Outgrowing Feminist Takes on the Hijab

When I was a freshman in college, I was interviewed by a fellow Egyptian Muslim girl at Harvard (let’s call her Sara) about my experience with hijab. It was a group interview setting where Sara interviewed me as well as a few of my Muslim friends, asking each of us why we abided by the rules of hijab. She published the result of the interview as an article in the campus newspaper, the Harvard Crimson.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, it was a trap. I found this out only when I read her article after it was published.

It turns out that Sara had a bone to pick with Muslims who insisted on following the Islamic guidelines for dress. She began her article with a story about how when she went back to Egypt for a summer visit once, an older Egyptian woman, a stranger, chastised her for wearing in public a short shirt that showed her midriff. Sara angrily recounted how she was incensed by this incident. How dare anyone tell her how to dress! In America, nobody would ever dare do such a thing! But in backwards Islamic-law-adhering countries like Egypt, apparently a random strange woman on the street had no qualms about violating personal autonomy and policing another woman’s dress or public behavior. The nerve!

So the semester after her summer in Egypt, Sara found herself a group of Muslim girls at Harvard whom she could interview about why they dressed as they did. Her article was a scathing review of the oppressiveness of the Islamic dress code and the naivete of the females, like me, who followed it.

Looking back at this incident, I am not as bothered by Sara’s vindictive setup of an interview as much as I am by my own incoherently feminist answers to the question of why I wore the hijab.

I have to admit: I was in my feminist phase back then, much to my chagrin.

I had completely bought into the idea that “the hijab is a choice,” that it was all about “freedom,” that it made me “empowered.” I wince now in embarrassment to remember that these cliché feminist talking points about hijab were part of my answer to her question of why I wear it. I proudly parroted back the stuff I’d heard other American Muslim women say hijab was about:

  • Hijab is not mandatory—it is a choice! See, I’m not oppressed like you think! I chose to don this piece of fabric on my head out of my own free will and it is a sign of my unfettered personal agency.
  • Hijab is all about freedom! Wearing it makes me free of the oppressive gaze of men. It gives me the freedom to go about my life in public unburdened with the sexualization that can result with showing too much skin. Covering my body in this way is a way for me to gain freedom, you see.
  • Hijab makes me feel empowered! I wear it to show my independence and power as a proud Muslim woman who is not scared of others, of being different, or of expressing my ethnic or religious heritage! America is a melting pot!

I don’t remember what else I said, but I remember these as the main talking points. It pains me to type these things out now, to see how jumbled and nonsensical they really are. I had fully believed that these were all good reasons to wear the khimar, jilbab or other loose fitting clothing, and other aspects of proper Islamic dress.

I was so worried about fulfilling the tired old stereotype of the meek, oppressed Muslim woman who’s shrouded from head to toe in loose clothing, the walking symbol of the Muslim patriarchy and suppression of women. Being so conscious of this popular perception of Muslim women, I went out of my way to show the world that the stereotype was false and no I am not oppressed and yes I am fully free, thank you very much. I felt that I needed to make this point. I needed to showcase my agency and prove my lack of oppression.

But as Muslims, when we do this, we play right into the hands of non-Muslims. We start to change our religion for them, a little bit at a time. We worry more about proving something to kuffar than we do about pleasing Allah. Instead of straightforwardly stating the Islamic wisdom of the system of hijab (for example, as stated by Allah in the Quran), we simply say what we assume the non-Muslim skeptics of our religion want to hear.

I didn’t see this at the time, of course, but what I was doing in explaining hijab this way was merely trying to fit the Islamic concept of hijab into the Western non-Muslim secular feminist mold. It was as futile an endeavor as trying to fit a square into a circle because these two things don’t go together. In order to align them as I thought I had to, I had to bend either one or the other a little. Either the Islamic paradigm or the non-Islamic paradigm.

Instead of rejecting their entire (extremely flawed) paradigm completely and making a case for my own Islamic paradigm, I tried to squeeze the Islamic notion of hijab into the non-Muslim paradigm, which I took for granted as the automatic default. Of course focusing on things like “freedom,” “choice,” and “individual liberty” is paramount—after all, what other reasons are there for anyone to do anything? This was my simplistic understanding, completely poisoned by liberal, feminist concepts and values.

Now, a decade later and fully out of my feminist phase (alhamdulillah!), I give a simple and direct answer when I’m asked about Islamic dress:

I abide by this dress code because my Creator commanded me to. I obey my Creator.

