Candy Bars, the Hijab, and Empowerment

“A man asked a Muslim man: Why do your women cover their bodies and their hair? The Muslim man smiled and took two sweets, he opened one and kept the other closed. He threw them both on the dirty floor and then asked: If I asked you to take one of the sweets, which one would you choose? The man replied: The covered one. Then the Muslim man said: That’s how we see and treat our women.” (Author unknown)

At first glance, this story appears succinct and ingenious all at once. What better way to convey the purpose of the hijab (headscarf) in a story full of shrewd analogies and a clever, Muslim male lead?

In fact, when I was younger I used to love these stories. They made perfect sense to me, and as I read them I unconsciously drew my shoulders back with pride. I am a hijabi. If I was a chocolate bar, I would be picked up from a dirty floor, superior to my uncovered counterpart.

Looking back, I regret how clouded my vision was. There are several inherent problems with stories like this (I’m sure we’ve all read different variations of them). Recently, I encountered this particular story above, and it riled me to my very core.

1. The hijab is no indication of the state of one’s faith in God; none of us are free of sins. As I type this, I remember my own, and I imagine my readers doing the same. It is a shame that we have allowed the headscarf to become a measuring stick of one’s connection with Allah. The story above indicates that the uncovered candy bar (which, by extension, is the girl without the headscarf) is automatically filthy because it touches the “dirty” ground. We can conclude from such a metaphor that this means an uncovered Muslim woman will be affected by the negative influences of this life. Such judgement of our Muslim sisters is surely a grave sin. It could be that her decision not to wear the hijab is evidence of a single flaw that Allah has made apparent, while her hijabi counterpart has fifty that He chose to conceal.

2. Analogies like this tend to breed superiority in those who don the headscarf; I myself was guilty of such feelings of pride. Islam is a religion of humility. Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “He will not enter Hellfire who has in his heart a mustard seed’s weight of faith; and he will not enter Paradise who has in his heart a mustard seed’s weight of arrogance.” [Sahih Muslim, Book 1, Number 165]

3. The headscarf does not serve as physical protection. The Qur’an says the hijab is protection, but does not explicitly state from what. Therefore, it would be of the utmost arrogance to assume we understand what He intended by “protection.” Women who cover are fetishized as much as women who do not. Furthermore, to suggest that the hijab discourages attackers from rape or assault is fundamentally flawed for two reasons. First, it implies that a victim is somehow to blame for what she chooses to wear. Victim-blaming relieves the attacker of fault, creates a dangerous precedent, and sets the stage for further attacks. Second, if deterring aggressors was as easy as dressing modestly, wearing the hijab would not be the challenge that it is, nobody would find fault with it, and non-Muslim women would probably take up the headscarf too.

4. Women should not be compared to objects. It is that simple. I am sure the author of the above story did not intend any harm, and hoped to encourage more Muslim women to wear the hijab. However, it is not empowering in the least to be compared to candy that is thrown to a dirty floor, only one of which are picked up. We are not meant for appraisal by others or intended for “consumption” (i.e the pleasure of others), and analogies like this harm more than help in a world where women are treated like possessions.

5. Finally, a Muslim woman should wear the headscarf to please Allah. She should not do it to try and achieve preferential status in the eyes of Muslim men. She should not do it in hopes of being protected from a “dirty” world, or its sexual predators and violent individuals.

May Allah keep our intentions pure.