Muslim women feel empowered to wear the hijab
Some Americans believe that the Islamic faith is oppressive for women. In the West, especially in France, the hijab, or headscarf, worn by many Muslim women has become a symbol of this perception of oppression.
Sociologist Caitlin Killian explains that Jewish, Christian and Hindu women have covered their heads since pre-Islamic times.
For some Muslim women today, wearing a hijab can be a religious act, a way of demonstrating their submission to God.
The Qur’an asks men and women to observe modesty in their dress and behavior.
However, the clothing of Muslim women is not only about adherence to the faith. It has been used in the past and present as an affirmation of identity.
Under colonial rule, Muslim women were encouraged to look more like European women and to remove the veil. As demands for independence from colonial rule increased, the veil, according to Killian, became a “symbol of national identity and opposition to the West.”
Today, some Muslim women in America may wear the hijab as a way to assert their pride in Islamophobia.
World Hijab Day, celebrated on February 1 from 2013, was born out of the efforts of Nazma Khan, an immigrant from Bangladesh to the United States, who was ashamed to wear a headscarf.
She decided to start a day where Muslim and non-Muslim women could experiment with wearing the head garment.
Even so, in much of the western world, the headscarf continues to be seen as representative of the oppression of Muslim women.
In Switzerland, voters approved a law in March 2021 banning face coverings, while France is pushing for a more restrictive hijab policy.
In a judgment of March 14, 2017, the Court of Justice of the European Union, which interprets EU law, authorized private companies in France to prohibit employees from wearing “religious, political and philosophical symbols” in a concern for “neutrality”.
Sociologist Z. Fareen Parvez said anti-veil legislation was a “turning point” in the lives of Muslim women seeking acceptance and integration into French society.
The headscarf is not only a religious symbol for many women; it is a way of being.
But this focus on Muslim women’s clothing distracts attention from other issues and from how Muslim feminist movements are trying to effect change.
In Indonesia, for example, female Muslim religious scholars, or ulama, are helping to change the way Islam is understood and practiced.
As sociologist Rachel Rinaldo says, the past three decades in Indonesia have seen the emergence of a new generation of female religious leaders who interpret the Quran in a way that empowers women.
The word of female Ulema is more accepted than that of women’s rights activists, says Rinaldo, because they are trained Islamic scholars.
A 2017 conference of Muslim religious women scholars held in Indonesia, with participants from Kenya, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, issued fatwas – non-binding religious edicts – against child marriage, sexual abuse and destruction of the environment.
The point is, like other faiths, Islam is a multifaceted religion, and Muslim women choose how they want to be heard and seen.
This article has been reviewed for accuracy by Jessica Marglin, Associate Professor of Religion at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
Fact: Female ulamas in Indonesia date back to the 17th century. Queen Tajul Alam Safiatuddin Syah ruled the Islamic Kingdom of Aceh (now Indonesia’s northernmost province) for 35 years and commissioned several important books of Islamic commentary and theology.
At a time when female leaders around the world were unusual, she was the main advocate of religious authority in what was then a prosperous and peaceful kingdom, said Rinaldo, professor of sociology at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Kalpana Jain / The Conversation (CC)
Image courtesy of the Philippine Commission on Women website