Covering the hair, one’s body, one’s face, etc., is not about freedom or liberty or empowerment or choice. I don’t care about any of these things, as shocking as this admission might be. I really don’t care. None of those things are my priority. None of them figure into why I dress as I do. I no longer subscribe to their importance as reasons for my behavior or motivations for my actions, especially when it comes to religious matters.

In the Quran, Allah the Exalted says:

“O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful.” (Surat Al-Ahzab, 59)

So I cover myself in the way that my Creator has commanded me to, for the sole reason of seeking His pleasure through obedience and acknowledgment of His authority. He is my Master and I am His slave. It’s very simple.

None of these concepts mesh with the liberal, feminist paradigm, in any way. Let’s catalog the differences:

Instead of freedom, here we have slavery.

Instead of choice, command.

Instead of empowerment, obedience to authority.

The Sahabiyyat, the noble and pious female companions of the Prophet ﷺ did not care about the freedom or choice or personal empowerment of the hijab. As soon as the verses of hijab came down, these women tore their sheets into pieces that would work to cover themselves with, in their sincerity and their haste to comply with the commands of Allah.

This is the reason why we Muslim women cover: to obey Allah’s command. As for the possible wisdoms behind this divine command, we can derive two possibilities based on the ayah in Surat Al-Ahzab above. The first is that these women who cover themselves will be known as Muslims, recognized as believing women, and the second is that these women will not be abused or harassed.

Some confused Muslim women bristle at the idea that modest dress has any utility in protecting women from harassment, but this ayah makes it clear that this is one of the wisdoms of modest dress. It is the toxic influence of feminism that makes this ayah problematic for some (na`udhubillah!). The typical argument given is that women dressed even in full niqab sometimes get harassed, therefore modest dress does not deter harassers.

But this argument is completely fallacious. Just because modest dress does not deter 100% of all harassment, that does not mean it does not deter any harassment. This would be like arguing that since burglars are sometimes able to break through locked doors, that means locking your doors is useless in deterring robberies! As we all know, if we didn’t lock our doors, we would be much more likely to get robbed. In other words, the locks don’t magically protect us from ever being robbed, but they certainly help a great deal in preventing robbery in most cases. In a similar way, if we did not dress modestly, we would probably face more harassment than we would when dressed modestly. This is just common sense about human nature.

Common sense, unfortunately, is foreign to the feminist mind, which I can see now in retrospect. I can just imagine my former self agitated by what seems like “victim blaming” in the above reasoning. But the entire concept of victim blaming is highly illogical. Whether feminists will accept it or not, I am not trying to justify harassment any more than I am trying to justify robbery. The sad part is, by the feminist logic, the ayah in Surat Al-Ahzab is also justifying harassment and harm to women by prescribing modest dress.

My request to imams and Muslim teachers everywhere is: please stop using liberal concepts and feminist values of freedom, empowerment, and choice to explain hijab. You might think you are helping your students by making an Islamic practice more palatable, but in actuality you are setting them up to eventually find Islam oppressive and backwards. Why? Because, whether you recognize it or not, you are indoctrinating them with a non-Muslim paradigm, and once they have internalized that paradigm, there will be no place for true Islam in their hearts.

“Allah has not made for a man two hearts in his interior.” (Surat Al-Ahzab, 4)

About the Author: You can follow Umm Khalid on her Facebook page. She teaches online at Alasna Institute.

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15 COMMENTS

  1. Barak allahu feek dear sister. Beautifully written and well said. May Allah make us from the Muttaqin
    اللهم اجعلنا للمتقين اماما
    These juhaal don’t know what they’re talking about and unfortunately don’t even wear proper hijaab for the most part. Imams and masaajid have a responsibility before Allah ta3ala for giving these individuality a platform.

  2. “Freedom” in the absolute sense applied to any creation is nonexistent and extremely dangerous. The only true freedom is to worship and serve Allah. Just frame it this way and you’re good. I don’t know why people have trouble with this. Does any rational human actually think they are their own god? You need to humiliate and ridicule people who think like that. Allah knows best.

    • I also like how “freedom” for women too choose for themselves is the goal, until it counters feminist ideals, then it is oppression.

