There are approximately one million Muslim women in America. Around 43% of them wear the hijab (a headscarf). (Khalid, 2011) For years, the headscarf or the hijab has been a divisive issue not just within the Muslim community but between the Muslim community and the West. With all the anti-Muslim sentiments going on around the globe, wearing the hijab is becoming more and more of a challenge for Muslim women. It has also become a complication between Eastern and Western cultures and within Islam itself.
The general perception with respect to the hijab is that it is a tool to suppress women. People in the West seem to think that women who cover their head or cover themselves from head to toe in a burqa are somehow oppressed and subservient. I am a Muslim woman. I was born and raised in a Muslim country and I have been living in the West for almost a decade. A large number of women in my family back home in Pakistan and in the West wear the hijab. They do not consider it to be a burden or something that has been forced upon them. What the West needs to understand, before reacting so aggressively to a piece of cloth, is that the hijab is not a radical statement. It is not a fight against other religions. It is not a battle with other women who do not cover their heads. It is not a political ideology. It is not a sign of subjugation. It is not by force. It is not a sign of suppression or subservience. It does not make a Muslim woman anybody’s slave. Muslim women who wear the hijab are not a threat. It does not make them less attractive or less appealing sexually. It does not make them weak. It does not make them ignorant. It does not make them dumb. It is not a burden, it is a choice and for most Muslim women, it is empowering and equalizing.
The hijab (or in its entirety, the burqa) is a representation of one of the basic principles of Islam and that is modesty. The Quran states in Surat An-Nūr (The Light): “Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty. And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husband’s father, their sons, their husband’s sons [step-sons], their brothers or their brother’s sons or their sister’s sons, or their women, or their slaves whom their right hands possess or male servants free of physical needs or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex.” (Surat An- Nur, 24:31)
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The issue of the hijab has been fiercely debated for years now. I would like to highlight one thing though: while the West may have misperceptions about Muslim women, there is also a misperception in the Muslim culture with respect to modesty. For centuries, the burden of being modest has been placed on women. It is expected of them to cover their heads and to dress modestly. The Quran however is not so prejudiced. The above quoted verse from the Quran clearly states that modesty is mandatory for both Muslim men and women. Muslim men are strong advocates of modesty among Muslim women. However, it is high time Muslim men accepted their share of the responsibility and practiced the art of modesty along with their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters. It is one thing for the West to take issue with a culture they know little about but ignorance within the Muslim community itself is clearly not acceptable.
I want to conclude this by reiterating that the West has nothing to fear from the hijab. To wear or not to wear it is a Muslim woman’s personal choice and decision. Islam does not believe in imposing anything on its followers. Islam is a religion of peace and it welcomes those who follow its principles and its guidance from their heart. A Muslim woman wearing a hijab is not oppressed. She is free. She is proud. She is comfortable with her identity. Those who do not understand this do not understand Islam.