Reflections of a Muslim Scandinavian gender-equality enthusiast

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Growing up in a Scandinavian country, my experience of sexuality, modesty and the concept of hijab are markedly different to even those living in the UK. I say this as is it is common knowledge that globally Scandinavia leads the way when it comes to gender equality. As a child in school it was a mantra that you were conditioned with, and in almost every class one took, it was an underlying truth that directed the way we interacted with opposite sex. I would have to say that personally, I am very grateful for this as I developed a healthy attitude towards my own sexuality and very rarely ever felt that my sex hindered me from certain pursuits or that I had anything to fear from the other boys.

That last point is an important one, as it underlies much of the traditional arguments for female-male interaction in Islamic discourses. And I am not just talking about the fear of being raped or assaulted because you “aren’t dressed right”, I am too talking of the fear of angering God because you might be in a state of perpetual sin; leading men on via your dress, the way you speak, and the level of your exposure in the public sphere. As Muslim women we are conditioned from a very young age to think of our bodies as sexual and sources of fitna in society, to the extent that it defines our very being and colours how we perceive our potential as individuals and what we can achieve in the world.

I would often go to my mother’s Muslim/Arab home country during the summer months, where I experienced a completely different gender dynamic. I remember as a teenager being extremely conscious of my surroundings every time I was out, because of the sheer amount of unwanted male attention I was getting. I was always conscious if my top was long enough to cover my bum, and being naturally endowed with large breasts, if my top was too tight- I would always wear cardigans and jackets to hide them. I would never acknowledge anyone going out or make eye contact; I learned to walk with my eyes glued to the path ahead of me and completely ignored all attention- even if it was innocent or a shop keeper asking me for change. I was told I looked scared. My female cousins, almost all of whom wore headscarfs, told me that I should be flattered by this attention and many of them indeed liked the catcalls and would dress to impress, even under the guise of modesty. However for me, coming from a society where I didn’t even think twice being outside about how men would view me, the experiences were always unsettling. I felt a deep sense of injustice over the fact that I was made to feel so uncomfortable, but moreover, I could not reconcile the idea that I was in a Muslim country and I got more respect from non-Muslim men than I did Muslim men.

These experiences subsequently altered my perspective on the khimar. My mother didn’t wear one growing up, but post-911 she did, and I felt that I should wear one too. Not out of a sense of modesty as I felt I was already modest, but I sensed that as a Muslim I had a duty to proclaim my Islam in the public and prove all those who maligned Islam, wrong. I had a deep-seated sense of self-righteous indignation and need to proudly wear Islam on my sleeve (or in this case my head). I started watching online videos, sermons, and reading justifications for it. And I was left feeling completely unsatisfied, especially with the oft-cited modesty arguments. The modesty reasoning went against everything that I had been taught. I thought they were there because of certain cultural contexts and norms, but I never brought the idea that they were the core justification for wearing the khimar. I knew it was an element of it, but I believed the purpose to be deeper than that. And living in a society where women weren’t reduced to sexual beings, and all the benefits of supposedly wearing a piece of cloth on your head were already present, the rationale for it just seemed absolutely nonsensical and counter-intuitive to everything I believed. Nonetheless, I still believed it was fardh and decided that once I was ready I would wear it and I should practice my deen out of a sense of duty to Allah, not to assert the whims of my ego.

When I moved to the UK I started wearing it for a short period, loosely, to transition into it, but surprisingly got more unwanted attention from Muslim men wearing it- some even at the door of the mosque! I sought guidance from my Muslim friends, but was left feeling so underwhelmed with their arguments for it. I felt I was wearing it to please others more than any sense of religious obligation. And it wasn’t until I spoke to my brother about it that I understood why. I felt that wearing a headscarf sexualised me rather than de-sexualised me. My brother articulated to me that wearing a headscarf didn’t make me more modest, that men didn’t go crazy if they saw a woman with her hair bare, and if they did that’s their problem not mine. And I felt such a relief to hear that from a man; that It wasn’t my fault it men looked at me and I didn’t need to make a public and tangible proclamation about my virtue and modesty. It was then that I decided that in my heart of hearts, I didn’t believe it was fardh (though I had spoken to scholars and on the matter too, who left me with more questions than answers).

Ultimately for me, I cannot divorce my experiences as a woman living in a society where I have felt for the most part respected, non-fearful of men and free to be myself, from the idea that to wear something that I understand as making a statement for the effect of creating the very society that I have grown up in, as inherently contradictory.

