All societies have guidelines for appropriate dress in public spheres, whether explicit or implicit. Islam’s version of these guidelines, the hijab, creates a healthy balance for both genders and respects their innate desires, acknowledging them and providing an appropriate safe space to fulfill them in society. Some might argue that hijab is oppressive because it limits women’s freedom of choice, prevents them from participating in certain sports, and because hijab rulings are stricter for women than they are for men. However, we demonstrate that the perception of oppression is based almost fully on societal norms, which are relativistic and differ greatly depending on where one lives. Specifically, the perception of hijab being oppressive in the West is based on colonial narratives that were spread during the 19th century. Though the differences in rulings for physical hijab of men and women stem from biological differences, the spiritual dimension of hijab remains the same for both genders. Contrary to the claim of oppression, the hijab was meant to empower women to integrate in society as ordinary citizens – to study, work, vote, and do all other ordinary civil activities alongside men as equals.
Hijab is not oppressive to women. Allah (s) has created a system in society to help human beings live up to their fullest potential. For this to happen, He has set rules and regulations in accordance with the way He has created us. It is important for people to live their lives in servitude and obedience to Allah. One of the qualities of Allah is that He is the most just. So, while some things may seem unjust and unfair at first glance, upon deeper study a believer comes to realize that Allah, through His infinite knowledge and justice, would not ask a person to do something that is oppressive. In fact, provided everyone fulfills their duties correctly, that which He asks one to do protects one from oppression. If hijabi women are oppressed, it is not because Allah has given them the task of observing hijab that is oppressive; it is because the people around those women do not respect them and possibly mistreat them.
Hijab is often deemed oppressive because it seems like women in hijab cannot participate in many things, such as playing sports that involve uniforms with shorts or swimsuits. But the reason they cannot do these things is not because Islam forbids it, but because the society has norms which are contrary to Allah’s expectations. The fault is not on the religion, but on the society. For example, a female may not be able to participate in women’s soccer because the facility is not private, the referees are male, or the league does not allow them to wear long pants while playing. That is not to say Islam forbids women from playing soccer. It is that society does not accommodate for women to play high-level soccer while maintaining their principles of modesty. In many societies however, wearing the hijab does not prevent women from integrating in society as an ordinary citizen – women can study, work, vote, and do all other ordinary civil activities while wearing the hijab. There are also societies in the East who accommodate for women to play all types of sports while maintaining modesty.
Some argue that hijab is oppressive because it limits one’s freedom to wear what one wants. Freedom of expression, however, is a socially constructed concept, and different cultures define ‘freedom of expression’ very differently. In the West, the norm is for women to beautify themselves publicly, and so the imposition of hijab – which goes against this norm – might seem unfair. It is important to remember, however, that society’s rules are publicly constructed – they are not the solid truth. They are also relative, and they have their limits. For instance, going to work in clothes constituting underclothes is generally considered inappropriate; however, it is considered appropriate as swimwear whilst relaxing on a beach on vacation. Different settings dictate different rules for how one should dress, even in Western society. In fact, different settings have a wide range of what is acceptable in terms of modest dress. Some cultures limit female beautifications in all settings due to political views, such as in North Korea. In the Gulf, the norm is for women to beautify themselves in family and female-only settings whilst heavily covering themselves in the open public. Catholic nuns, orthodox Christian and Jewish women also practice public modesty according to their spiritual views. From these examples, we see that there are many views all along the spectrum of what the public deems is “appropriate” dress for women in each society.
It is important to note that the Western perception of hijab being oppressive is one that was created by Western powers during colonial times. During the late 19th and 20th centuries, Western colonial nations established themselves in various parts of the world, including Muslim countries in the Middle East (Ahmed, 1992). The dominance of such colonial states was promoted by the narrative that Western countries spread about the headscarf being a symbol of backwardness (Ahmed, 1992). The idea that removing the veil allows women to be free is an idea that British patriarchs and missionaries, amongst others, spread (Ahmed 1992). While this narrative of the veil served the Western powers’ in their colonial activities, women within Western countries like England were yet to be given basic rights, such as the right to vote (Ahmed, 1992). Therefore, not only is the Western definition of ‘freedom of expression’ a socially constructed concept, but it was socially constructed for the purpose of serving illegitimate colonial activities. This puts into perspective the negative sentiments towards hijab in the West today. We need to view the Islamic stance on hijab without the Western bias.
Islam’s stance on the observation of hijab is one of balance. In Islam, there is both an environment where women can beautify themselves in appropriate settings (e.g. within marriage) and yet also be very modest in public and at times of worship. Islam does not suppress men and women’s innate desires, nor does it give them full rein. It creates a healthy balance for both genders and respects their innate desires, but it also acknowledges physical nature. It does not suppress it. Hijab is not oppressive, because it acknowledges human desires. It does not deny them by discouraging adornment or marriage, nor does it let them go out of control with public display. Rather, it provides an appropriate safe space to fulfill desires in society.
Some argue that hijab is unfair because the ruling of hijab is stricter when applied to women compared to men. Why must women wear long sleeves, long pants, and a head covering even in the summer, while men can wear short sleeves and shorts? Women must search hard in shopping centres to find loose-fitting, modest clothing while men can virtually pick up any item from a store and be able to wear it.
Firstly, the unfairness of the situation again relies heavily on the setting – the reason modest clothing is hard to find in stores in the West is because most Western standards do not place as much value on modest clothing. In other settings, where cultures value modesty more, such clothing is much easier to find, and wearing hijab becomes easier and more enjoyable, even during summer.
Secondly, it is true that women need to cover more parts of themselves than men do, however, inequality of the rulings does not imply injustice. Equity, not equality, is what governs fairness and justice. Men and women have biological differences, and rules apply differently to them because of this. Despite this, some men choose to cover up more than is Islamically required, because they realise that undue attention can be problematic.
To have justice, fairness, and order means that everything exists in its appropriate place. ‘Unfairness’ to women through hijab is largely the result of comparison against societal standards that encourage immodesty. Hijab, both of men and women in their different forms, sets standards of modesty in society and preserves virtue and dignity in society.
Ahmed, L. (1992). Women and gender in islam: Historical roots of a modern debate. Yale University Press.
Rizvi, S. M. (1997). Hijab, The Muslim Womens Dress, Islamic or Cultural?