For Muslims and non-Muslims alike, there’s a new fear out there, and I call it “Hijabophobia.” This irrational fear has crept into the subconscious of the unsuspecting all over the world. What is the cause of such ill feelings against a simple piece of cloth? Below is an attempt to understand this phenomenon.
The Most Recognizable Identifier of a Muslim Woman
What is the first thing you think of when you see a woman wearing a headscarf? Undoubtedly, the mental association between a woman wearing the headscarf and Islam is very strong. More than any other article of clothing, hijab has become the most recognizable identifier of Muslim women.
This point hit home for a family member of mine when we sat together in a waiting room in one of Los Angeles’ largest hospitals. He witnessed several people pass by enthusiastically offering their salaam (greeting, literally peace) and asking how we were doing. Afterwards, my family member turned to me and said, “Do you know these people?” This was the first time he witnessed how powerful the hijab was as an identity marker in public. How did they know I was Muslim? Undoubtedly, the headscarf was a clear giveaway.
With this strong association comes a myriad of pre-conceived notions, a sense of mystery (does she have hair?), stereotypes, and just plain fear. For many Non-Muslims, the headscarf represents a religion that is foreign and one they do not understand. The natural outcome, therefore, for those who fear the religion, is to fear its most apparent manifestation.
This intensified attention placed on the headscarf and on the women who wear it is much to the chagrin of some Muslim women. The emphasis placed on the head scarf leaves them feeling stuck in an un-engaging discourse at the expense of other pressing issues affecting the well-being of some Muslim women and girls around the world. This emphasis in and of itself tends to turn Muslim women away from wanting to learn about this practice, and as a result creates ill-feeling. Unfortunately, a vicious cycle is created where increased talk around the hijab is aroused (to defend its basis in Islam), and again some women feel repelled by the concept even further.
Associated with Oppression and Misogyny
There has been a surge of thought within the Muslim community that misogynistic views distort Islamic rulings. Granted that male chauvinism is a massive problem within the Muslim community that leads to such things as physical and mental abuse, double standards, and government-sanctioned transgression against women and girls, it is a worldwide issue affecting all cultures and religions.
Some say the disrespect of women has influenced the Qur’anic scholars of old to interpret ayat (verses of the Qur’an) to serve their own negative agendas: to oppress women. Those who feel that our fiqh (creed) is tainted with misogynistic opinions therefore argue that hijab is a result of such ill will towards women.
This type of reasoning has been viewed as liberating and refreshing. However, in reality, this is damaging and self-serving. Instead of searching for the wisdom behind some of Allah’s commandments concerning women, some use this argument as a license to refute basic Islamic principles relating to women’s dress and gender relations.
Out of Place in Western Society
Trying to adhere to an Islamic dress code in the West is challenging to say the least. Going against the modern current of wearing revealing clothing such as shorts that barely cover one’s underwear is like a fish swimming upstream. Amidst a sea of scantily clad bodies on the beach a Muslim woman feels totally out of place, yet proud. She is proud that she is not self-conscious and superficial enough to be pressured into wearing a one or two piece bathing suit just to fit in. Instead, she values herself and her religion and does not feel the need to debase herself by submitting to a dress code founded on true oppression—the sexualization of women and girls.
Not surprisingly, the American Psychological Association couldn’t agree with this concept more. In 2007, the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls reported several findings that point out the dangers of current fashion and media trends, and their effects on the healthy development of girls1 . In the report, the APA defined sexualization as any one of the following phenomena:
- a person’s value comes only from his or her sexual appeal or behavior, to the exclusion of other characteristics;
- a person is held to a standard that equates physical attractiveness (narrowly defined) with being sexy;
- a person is sexually objectified — that is, made into a thing for others’ sexual use, rather than seen as a person with the capacity for independent action and decision making; and/or
- sexuality is inappropriately imposed upon a person.
These concepts are more easily understood in light of a study conducted by the APA. Two sets of girls were put into dressing rooms. One set was wearing bathing suits and the other was wearing sweaters. Each set of girls then sat down in front of a mirror in the dressing room and was given a math test. Results showed that girls wearing the sweaters achieved far higher scores than their counterparts. Why? Girls with bathing suits were preoccupied with the way they looked, thereby affecting their ability to concentrate on the math test. Imagine then, how girls are affected on a daily basis amidst billboard ads, cartoons, movies, music videos, print ads, etc., that portray women and girls in a sexual manner.
Lack of Understanding of and Appreciation for the Scholarly Method
Lawyers and lawmakers alike would scoff at the idea that any layman can interpret U.S. law and understand its proper application. Yet, Muslims and non-Muslims share in the misguided idea that fiqh (jurisprudence) is a loose methodology of personal interpretations and whims. Just as a lawyer undergoes several years of education to reach his current professional status, so does the Muslim jurist who studies Shar’ia (Islamic law). How much alms tax should one pay? What are the conditions of a marriage contract? These are not issues that one answer without proper education in Islamic Law.
One would ponder then, do we respect our U.S. legislation to the exclusion of our Islamic law, the very law of the Holy Qur’an upon which Thomas Jefferson based the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution?2
Visual Disparity Between Outer Appearance and Inner Character
Finally, a major cause of “hijabophobia” is the disparity between how some Muslims behave and their outer appearance. People associate wearing hijab with piety. Undoubtedly, to follow one of Allah’s commandments is a righteous deed in and of itself; and to wear the hijab in the West is a struggle. Yet, we must remember, it is possible to follow one commandment and err in another, regardless of whether this error is apparent to others or not. We are all human, susceptible to weakness of character and falling into sin. But, when women wearing the headscarf openly back-bite, are rude, or use foul language, a negative message is being sent. Some see this disparity and use this as an argument against wearing the hijab. Others who loosely associate themselves with Islam feel repelled from the religion even further. Unfortunately for women who wear hijab, their outwardly deeds become an instant invitation for judgment. No one knows if a Muslim really prays, fasts, or even pays zakat (charity). We shouldn’t muddle ourselves in the finger-pointing game, ready and waiting to throw blame on our fellow Muslims. Instead, we should all be engaged in a continual spiritual journey on the path to Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala—exalted is He.
To conclude, we shouldn’t fear one of the outer manifestations of our faith, the hijab. What we should fear is pushing each other away from the deen (religion), thereby creating animosity amongst each other. Our Muslim circles should encourage what is right, discourage what is wrong, and provide an “open door” atmosphere, fostering love and respect amongst our fellow brothers and sisters. May Allah grant us open minds and open hearts. Ameen.
- The Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report.aspx [↩]
- The Jefferson Qur’an, www.oxfordislamicstudies.com/Public/focus/essay0412_jefferson_quran.html [↩]