Ustadha Dalia Mogahed has been doing great work mashaAllah, but I would like to put in a few counterpoints regarding some of the things she says about hijab, specifically in light of her post below.
I of course agree that the hijab debate has been politicized and that there is no value in trying to create divisions among ourselves or trying to stigmatize, coerce, or abuse in any way women who do not wear the hijab.
That being said, the problem I have is casting the hijab as solely being about “spiritual devotion.” This is a big deal. When certain aspects of one’s religion are at odds with the dominant norms of society, the tendency is to cast those aspects as nothing more than spiritual, ritualistic, or devotional in nature. This is, frankly, a defense mechanism. It is wittingly or unwittingly conceding that, “There is no reason and there is no value to this practice other than for those who believe in it and only then, in purely a metaphysical capacity.” Is that what we, as Muslims, think about the hijab and is that the message we want to give to non-Muslims?
Yes, the idea that a woman ought to dress in a certain way and cover her hair is disturbing to modern Western sensibilities (though it shouldn’t be given Western history and other standards of dress). But we don’t have to agree to that. We don’t have to concede: “Yes, it is strange, isn’t it? But don’t worry — it’s only a religious thing, it’s only spiritual. It’s only relevant to Muslims.” No, we should push back and debate this point.
Let me ask this: Do Muslims not believe in modesty as a value, that there is benefit to a person, regardless of that person’s religion, in dressing modestly and not seductively/sexually when in public?
If there is benefit there, then ipso facto hijab is not purely about “spiritual devotion” because a non-Muslim would also obtain those benefits by donning the hijab or dressing more modestly, etc. Also, if there is this benefit, then the question of “choice” is irrelevant. The benefit obtains whether a person chooses to dress that way or not. As an analogy, everyone recognizes the benefit of wearing a seat belt when in a car. It doesn’t matter if you choose to wear it or not, which is why there are laws that force us to wear seat belts and no one objects to such laws.
If such a benefit exists for hijab or modest dress, then we can start to understand the very concept of a dress code. And I don’t necessarily endorse the policies of Saudi or Iran, but I don’t see anything immediately objectionable about those countries having dress codes about covering the hair. Western countries have dress codes, too, and unless you are a nudist, you don’t have an objection with the notion that *at least some* parts of the body should not be exposed in the public sphere. Different cultures and religions can differ on which parts of the body specifically, but the underlying motivation is the same across cultures.
The Islamic belief, of course, is that it is our pure human nature to want to cover and it is only base desires that tempt us to expose ourselves and take pleasure from being seen and seeing others. In this world of constant advertising, TV, internet, and “sex sells,” this is a huge challenge we all face and it poses more of a difficulty for some of us. But that is fine as long as we can keep striving. What is not helpful is “spiritualizing” the entire issue. I mean, would Ust. Dalia or others say that the increased sexualization of women in the public space is a good trend? I’m sure she would not, but then how can hijab, which is the antidote to that precise problem, be purely about Muslim spiritual devotion, and even then, only if the Muslim makes a “choice,” etc., etc.?
And to be clear, none of this is to deny that, yes, the major component of hijab is spiritual. Humans are spiritual beings, after all. But the distinction here is whether by “spiritual” we mean “*only* applicable to Muslims and *only* in a metaphysical capacity that has no practical relevance to a person’s or to society’s well being.” Obviously what I am arguing is hijab does have that practical relevance and that benefit, even if that benefit itself is only psychological, etc. And if it does have that benefit, does it not become an important subject of conversation and collective normativity, which is what Ust. Dalia seems to deny when she says this discussion is utterly irrelevant and unnecessary?
Finally, I don’t think it is right to say that “only extremists and Islamophobes are obsessed with what a woman has or doesn’t have on her head.” I care about how my family members dress and I care about larger societal trends. I think it’s important and I think certain aspects of the Sharia, like hijab, are extremely beneficial and impactful even for non-Muslims. Does that make me an extremist?