, She fights, We fight. To awe the spectacle of the hues of cloth flatter with strength and pride like flags from tall poles. We fight the winds that seek to conquer our freedom.

Women’s rights activists and feminist leaders from across the globe routinely assert that women who wear headscarves are oppressed.

They fail to recognise the various contemporary forces that are hell-bent on stripping us of our freedom – to choose which practices are best for us without having to contend with anybody else’s expectations.

An uncovered head, in my opinion, is not what freedom looks like. On the contrary, compulsory uncovering has been – at different times and places – a tool of oppression.

In recent years, women wearing hijab have been subjected to verbal and physical attacks in western countries. They are at risk of discrimination since association with the Islamic faith automatically projects a negative stereotyping of the religion onto them. As a result of the heightened discrimination, some Muslim women in the workplace resort to taking off their hijab hoping to prevent any further acts of prejudice.

However, this pressure is not just fuelled by the West.

Despite the popular opinion that Muslim men and Muslim nations oppress women and forcefully get them to wear the headscarf, a parallel scenario exists where women have fought to wear the headscarf despite many Muslim majority nations imposing a ban on it. This is seldom highlighted, evidently to suit the interests of the western powers.

In 2015, authorities in Uzbekistan organised a unveiling campaign during which women wearing the hijab were detained and taken to a police station. Those who agreed to remove their hijab were released “after a conversation”, while those who refused were transferred to the counterterrorism department and given a lecture.

Also read: As a Muslim Woman, I Can’t Get a Job Without Giving Up My Freedom of Choice

Kazakhstan has no official ban on wearing hijab, but those who wear it have reported that authorities use a number of tactics to discriminate against them. Near the end of Iran’s monarchy, in an effort to mimic Western societies, “traditional dress styles were discouraged”.

In 2016 in Kyrgyzstan, the government sponsored street banners aiming to dissuade women from wearing the hijab.

Against that history, women are voluntarily covering oneself, despite heightened discrimination that could lead to fewer job opportunities, low pay-offs, decreased chances of promotion.

Despite the high influence of negative stereotypes and contemporary association of negative traits with the dress code by almost all forms of mainstream institutions, to wear it is certainly an act of courage – a symbol of empowerment and determined defiance to subjugation.

For many women, the headscarf is a means of resistance to the standards of feminine beauty that demand more exposure.

Women in hijabs note that employers must interact with them based on their qualifications rather than their appearance and the hijab, therefore, levels the playing field.

Examples of hijab-wearing women such as Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, athletes like fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad who represented the US in the Olympics, Dr. Hawa Abdi, a Somali human rights activist and physician, rapper Mona Haydar, who smashed the patriarchy through hits like ‘Dog’ and ‘Hijabi (Wrap My Hijab.)’ featured in media outlets like Marie Claire, Glamour, BBC, CNN, and Buzzfeed.

Linda Sarsour, political activist and co-chair of the Women’s March 2019 help dispel these stereotypes of the notion that wearing a headscarf is inherently oppressive.

Rushda Fathima Khan is currently pursuing her bachelors in journalism.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty