We see them wrapped around the head of women, ostensibly “defining” and “oppressing” their right to be expressive, to be people – to be free. For centuries, the headscarf worn by Muslim women, known as the hijab, has been seen as an attempt by patriarchal societies to subdue their women. Yet the nature and history of the hijab is more complex than most people imagine it to be – it is a symbol of expression, a spiritual connection, and, above all, a mode of empowerment. Nowadays, Muslim feminists are redefining its meaning.
Unbeknownst to many, Islam has no mandate requiring women to wear the hijab, but rather to dress modestly. Hence, wearing the hijab is optional. In fact, feminists who are not even Muslim have started to don this garment. Why? Because they want to stress that they are wearing it as a form of empowerment. Muslim feminists wear it to resist sexual objectification, gain more respect, and to provide freedom for them. They believe that donning the hijab can be viewed as conveying freedom of expression.
Wearing the hijab is an effective way of spreading a feminist message as it promotes self-confidence – an unhinged grasp on exactly how women want to be perceived by society, media, and politics. It prioritizes personal identity over outside opinion. It is a bold statement, saying that a woman can wear whatever she desires – no matter what you, or anyone else, may think.
I am Muslim and I do not wear the hijab. My mother and my older sister haven’t ever worn it either. It is simply a matter of personal preference. There may, however, be situations in which the hijab may not be a form of independent self-expression. A friend of mine wears the hijab, but not by choice. Her mother strongly encourages her to wear it; she feels like she has no choice in the matter. This takes away the meaning of wearing the hijab. If you do not wear it on your own terms, then it has no significance. The fact that non-Muslims are wearing the hijab shows the empowerment of choice. If the message of empowerment and feminism is associated with the hijab, people that are strongly encouraged to wear it by their families will wear it on their own terms.
In a new form of feminism, women are gaining self-respect and self-confidence by wearing untraditional clothing in Western society. Their goal is to have themselves acknowledged for being both Muslim and for being strong, independent women. Indeed, they aspire for the day the hijab will break off its association with oppression, and be seen as a symbol of female empowerment.