  3. I agree, the Quran explains exactly why women wear hijab, thus we hear and we obey. Why is it that your other bullet pointed reasons are the antithesis of that? Those are just tertiary effects, or benefits of wearing hijab. Of course it frees you from the oppressive gaze of men, of course it empowers you to be more than an object, etc. Why the black and white thinking? After hearing and obeying, why not appreciate the hikmah and benefits of what Allah commands us to do? We can elucidate these to those around us in a non-defensive way–from a place of power and strength that comes from our Deen. When we react with this kind of us vs. them, it takes away from us setting an example.

  4. Quote: “Instead of freedom, here we have slavery. Instead of choice, command. Instead of empowerment, obedience to authority.”

    Answer: yes, and when you examine these concepts in depth, it turns out they have fake freedom in the West, they think they have choice, but they can only choose from certain options that has been permitted to them by their masters (slavery to the elite and their own whims and desires), and it turns out they are not empowered at all, but obedient consumers and slaves to authority, except for a few.

  5. Quote: “Some confused Muslim women bristle at the idea that modest dress has any utility in protecting women from harassment”

    Answer: they should see brain studies of how men react to pictures of covered and half-naked women.

  6. @Umm Nusayba

    You said – “Why is it that your other bullet pointed reasons are the antithesis of that?”

    Well, firstly, the first bullet point (“hijab is a matter of choice”) is the antithesis of “we hear and we obey”. The *rulings of hijab* are obligatory, that is, regardless of the specific product you use to guard your modesty (burqa, chador, abaya and a square hijab, etc.), you still have to comply with the *hijab rulings*. (The word hijab can refer to the physical product itself or to the rulings pertaining to concealment as well.)

    Secondly, sure Muslim women get numerous benefits from it, both in this world and the other world, but that’s not the point.

    The point that is being addressed is that Muslims have become so embossed into this apologism that wishes to make Islam as western-values-compliant as possible – that it’s truly nauseating.

    The whole mantra in that narrative is this – “You are the superior and dominant culture. You are our colonial masters. Everything you say is right. Your value system is perfect. We are honored that Islamic hijab laws conform to your value system.”

    You might consider those benefits as “just tertiary effects”, and rightly so, but the dialectic in society at large is just what I said, and that is why Muslims who have gheyrah for their deen have a problem with it.

    It’s not just hijab rules. Everything has to be either filtered through western values if it can be (like the hijab rules) or defensively & profusely justified with politically correct verbal gymnastics to comply to western values like capital punishment for apostasy in Shariah, or the death penalty in general, or the permission for men to take 4 wives (no they don’t need to take the first wife’s permission, and they don’t need to be millionaires to provide a 3000 sq. ft. home and an Acura for every wife).

    Don’t forget – Allah is the Creator of all causes and effects. He can Will & Create any effect in anything, like fire not burning Prophet Ibrahim ^alaihis salam.

    We don’t need to utter feminist-friendly apologia to justify the hijab to ourselves. We don’t need to bring in medical studies from western academia that certain pig meats can cause certain diseases only to justify the prohibition for ourselves. We don’t need to bring in Alcoholics Anonymous reports and studies to justify alcohol prohibition to ourselves. All of that is a part of subconsciously and humbly kneeling before the supposedly “superior” western culture and values whether we realize it or not.

    In case of hijab, or prohibition of alcohol, you or some others might take some liking to it from your heart. But the Quran itself attests that not everything prescribed by the deen will be liked by your inner self.

    كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ الْقِتَالُ وَهُوَ كُرْهٌ لَّكُمْ ۖ وَعَسَىٰ أَن تَكْرَهُوا شَيْئًا وَهُوَ خَيْرٌ لَّكُمْ ۖ وَعَسَىٰ أَن تُحِبُّوا شَيْئًا وَهُوَ شَرٌّ لَّكُمْ ۗ وَاللَّهُ يَعْلَمُ وَأَنتُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ

    So what will you do about things that do not tickle the fancy of your or my inner self? Don’t forget western culture and value system is all about self-gratification at all costs!

    For example, someone can say that the hikmah of adultery being forbidden is because lineages are maintained intact and public health and safety are not compromised by what the Americans call “social diseases”. What apologetic argument can you give to a couple who say they are in an “open marriage” where each has the freedom to commit adultery and due to the advances in technology they take perfect care of health and birth control matters, and in any case, they got DNA tests to identify correct lineages.

