Hijab, Criticism, and the Burden of Public Expectations

There is an unfair gender distribution within the American Muslim community. The burden of representing the entire American Muslim community has been hoisted on hijabis, or women who chose to wear hijab, the Islamic head covering. While we as covered Muslim women fight to convince the American public that the hijab is our choice, the expectations that come along with it from the Muslim community are not. However, with this choice comes a forced symbolism — not of an oppressed Muslim woman as seen by the American society, but rather as an American woman too liberal to be accepted by the Muslim community.

When Winnie Detwa, a well-known Muslim fashion blogger, made the autonomous decision to take off the hijab, she was greeted with a multitude of criticism and attacks from fans that did not agree with her choice to take the hijab off. The same thing happened with the release of the Mipsterz video earlier this month. Critics tore apart the women who chose to participate in this piece, simply for the fact that how these women covered was not the way they “should” be covered. In both cases, a wide range of negative responses burst from the ever-critical Muslim community, arguing that public Muslim women figures should not represent anything contrary to their role as righteous Muslim ambassadors to the world.

As Muslims, we must become more sensitive to the expectations we hold for the hijabi population. How can the Muslim community expect so much from women who are struggling as it is to be accepted within American society as marked women, if these women still have to struggle to be recognized as autonomous individuals by the Muslim community?

Our agency as Muslim American women has been stripped from us. No longer are we our own beings, replete with our own struggles of faith, love, and life. We are expected to be visible representatives of Islam by the Muslim community. We are marked women: every action observed, every mistake under a microscope magnified into something more than an individual flaw — but, rather, seen as an error of an entire faith. The judgment stems from within the Muslim community, creating a split within the community between conservative thinkers and Muslim women who do not necessarily conform to a static understanding of hijab.

Women choose to cover their hair for a multitude of reasons — whether because they feel better able to express themselves, exercise their modesty, or simply because of a belief that hijab is a commandment of God, a representation of faith. However, there is no space for an understanding of the hijab that comes with the expression of autonomy. Hijab is much more than just a way of dress; symbolically, it is the idea of modesty, of autonomy over oneself. Never was it meant to just be enforced on women. There is hijab for Muslim men, a certain way of behaving and dressing that is so often overlooked. Instead, women are the only ones to face the scrutiny.

With the hyper-observance and constant criticism of hijabis, the Muslim community risks ruining the faith-based pride that American Muslim women feel, whether they cover or not. The Muslim part of the identity is marred, creating a sense of shame rather than a swell of belonging when around the Muslim community that is so systematically pushing them out.

Maybe it is time we refocus our efforts away from tearing each other apart and instead work on building our community through positive reinforcement, creating space for the diversity that is the American Muslim community. We need to accept the myriad of approaches to hijab and begin to applaud American Muslim women for representing the Muslim community in their own individualistic ways. Is that not the spirit of Islam, after all?

By Huda Alawa