Friday, April 29, 2011

Finding Dignity in Hijab

I wear a hijab now. Hijabs are cool.

That's a line that should ring familiar to Doctor Who fans--the Eleventh Doctor (played by Matt Smith) likes to justify his odd clothing choices in this fashion. For instance:

Yeah, it's cool, bow ties are cool. (The Eleventh Hour)
It's a fez. I wear a Fez now, Fezes are cool. (The Big Bang)
I wear a Stetson now. Stetsons are cool. (The Impossible Astronaut.)

And the hijab line? It's been making its way around Twitter recently, apparently showing that even hijabis think Doctor Who is cool. But with recent headlines about the hijab, maybe it's time to give the iconic Muslim headscarf a PR makeover, of sorts.

We've heard France banning face veils, thinking to save women from male oppression. We've read NPR's story about some women's choice to remove the hijab, patting them on the back for fighting against what is still seen as male oppression. An article by Leila Ahmed appeared this week at challenging the idea that hijab represents patriarchy. And last week I had to monitor a chatroom discussion about hijab, and listen to women from a variety of backgrounds parrot the same idea they've been fed--that hijab is about male domination, a symbol of suppression.

And I recall the quirky wisdom of a local sister who once remarked that if men were really setting the dress code, women wouldn't be veiled, they'd be wearing bikinis. Some men feel possessive about their female relatives and might want them to be dressed modestly, sure, but the rest of womankind? Ever hear of a place called Hooter's?

Now if a woman understands this about men, that they are generally attracted to women and given the option would like to see whatever bits they can, then she has two options, as I see it. First, she can give men the responsibility and control over her body when she decides to freely display her flesh. She can say that they're responsible for what they see, what they think of her because of what they see. Some might be responsible, then--they might do as the Qur'an says, and avert their gaze. Or they might hoot, holler, and harass her when she walks by.

Some might say it's the man's responsibility anyway--he's responsible for looking, or not. And I won't argue with that. But frankly, if the woman doesn't want to be looked at, then she has a responsibility too. And the second option is to take that responsibility, to take charge of her dignity and cover whatever she doesn't want any passerby to see.

One of the first feelings I had when wearing full hijab for the first time was dignity. Covering didn't make me feel cowardly, or weak, but strong and dignified. And I think this word--the one I've used three times in the past three sentences--should be the new word to associate with hijab: dignity.

If we see a picture of an impoverished young woman in a war-torn country wearing dirty clothes and fraying fabric to just cover the top of her head as well, does she symbolize the oppression of patriarchy? Or a symbol of preserving the last vestiges of dignity, despite oppression?

Many of the arguments I have heard from hijabis in defense of covering relate to dignity. Have you heard the sisters with advanced degrees tell how covering forces coworkers and peers to treat them based on their competence instead of their appearance? Dignity. Or have you heard some college students frame it as their form of feminism, representing the strength of their character against social pressures to conform? Dignity. Or ladies who insist on reserving their beauty exclusively for their beloved? Dignity. And what does it take to choose to dress differently than everyone on the street, to explicitly identify with a maligned minority (in non-Muslim countries), to be prepared to take a stand on faith, while anyone else is free to keep quiet? Dignity.

That's what hijab is. Dignity.


nida said...

Salaam Aleykum, I just came across your blog by chance sister, and I liked this post. But let me play the devil's advocate here and ask you the uncomfortable question regarding Muslim women in muslim-majority countries. You see in the hyper-sexualized West, hijab may very well be a 'feminist' proclamation of sorts, and a sign of dignity in terms of non-conformity to social norms. But what if the norms are reversed and women are not given this choice to feel dignified in hijab, but are rather expected to cover. A woman in such a normative environment would seek to un-veil (as so many 'muslim feminists' from Egypt to Morocco are doing).

I think in some parts of the world, hijab is not necessarily a symbol of 'dignity' as it may well be here in the US. It all rests with a woman's power to choose. Dignity is not whether she wears a hijab or not, dignity is whether she has the opportunity to choose to wear it. And I think with this choice, comes our ability to feel dignified in hijaab. :)

restlessrehana said...

"Dignity is not whether she wears a hijab or not, dignity is whether she has the opportunity to choose to wear it."

You're right, Nida. Hijab should be a choice. And dignified women who are devoted to Allah, will most definitely choose to wear the hijab to guard their chastity.