The hijab is not the sign of oppression it’s been made out to be

Hands off their hijabs

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Hijab; an Arabic word that translates to ‘barrier’. In the Western context however, and what has largely become commonplace in modern society, the hijab is referred to as the head-covering associated with Muslim women. Yet in the Islamic sense, hijab is more than just a headscarf. It’s an overarching concept that includes modesty in all forms, including clothing that’s meant to prevent others from objectifying one’s body.

And therein is borne and lies the common misconception that seems to have developed overtime about the hijab: it must be a form of oppression.

As a Muslim, I can see how the concept can be misconstrued as such. The idea that a woman has to cover up and protect herself from the male gaze is akin to saying that she’s suddenly solely responsible for the actions of others unto her. That is of course, not the case and shouldn’t be the reason why someone wears the hijab.

At the very essence, the hijab is used as a form of modesty. Its use is as a sign of respect for Islamic practices, especially when visiting religious sites, as well as communing with Allah through prayer and reciting the Quran (both of which requires one to also perform an ablution prior to the act).

Let’s put it this way: the act of wearing a hijab is similar to respecting the space and situation one finds themselves in. Dressing professionally for a job interview, adhering to dress codes of an office environment and turning up to a black-tie event in proper attire, are all examples of how we’ve been raised to respect the people around us wherever we go. For a Muslim woman, the hijab is one of the ways in which she shows her respect not just for herself, but also her connection to Allah.

The hijab is a complex issue because it’s one that’s a combination of being personal, cultural and tied to religion. It’s compounded even more with it being seen as something that’s ‘forced upon’ since young and hence, going against all manners of individual freedom. And while that may be true for certain communities — both in the past and the present — it’s not the actual reality in most parts of the modern world.

Hijab-wearing model Ugbad Abdi walked the Michael Kors autumn/winter 2021 runway show.

Growing up around Muslim women, the hijab has always been regarded as a personal journey in my family — one that is individualistic in nature because a person’s relationship with Allah is deeply personal. My late maternal grandmother has never once imposed the idea of wearing one to any of her three daughters. It was almost like an unspoken understanding that (if they choose to) they’d don the hijab when they felt like they’re mentally, spiritually and emotionally able to comprehend the responsibility and burden that wearing one comes with; a burden because the hijab makes one visibly Muslim and in turn, open to others’ interpretations of what and how a Muslim should act and be.

And trust me when I say that even within Muslim communities, wearing or not wearing the hijab, both come with their own sets of challenges, and everyone has an opinion on the matter. The hijab, however, is not a reflection of one’s deep faith or higher connection to the religion. But rather, it is a more visible and public expression of one’s faith.

It was common back in the ’90s and early 2000s for female members of the Malay-Muslim community in Singapore to transition to wearing the hijab once they’ve gained that sense of preparedness. Or when they’ve returned from visiting Mecca for the Hajj or its lesser pilgrimage, the Umrah. Now, wearing the hijab at a relatively young age has become quite widespread thanks to social media and an increased in visibility of hijab-wearing personalities the likes of Hana Tajima, Dina Torkia, and Imane Asry.

It has (for the most part) become a choice. The same as how a Catholic nun chooses to devote her life to God and wear a habit — essentially a version of the hijab — as a way of showing her devotion.

Rawdah Mohamed, a Somali-Norwegian model, has actively been trying to show that hijabis (a term for Muslim women who wear the hijab) are not as oppressed as the Western media seem to make them out to be at times. Mohamed came into international prominence after her selfie and its accompanying hashtag #Handsoffmyhijab went viral after France’s proposal to ban the hijab made news.

In an interview with the Guardian, Mohamed said: “I started the hashtag as I felt the need to humanise the movement. Ethnic minority women are always spoken for. I wished to take back the control of our narratives and tell our stories.”

Scroll through the artfully taken photos on her Instagram feed, and you’d notice that Mohamed looks neither oppressed nor troubled by her decision to wear the hijab. Although there were instances of her being bullied in school and discriminated against while auditioning for jobs as a model (the hijab became an immediate factor and not because of her lack of skill), Mohamed hasn’t shied away from showcasing to the world that being a hijabi and living one’s best life are not mutually exclusive.

There’s an undeniable irony to the actions of a country like France. In the name of wanting to rescue Muslim women from this perceived oppression that their fellow ‘saviours’ think they deserve, they fail to see how much they’re oppressing these women their right to freedom of religion and self.

In Singapore, the hijab still remains a debatable topic that comes up every now and then. While the circumstances are different to that of a country like France, it underscores the fact that the hijab is seen as an issue where there shouldn’t be any.

A nurse wearing a hijab is no less of a healthcare worker because her head is covered; a hijabi customer service personnel is no less of a service provider because she prefers to be modestly dressed in public; and a policewoman in hijab is no less of a lawful employee of the State because of her uniform specifications. A piece of cloth shouldn’t be a hindrance to the opportunities available to women who are passionate and skilled enough to perform their duties as well as any other citizen in a supposed meritocratic society like Singapore.

The hijab is an issue that has seen through many parliamentary debates and coverages in national papers. The issue sparked again in 2020 and 2021 with various examples of employment discrimination against hijabis making headlines, with one even prompted the country’s president (herself a hijab-wearing Muslim woman) taking to social media to comment on the situation and making her clear stance in objecting to such practices known.

The progress has been slow at best. Closed-door discussions between the government and several Malay-Muslim community and religious leaders have been ongoing. And in April, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong expressed hopes that a decision on whether Muslim nurses will be allowed to wear the hijab in uniform could be reached by August.

Slow. But it’s probably the first time that an almost concrete decision could actually become a reality.

That begs the question though: who exactly is the oppressor? A religion that seems to hold such immeasurable power over its female followers by a piece of cloth? Or various government bodies around the world that think they’re helping to integrate and form more cohesive and secular societies by restricting the rights of Muslim women?

The hijab may be a ‘barrier’, but its intention has never been to bar a woman from her rights as an individual — that primarily has been the job of a man.

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