On March 20, 2015, the Guardian posted a comment piece by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown titled “As a Muslim woman, I see the veil as a rejection of progressive values.”
As a Muslim woman who wears “the veil” in the form of hijab, I immediately bristled upon reading this title. However, as a Muslim woman whose faith teaches me to avoid rejecting anyone’s ideas without giving them due consideration, I was willing to read Brown’s article with an open mind.
The first point at which I had to pause and collect myself was the image I was met with as soon as I opened the article: a depiction of a woman in niqab, all but invisible due to the darkened background. The image was accompanied by an out-of-context Qasim Amin quote that served to brand the niqab as inherently antithetic to “modernity and equality.”
Now, I’m not sure how far Brown can be considered responsible for this breathtakingly clichéd image, or the equally nauseating caption and so I don’t want to dwell on it too much. However, I would like to comment on the assumption underlying both the image and some of Brown’s ideas. One of the reasons Brown opposes “the veil” (an almost comically orientalist term I pray people will stop using sometime in the near future) is due to the fact that veiling makes women “invisible”.
If “invisibility” is an admirable reason for women to reject the hijab, then the visibility that comes with wearing a headscarf or a niqab or a burqa in the West should be a good reason to wear it, no? I don’t enjoy the negative attention my hijab draws, whether it’s in the form of fetishisation from men or pity from Islamophobic non-Muslims or whatever else. Neither is this an invective against women like Huda Shaarawi. But I would like to know if this kind of visibility legitimises “the veil” in Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s eyes.
I pose this question because Brown seems to reject other reasons women have for covering up and I want to point out that, as crazy as this might sound, every reason a woman gives for covering up is legitimate. What isn’t legitimate is Brown’s rejection of the diverse meanings behind headscarves, niqabs and burqas and her assumption that valid choices can only be made by those who possess a thorough understanding of Islamic history, jurisprudence and theology. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that this unequivocal rejection of “the veil” is a sign of close-mindedness, as well as a rejection of progressive values such as granting people autonomy over their own bodies.
As well as this, in a bid to qualify her rejection of our reasoning, Brown (wrongly, in my view) suggests that Muslims no longer strive for knowledge or question doctrines. Here I’d just like to point out that not only is this insulting and untrue, but we must stop perpetuating false stereotypes that open up the floor for non-Muslims to further vilify us. We are not responsible for their actions, but we are responsible for our own words.
The article wasn’t all bad. There is truth in Brown’s criticism of Muslim women in the West who are vocal about the virtues of “Islamic” dress but fail to consider the conditions of women in countries where non-compliance with “Islamic” dress codes might have major consequence. I agree wholeheartedly that we should should not speak over anyone else and that we should refrain from glamorizing conditions where “Islamic” dress codes are imposed on women (and I say “Islamic” in quotes because not only does this term mean something different to almost any two Muslims but also, in my view, nothing that’s forcibly imposed on a person can be considered Islamic). I also acknowledge that there are circumstances, such as Huda Shaarawi’s, in which removing one’s hijab can even be considered a revolutionary move. However, I must point out that Brown seems to conflate the experiences of women and the symbolism of hijab everywhere … despite her astute observation on Muslim women who fail to consider the plight of those who are not afforded the choice as to whether they want to wear hijab.
I’d also like to draw attention to Brown’s mention of Deobandi revivalism in Britain. I do not disagree with all of her concerns, but to reduce Deobandi revivalism to an issue of how “women are told not to travel without male relatives, not to work, to be subservient, to veil” is reductive. There is a complex history behind the movement and any criticism must take this history into account; such discussions must be approached with nuance and not simply with the intention of vilifying women who observe hijab, niqab or burka.
When I first agreed to write this piece, I asked friends on various social networking platforms why they wear hijab and their responses happen to serve as fitting replies to Brown’s qualms against wearing hijab. In the interest of being as succinct as possible, I will not list all of them here. However, I would like to reiterate that the way a woman chooses to dress is her business and her business alone. This extends to her reasoning for dressing a particular way and it is not for us to decide whose choices are legitimate and whose aren’t, and polemics against women who wear a headscarf and pair it with “tight jeans and clinging tops” are simply distasteful.
I, like Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, am a (flawed) Shia Muslim. However, unlike Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, I refuse to perpetuate disrespectful stereotypes about Muslim women. Ultimately, Brown puts it better than I ever could when she says “it is complicated.” The matter of veiling is a complicated one, one that deserves more considerate discussion than subtle advocacy of dress codes that force women to dress one way or another and one that will only be made even more complicated by clickbait titles that reduce headscarves, niqabs and burqas to “a rejection of progressive values”.
Written by Mahnoor Javed
Image by Haifeez