    I hope you can see the supreme flaws with this approach of apologia and political correctness for the sake of presenting an “Islam” as palatable to western sensibilities as possible. It neither does any da^wah to them nor does it help us strengthen our own faith. Quite the contrary, in fact. It is nothing other than intellectual slavery and humiliation in front of the kuffar, and a road-map to eventual apostasy for some people who can’t apologize enough to their colonial masters (like the perennialists or those who fawn over the LGBT+ movement).

    You said – “this kind of us vs. them”

    This us vs them mentality is prescribed by the deen itself in Quran and Sunnah in so many places.

    That is aside from the fact that “us” and “them” are natural realities of life, be it in Islam vs kufr or male vs female or Republicans vs Democrats or whatever. If we are all one, and there is really no “us” and no “them”, then there would neither be any need for proper Muslim pride, nor for this apologia that the sister pointed out in her article. Why would “we” need to address “them”, whether by politically correct apologia or by proper Islamic pride, if we are all one entity?

    • This very articulate diatribe seems to miss the mark.

      As a conservative veiled woman, and mother of daughters, I agree with the article. While I find this article well written, I am offering our dear author my critique in an effort to enhance the discussion instead of reducing it to the polemics of our current time. We as believers hear and obey, this is a given for the believer. In the Quran, Allah calls people to use intellect (Qawm an Yaqeeloon) and ponder over his message. One possible takeaway in reading the article is that hijab is a reductive ritual and possibly meaningless when simplified to the hear and obey argument. Allah gives us the example of the “the believers of Bani Israel and how they reduced their belief to rituals without meaning (see Tafsir of alBaqarah). Our beloved Messenger (may peace and blessings be upon him) also warned us of becoming like the children of Israel, particularly in this manner of reducing religion to meaningless rituals.

      In this quest to re-establish a conservative voice, I submit that we do not throw the proverbial “baby” out with the bath water. Islam is a faith for all of humanity and is not an “us vs. them” construct. It is our charge to continue this prophetic calling. We must understand the “why” behind the commands of Allah to enhance our relationship with him and to fulfill the purpose of seeking knowledge. Allah and his Messenger have provided us with the knowledge and tools to do so. Islam naturally ‘fits in’ because it is the best way to live and Allah’s natural law, regardless of time, place, or culture. It is the responsibility of the believer to demonstrate that to those around him, including engaging in discourse that speaks to intellect without making rationality the ultimate means for acceptance.

      If the “them” in the “us vs. them” paradigm are those who wish to reduce or ridicule Islam, then by all means we must seek to counter such negative portrayals and for that our dear author made a relevant and compelling argument.

      May Allah increase us all in understanding of the religion. Ameen.

      • You said – “If the “them” in the “us vs. them” paradigm are those who wish to reduce or ridicule Islam, then by all means we must seek to counter such negative portrayals and for that our dear author made a relevant and compelling argument.”

        Of course. What else is the context given this website and the topic of the article – real or perceived Muslims afflicted with the colonially programmed mindset?

        You said – “We must understand the “why” behind the commands of Allah to enhance our relationship with him and to fulfill the purpose of seeking knowledge. ”

        While we can readily see the many spiritual and worldly benefits to us in the following of certain commands, the fundamental flaw with that comment is that it assumes that commands have been issued as a reaction or an anti-dote to some causes or expected events. That is not true. Allah is the Creator of all causes and all effects. His commands are not contingent on anything. There is no “why” behind the commands of Allah. He does as He Wills.

        The second problem with that comment/mindset is that while you may be at peace with yourself in your conviction in your faith, it certainly doesn’t help those not as fortunate as you, who are under colonialist programming. I’ve seen feminists say outright, things like “I want more than “because Allah said so” I want to know the “why” behind xyz” … and when you give them those why’s they rebuke them because they have set their minds to rebuke any hikmah or common sense. That is what the article itself is pointing out.

        If they have an ounce of faith, the only argument that can compel them is this – Allah is your Creator and He OWNS you. You are a slave. He doesn’t answer to you. You are accountable to Him. (which invariably is a precursor to “we hear and we obey”)

        You said – “discourse that speaks to intellect without making rationality the ultimate means for acceptance.”

        I’m not too sure what you meant, but it certainly isn’t the intellect that can’t grasp rationality. The intellect lives on rationality. It is whims and desires that can’t accept rationality.

        Salam.

