Growing up under a matriarchy of Muslim women, it was commonplace to hear the hijab discussed in my household, its history and legacy passed on to me through the stories I was subject to as a little girl. Now, the term 'hijab' has become a part of mainstream political discourse, with negative connotations perpetuated by politicians, the media and popular culture. Hijab-wearing Muslim women are often portrayed as subjugated and submissive victims of a faith that favors the autonomy of men over women. Misunderstood and misrepresented, women are presented as incapable of making their own decisions or speaking their mind.
The twisted irony of this is that the proponents of such stereotypes rarely allow space for Hijabi women to counter their ignorance. We have all seen the television debates and opinion pieces where other people who know very little about our experiences are presented as experts on the intricacies of the headscarf. This article aims to help remedy that, debunking the most common misconceptions about the hijab, from a woman who wears it.
The first- and arguably the most common- misconception about the Hijab is that it is forced on Muslim women. It is also the most offensive; it connotes that we do not have the autonomy to decide that the Hijab is for us, but rather make decisions regarding our bodies to appease the men in our lives, incapable of choosing the Hijab as a symbol of faith and strength of our own accord. Though I cannot speak for all Muslim women, I am yet to meet a Hijabi that wears the headscarf because she is “forced” to. And it is most definitely not why I wear one.
I have worn a Hijab on and off from the age of 4. As a child, I probably didn’t understand the hefty responsibility and profound symbolism of the garment on my head; all I knew was that the two most beautiful and well-dressed women in my life (my mother and grandmother) both wore one and that I wanted some of that sauce for myself. So I begged my mother for one. I still remember the first headscarf I got, my mother giving me a white one-piece Hijab with a pink crown made of delicate lace. It made me feel special. It was a way for me to both find commonality with the women I admired and of avoiding getting my hair done before school.
It was also of my own prerogative that I decided to start wearing the Hijab full time (meaning that I never went out in public without one) at the age of 16. As a young adult growing up in an age of rampant polarisation, the normal identity crisis triggered by hormones and teenage angst, seemed to have even more significance and consequence. I had to figure out who I was, what I stood for and what the many facets of my identity meant to me. A big part of that was understanding my relationship with my faith and God, so I started with the physical manifestation of that; my Hijab. Like my mother, the idea of choosing to step into both my faith and power physically as well as emotionally without compromise was seductive.
The second misconception about the Hijab is the assertion that to wear one is unfeminist, an impediment on a woman's right to determine what she does with her body. This is again not only inaccurate factually, but it also reveals an ideological flaw in the Eurocentric feminism we find in the mainstream media.
To an intersectional feminist like myself, the way in which mainstream feminism only deems the Hijab to be acceptable as a symbol of self-determination for the female body is quite striking. Ideologically, the personal is intrinsically linked to the political in feminism. It is why clothing has always played a major role in the fight for equity. The second wave of feminism in Europe saw the adoption of masculine shapes and colours in clothing, while the objectifying mini-skirts and pastel colours of the '60s were replaced. The “power-suit” - a creation of Anna Klein in the early '70s - amplified the call of this new wave for self-determination and respect in the public sphere. By adopting the silhouettes and clothing of men who are accepted as naturally born providers and leaders and channeling it for themselves, women draw attention away from their bodies not to shun their femininity but rather to draw attention to the capacity of their minds.
The Hijab does the same thing. Just as it should be the right of a woman to wear nothing if she pleases, I have the right to cloak myself in a garment of androgyny because that is how I feel the most empowered. The Hijab is not a tool of Eastern misogyny. Rather it is a tool with which I dismantle the West’s expectations of my femininity.
Written by Ayaan Artan
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