Freedom to Unveil

Muslim Women and the Hijab

The BBC News recently reported that Kubra Khademi, an Afghani female artist, wore unusual armor called “iron underwear” on the streets of Kabul’s western district during her performance to highlight the sexual harassment faced by women.  Within minutes she was forced back into her car by an infuriated mob of men. She says she has since gone into hiding because she receives constant death threats.

Kubra says Afghan women are suffering in silence. Her decision to wear her unusual self-tailored iron underwear and walk the streets of one of the most conservative countries, was considered improper and against Afghans’ Islamic values. Wearing clothing that not only fails to meet the requirements for a proper Islamic hijab, but also violates it, is challenging a system in which women are victims.

Less than a week ago, a young woman appeared naked in the streets of Borojerd, Iran. Shortly after that videos of her walk, taken by onlookers, were distributed through social media. During an interview reported by the weblog Farhad90, Borojerd’s Chief of Police, Col. Alireza Daliri, dismissed the woman as an insane person. He said she was arrested and sent to a mental hospital.

But whether she was just protesting or suffering from mental illness one thing is certain, like many Muslim women who endure Sharia Law, the system of oppression has crushed her and brought her to that point.

Feminists have been vocal on both sides of the debate on the hijab. Nadiya Takolia  a researcher at Engage, welcomes the hijab and says it has liberated her from the expectations of women.

Hanna Yusuf says the hajab does not represent oppression and is rather a “feminist statement.”  In her recent viral video, published in the Guardian, Yusuf said “many women find empowerment in rejecting the idea that women can be reduced to their sexual allure.”

But there are also feminists who believe that the hijab provokes suppression, driving women further away from equality and freedom.  Writer and academic Kate Maltby says, “The more we treat parts of our bodies as sexual triggers and hide them away, the more we sexualise them in the male imagination. Both Islamic dress codes and Hollywood magazines sustain themselves by policing women’s bodies.”

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, editor of Provocations, a series of short polemical books, says she sees the veil as “a rejection of progressive values.”

In response to the mandatory hijab, Muslim women choose different methods to express their desire for freedom. In a movement called My Stealthy Freedom, women from Iran, while away from the supervision of the Iranian morality police, have removed their hijab, taken pictures of their flowing hair and have posted the photos on Facebook.  These women know that the punishment for appearing in public without a hijab is ten days to two months imprisonment, or a fine under the country’s Islamic Penal Code.

Even in the United States some hijabi teenage girls, who prefer not to directly challenge their parents’ orders to cover their heads, take off their hijabs and apply make-up while in school. Because of the lack of awareness, there are times when school authorities will call their strict parents to report the teens and can unknowingly create life-threatening danger for them.

In order to exercise their fundamental rights of freedom, Muslim women under Sharia face considerable hardship.  They are often alone in their journey.  Many of these women suffer daily and nobody hears their voice. This is contrary to fundamentalists claims that Muslim women have chosen the hijab freely.

While Muslim and Interfaither Hanna Yusuf rightly contends that we should not assume that every woman who wears the hijab has been forced into it, Alibhai-Brown challenges the fundamentalists’ position. “Do those who choose to veil think of women in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and even the west, who are prosecuted, flogged, tortured or killed for not complying? This is not a freestanding choice – it can’t be.”

Ghasem Akbari is certified by the Iranian Bar Association as a Number One Attorney, is admitted to practice before the Supreme Court of Iran, and is the author of two books and numerous articles. Maria Sliwa is an adjunct professor of Journalism at Columbia University @MariaSliwa Read other articles by Ghasem Akbari and Maria Sliwa.