  7. A lesson well learned sister and I applaud you for it. May Allah strengthen your deen and make things easy for you. The true slave is the one that is imprisoned by his own desires.

  8. You strengthen my transition to an obedient Muslim life Insha’a Allah. Thank you sister & I apologize for referring to you as Sara on another communication.

  9. A important read:

    http://www.asic-sa.co.za/images/books/islamic_hijaab_pdf.pdf

    Excerpt from the book:

    JANNAT – THE HOMELAND
    When it is a cardinal teaching of the Qur’aan and a fundamental belief of
    all Muslims of the Ahle Sunnah Wal Jamaat that we heralded from Jannat
    and that we have to again depart from earth to once again and
    everlastingly inhabit Jannat, then our intelligence will establish that this
    dunyaa (world) is but a mere phase – a temporary phase – a halt – a
    tavern – in which we have taken up temporary residence, awaiting for the
    call to depart and proceed with our onward journey to Jannat. Describing
    this temporary phase of the world, the Qur’aan Shareef says:
    “And for you on earth is a temporary halt and employment (earning
    livelihood and arranging the affairs of the world) for a while (i.e. an
    appointed time)”.
    The Qur’aan Shareef notifies us of our temporary occupation of earth and
    clearly informs us of our recall and return from this abode. Lest we forget
    the temporary nature of our stay as a result of engrossment in material
    endeavours, the Qur’aan repeatedly reminds us of the worthlessness of
    worldly material. Says the Qur’aan Shareef:
    “Say (O Nabi!) The wealth (and material ) of the world is slight. And, the
    Aakhirah is best for those who fear (Allah Ta’ala)”.
    “Know that, verily, the worldly life is play, amusement, adornment,
    mutual pride and accumulation of wealth and children.”
    “And, the life of the world is but play and amusement. And, Aakhirah is
    best for those who fear (Allah Ta’ala). What! Do you have no
    intelligence!”
    Rasulullah (Sallallahu alayhi wasallam):
    “The world and everything therein is not worth the wing of a mosquito by
    Allah”.
    The Qur’aan and the Hadith are replete with reminders and exhortations
    pointing out the futility of the world and the need to be on guard against
    the deception of worldly glitter which brings about forgetfulness of the
    Aakhirah:
    “Wealth and sons are the glitter of the worldly life; and everlasting
    righteous deeds are best by your Rabb for sawaab and best for hope.”
    As long as the understanding that the world is temporary and that we
    have to return to Jannat remains obscure and hazy to us, we will lack the
    initiative to fulfill the purpose for which Allah Ta’ala has created us and
    sent us here. As long as our attention remains diverted from the Aakhirah,
    the belief in our purpose of creation will remain a long, distant and
    remote belief.

    THE ISLAMIC ROLE OF WOMEN
    The role assigned to woman by Allah Ta’ala is essential for our orderly
    progress in the journey towards Jannat. If any cog in the machine – in the
    engine of the vehicle – which is to transport us to Jannat becomes
    defective or ceases to perform the function for which it was made, then
    our journey will become rough and fraught with disaster. The Shariat has
    assigned the development of the home unit – the internal affairs of the
    home unit – the internal affairs of the home – to woman. This is her
    primary function. It is of fundamental importance that she guards and
    protects that fortress, for she has been appointed by Allah Ta’ala to
    captain that bastion of culture and society which is a vital aspect of Divine
    Ibadat for which we have been created and sent here. Neglect in that
    bastion of Islamic civilization and Divine Culture, viz, the Muslim home,
    will bring about, not only weakening in Islamic social structure, but will
    cause the crumbling and total eradication of Islamic Order which is an
    important dimension of Divine Ibadat for which we have been created and
    sent here. The consequences of this neglect are clearer than daylight. We
    can witness the havoc which the destruction of Islamic society has
    brought about. The story is too bitter to be told. We all know of our utter
    demoralized and degenerate moral, spiritual and political condition.
    Denial of this self-evident fact should be assigned to the realm of
    absurdity.
    In the discharge of her duty and responsibility, viz., the home affairs, it is
    essential that a woman subjects herself to all the advices, exhortations,
    commands and restrictions of the Shariat of Allah Ta’ala. Emergence from
    the Shar’i confines and prescribed limits will bring in its wake ruin and
    disaster. The Qur’aan states:
    “These are the limits of Allah. Whoever transgresses the limits of Allah,
    verily, has wronged his soul”.

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