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11 November 2015

As a Muslim man, I am sick of our obsession with the hijab

We must start addressing the real issue that has long been glaring at us: attitudes towards women.

By Ro Waseem Ro Waseem

When it comes to the hijab, everybody seems to be obsessed with it. More than an article of modesty, it serves as a symbol of oppression to some and a symbol of liberation to others. But, more peculiarly, the hijab is often used as a benchmark by conservative Muslims to judge the morality of a Muslim woman and her “Muslimness”.

Indeed, judging by the Islamic discourse that concerns Muslim women, one would assume that the primary religious duty of Muslim women is wearing the hijab.

The restriction of religion from an ethical guide to appearances (dress-codes, rituals) is a curious phenomenon; a virus that seems to have seeped its way into mainstream Muslim consciousness. Partly due to the spread of Wahhabism, a deeply conservative sect of Islam, our religious priorities seem to have shifted from spiritual transformation to pedantic details about rituals and dress codes. Thus, the fixation with the hijab, I believe, reflects the very cursory manner in which we approach Islam.

From certain imams insisting that earthquakes are caused by women not wearing a hijab to muftis excommunicating Muslim women who do not consider wearing the hijab as a religious duty, the intellectual level of discourse that surrounds Muslim women is excruciating, and is more or less concerned only with notions of modesty.

This gives a gloomy insight – the obsession with the hijab is, in fact, a form of sexual objectification. Objectification, after all, involves the lowering of a person to the status of an object. By reducing Muslim women to their bodies and pretending that modesty is their primary religious duty, we strip them off their personhood and rob them off their agency as human beings.

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Take, for example, the analogies that are employed to convince Muslim women of the benefits of the hijab. The lollipop analogy is particularly popular among conservative Muslims on social media. Two lollipops are shown: a bare lollipop with a swarm of flies on it and a wrapped lollipop with flies moving away from it. The caption reads: “You cannot avoid them, but you can protect yourself. Your Creator knows what is better for you.”

Apart from the blatant objectification, this analogy has at its core a very troubling assumption. It is that Muslim women who do not wear a hijab deserve cat-calling and sexual harassment, as some sort of retributive divine law, taking away all responsibility from men to behave morally and guard their gaze (as mentioned in the Quran). Such attitudes contribute to a culture of victim-blaming with devastating consequences for the victims involved.

Furthermore, the analogy assumes that Muslim women who wear the hijab are not going to be sexually harassed. This naïve assumption shatters to pieces when confronted with evidence. According to a study carried out in Egypt, 72.5 per cent of the women who reported being sexually harassed were, in fact, wearing the hijab. And let’s not pretend that sexual harassment does not occur in countries like Iran where wearing the hijab is required by law.

“Growing up in a Muslim country where the hijab is not mandatory, I have always been told: the hijab is there to protect women from men’s desire, because our body is awra (intimate parts of the body that should be covered) that can spread fitna (chaos) among men,” says Sahar, a 26-year-old non-Iranian who has been studying in Tehran for a year. “But then I came to Iran, where hijab is mandatory, and I am still harassed in the streets. Men aggressively stare at me, talk to me, call me names. I feel naked, and worthless.”

Today’s world is in a state of emergency. With gnawing problems such as superstition, bigotry, sectarianism, and patriarchy in Muslim-majority states, we simply cannot afford to divert all our attention to the hijab and pedantic details of how to worship God “correctly”. If we are at all serious about preventing the so-called fitna, we must start addressing the real issue that has long been glaring at us: attitudes towards women.

Education, as always, is the key here. Not the hijab. Let’s start getting offended by expressions like “men are going to be men” because men are not monolithic sexual beasts who have no autonomy over their desires. Let’s not tie down a woman’s morality to her decision to wear the hijab. And let’s stop objectifying women and seeing them primarily as avenues for sex.

You would be amazed how far that takes us.

Ro Waseem is a liberal Muslim. He runs a weekly blog on Patheos, and tweets @Quranalyzeit.