The Symbolization of the Islamic Headscarf

It is known that there are several variations of the veil present within multiple religions, despite this, modern political discourse is often, if not always, restricted to Muslim women. To argue that every girl or woman who wears the headscarf does so out of voluntary submission to a religion would be just as ignorant as arguing that every woman who wears one, does so out of force from their fathers, brothers and/or husbands.

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It is ironic that while most western countries have associated the veil (hijab) with the subordination of Muslim women, social and political commentary on veiling conveniently leave out their voices when discussing its place within their societies. Ignorant commentaries create grey areas in the debate of the hijab’s symbolization. Former world leaders such as Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy have famously added toxic narratives claiming that the headscarf deprives a woman of her liberty, dignity and identity. But it should be made apparent that by depicting and subsequently confining these women to these ethnocentric classifications equally removes their individual identity and therefore their rights, expressions and beliefs.

Pressure to wear the hijab can come from cultural values, family, politics and even one’s community. The headscarf does not only represent the submission to a religion (Islam, by its very definition, means submission), but it can also represent the submission to an oppressive political and/or social system, depending on whether or not it is enforced on the individual. For instance, the requirement of dressing modestly, in most cases donning the hijab, is present in some Muslim countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, which has been applicable to both Muslim and non-Muslim women. In this context, it would be fair to argue that the headscarf may be a symbol of female submission, not necessarily to a religion, as by law it is applicable to all women, but to a political and social system dominated by men.

Although the headscarf was at one time synonymous with 'cover', today it crosses over social classes. The meaning that one gives to the veil can also vary from one woman to another: while some wear it out of tradition, others wear it as a sign of cultural identity or even as a politico-religious banner, for Muslim women, religious modesty is more than skin deep. The understanding of the headscarf has transitioned from a symbol of disempowerment to a range of new meanings: “from an expression of personal faith, solidarity with Palestine, Chechnya or Iraq or allegiance to the Ummah  , to a safeguard against sexual harassment, a fashion statement, a critique of western "sexism", a call for minority rights, an evangelical tool”.

The headscarf, rather than simply symbolising female submission, signifies the growing tensions between multiculturalism and the enforcement of human rights, including freedom of religion and expression within the west. In order to understand whether the hijab is a symbol of female submission, we must understand the meanings that have been constructed around it and how the hijab has been able to evolve from a religious symbol to a symbol of female liberation.  The headscarf cannot simply be limited to the submission of men, states or religion. This gender centric conversation of the headscarf must stop portraying these women as a collective with a single identity, but as individuals with views and convictions alongside their culture, history and ethnic diversity. It is their voices that should define how and why the headscarf is a symbol of submission, not only through the voices of disengaged, radical Muslim men or by western media.

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As an intersectional feminist and as a Muslim woman, it is necessary for me to recognize that for some women the hijab is empowering, for others, it is worn out of fear and oppression. While I am unable to unshackle the hundreds of years of history, it is important to create spaces for these women to feel like they can take control over their own identities rather than have it disregarded as invalid due to the history or current state of patriarchal influence as we are so often reminded by western media and education. There is no woman - regardless of age or location - who is completely free of the oppression they face from these power structures. This reminds us that our bodies are political, that they can be representative of one's state, culture and therefore, enforces the idea that they are never really our own.

We should always work towards a future where these young girls and women are able to make their own decision and construct their own relationship and meaning towards the hijab and religious submission. Instead of regurgitating the western stans that these women are helpless, mindless and in need of saving, it is their voices that should define how and why the headscarf is a symbol of submission, not only through the voices of disengaged, radical Muslim men or western secularists.



Article by Yaz Omran