Do we have a problem with countries that ban people from wearing KKK garb or Nazi uniforms or Confederate flags in public? Hopefully not. But what if the people of a country — like France — feel about the hijab how we feel about KKK. Nazi, and Confederate dress?
This is not speculation. This is more or less what the French argue, namely that the hijab represents to them the worst kind of oppression and it doesn’t matter what Muslims say the hijab means any more than what neo-Nazis say what the swastika means. All that matters is what the hijab *symbolizes to them*, to society at large.
Muslims should contest that characterization. But that would have to involve something more substantive than “I should have the freedom to wear whatever I want.” That argument is certainly not going to move anyone, much less disabuse the French of their negative attitudes toward the hijab.
Insisting that the “hijab is a choice” is equally ineffective since the French don’t really disagree: they believe the hijab is part of a larger system of patriarchal oppression and that Muslim women are so steeped in that system that they don’t even realize that they are being subjugated by means of veil despite their conscious choice to wear it.
So how else could Muslims engage in a productive dialogue with the French on the hijab? I have already mentioned invoking the example of Mary (as), who is still loved and revered even in secular France.
We should draw on other historical examples. Modern bare-all dress, after all, is a recent aberration. We should also discuss the effects of nudity and the sexualization of public spaces on people’s behavior and their psychologies (i.e., their hearts and minds).
What about the significance of covering up and adorning oneself with fabric being uniquely human? Muslims of course draw on our knowledge of Adam and Eve, but even secularists have to admit that animals don’t cover in the same way. Animals don’t use fabric to hide the body and obfuscate its contours. Secularists certainly celebrate human reason, which is another distinguishing factor that sets humanity apart from the animal kingdom. Covering the body ought to be understood similarly.
But even if secularists want to invoke naturalism and claim that “nudity is more natural” as demonstrated by the animals kingdom, we should consider how even that is not exactly the case. Look at mating rituals and how males and females will adorn themselves and will participate in intricate dances and movements to attract the other. Even for animals, mating is not some brute affair of two naked bodies coming in contact and copulating. No, even animals take each other’s “clothes” very seriously: coloration, thickness of fur, intricacy of pigmentation pattern, etc. Even animals are concerned with externalities and form in a deliberate and even sophisticated way. And there are more than a few species where the female in particular will hide herself from males and make herself scarce so that the males have to work extra hard to “prove themselves” in order to win over their better half. But apparently, some humans think that stripping down to their skin or baring their bodies in other ways, taking pictures of said bodies, and “matching” on a smart phone app like Tindr is all that is necessary and desirable before exposing themselves to intimacy and all its vulnerabilities.
And what about futurism? If you look at the cusp of experimental fashion, you will see much that is reminiscent of the hijab. Certainly women covering the face and hair is a part of some of these fashions. (I’ll share a picture with examples iA). If Western culture and society is continuously advancing, undoubtedly the styles of today will be obsolete tomorrow. Such is the endless march of “progress,” we are told. If women today are inclined to skimpier outfits and brandishing their hair, it serves to reason that preferences will shift and the trend will reverse. In which case, Muslim dress is hardly out of place.
These are just brief examples, but each one has the potential to lead to thought provoking discussion about the significance and meaning of dress, and as I keep saying, that’s the level of discussion that needs to happen: on the level of meaning and values. Invoking empty notions like “freedom of choice” forestalls that discussion, sabotages it, and puts Muslims in a losing position. Time to change our strategy.