A few years back when I visited Sydney, I was amazed at the number of Muslim women wearing the hijab. While many Muslim women observe the Islamic dress code all over the world, in Sydney I felt a palpable sense of pride in one’s identity. As a Muslim-American woman who wears the hijab, I felt at home in a foreign city.
In recent times, Muslim women and their attire have been a subject of scrutiny by some living in Western society. Because some of us cover our heads and wear modest clothing, people think we are oppressed. Some look at us with disdain while others pity us.
There is some confusion about the hijab for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Why do women wear it? Is it a choice? On Twitter and other social media, I see some young Muslims claiming that wearing the hijab is a matter of personal preference and that by forgoing it, they are not going against Islam. Some might even claim that Islam does not have a code for how one should dress.
For confused Muslims, I point to the following verse in the Quran: “And say to the believing women…that they draw their head-coverings over their bosoms, and that they disclose not their beauty…” (24:32). While some verses of the Quran are certainly open to wider interpretation, this verse is pretty clear. Women are obligated to cover their heads and wear modest clothing.
However, the Quran never prescribes a punishment for women who choose not to follow this Islamic injunction, nor does it give anyone an authority to cover a woman’s head forcefully. I realize that this is at odds with how some Islamic countries and their governments act. For example, in countries like Saudi Arabia, women are forced to wear modest clothing. But the Quran is clear about using coercion: “There should be no compulsion in religion. Surely, right has become distinct from wrong…” (2:257).
Islam recognizes freedom of conscience and grants humans the right to choose a path for themselves. The verse about not using coercion emphasizes the personal nature of faith, and grants all judgment to the Creator. We cannot conflate religious commandments with the modern day edicts of so-called Islamic governments.
With that said, the Islamic dress code is meant to safeguard women against sexual harassment and violence. It is meant to inculcate a simple lifestyle that leads one to contentment and peace. It is not meant to be a prison or a tool of oppression. Some might argue that women should not be harassed no matter the choice of clothes. While this idea is noble in principle, our society is not perfect and therefore Islam takes a more pragmatic approach. A modest way of dressing in Islam is prescribed as a deterrent.
Muslim women who wear the hijab are fulfilling an important obligation of their faith. In the West especially, many have lamented they are waging a war against peer pressure and certain societal norms that encourage women to obsess over their physical appearances. With Islamophobia on the rise and facing backlash from some of our political leaders who attack Islam regularly, wearing the hijab has become even more challenging.
Women who wear the hijab proudly are going against the grain and standing up for themselves. We should not look upon them with contempt; we should applaud them for their courage.
When I first started wearing the hijab in my senior year of high school, I remember feeling apprehensive. Even one of my Muslim classmates wondered if I was turning towards extremism. But the hijab has been an integral part of my identity for many years now. My hijab reminds me to be compassionate and kind. It reminds me to fulfill my duty towards God, and towards my fellow human beings. It reminds me to remain calm in the face of abuse and insults. It’s a constant reminder to self-evaluate and self-reflect.
Ultimately, wearing the hijab is a matter between God and the individual. But it does sadden me when I see my beautiful Muslim sisters forgo an important part of our shared identity. I encourage young Muslim women to take pride in wearing the hijab. I encourage them to think beyond peer pressure and certain societal norms. I want them to show the world that they can achieve success and assimilate into new cultures while holding onto their identity as Muslims.
Huma Munir is a freelance writer based in the Research Triangle Park area in North Carolina. She focuses on highlighting the Muslim-American issues.