If you are reading this, please don’t take this piece as a “take it or leave it” statement on wearing the headscarf. I completely respect and understand the multitude of reasons why women wear it. I really do understand why some women see it as emancipatory, and I also understand why some women see it as a prison. I 100% support the idea that all women should be free to make their own choices when it comes to dress, and this piece does not mean to belittle the genuine liberating experiences some women have felt adopting the headscarf. That being said, the khimar and the whole hijab debate has become so saturated with politics and the power-play of global patriarchy dictating what women should and should not wear, that I can’t change the idea in my mind that wearing it is for the most part to make a sexual statement about a woman’s presence in society with an implicit underlying premise that women are under the perpetual threat of the male gaze; and I just can’t bring myself to accept that.

Maghrebi

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7 responses »

  1. “it is for the most part to make a sexual statement about a woman’s presence in society with an implicit underlying premise that women are under the perpetual threat of the male gaze; and I just can’t bring myself to accept that.”

    Bravo my dear ❤ I have the same struggles with hijab. Since I move back and forth between two countries, I am constantly surrounding by different reactions to my outfits. I can't stand dressing to make men's lives easier. If only I could find a bright pink bubble to walk around in.

    • Haha, if only we could live in a world where women’s dress wasn’t an obsession. I remember saying this to a Muslim male friend of mine, where I pointed out his privilege in this regard because he never had to think twice about what he wore going outside. On the contrary, he would often dress with the intention of impressing others and looking good, and it never occurred to him that he might be causing fitna for women (or men). Suffice to say, this observation made him uncomfortable as he was forced to see how imbalanced the whole hijab discourse has been in general against women.

      Maghrebi

  2. The first and foremost reason that anyone should wearing hijab is because Allah has said to do so. I find it to be a huge misconception that hijab is for men, no it is a command from Allah. And if it was to protect men, then Allah would not have told them to lower their gazes and guard their modesty before he told women to cover & guard their modesty.

    • You may believe that it is a command from Allah, I however don’t. I find it to be a huge misconception that Allah cares about what you wear. Allah is not a sexual being, I am not protecting my body from the gaze of Allah. Covering the head is not mentioned in the Qur’an- women were already covering the head, they are instead told to lower their khimar to cover the bosoms which would often be bare. Many would still take that in conjunction with certain hadith to mean that women need to cover their heads; and that’s fine. However for me, If indeed it is supposed to be an obligation for all women and all times, then I find it incredulous the consensus of all the madhabs was that Muslim slave women were NOT allowed to cover their heads, because covering you head was symbol that you were a free woman, even before Islam. You can say slave women no longer exist (which is not true), but their exemption from wearing a headscarf raises many vital questions on how “hijab” is framed today, with many acting as if it’s a sacrosanct sixth pillar of Islam that all women must follow, yet a sizable minority of those women were not when slavery was widespread throughout the Muslim world. Ultimately, I am questioning the production of religious knowledge, especially as it relates to women, which does not exist in some sacred vacuum but has been the predominant domain of men. That’s why we find many so called “fardh” restrictions on women, with the rules being a lot more lax for men. I would not compare a mere “lowering of the gaze” of men to women wearing distinct clothing.

      Maghrebi

  3. Pingback: Reflections of a Muslim Scandinavian gender-equality enthusiast

  4. I think regardless of what you wear or how modest or ‘un’modestly a woman is dressed there will always be a man somewhere that will give unwanted attention to the female. Hijab, I think, is not only an outer garment but it is also the inner hijab which gives peace and spirituality. It is about closeness to God and faith as well as to protect modesty.

    • I agree with your statement- that’s why in my piece I focus on khimar, and refer to the hijab in its general discourse sense as the two words are not synonymous as many people believe them to be. I have understood Hijab in light of actions coupled with niya, intention. It’s about how I interact with all people regardless of sex- respectfully, without ostentation, and without flirtation. You could be wearing a niqab and still entice men (and women) if you so wished too, and many do. I would rather live in a society where both sexes were brought up to not view each other as primarily sex objects and learn to speak to each other respectfully, than to put the onus on the amount of clothing you are wearing to stop that objectification. It has been common knowledge that with the rise of hijab discourse, sexual harassment has gone up in many Muslim societies because men have been told that it’s not their fault that they hit on women, it’s the women who aren’t dressed right- I can’t tell you the amount of victim blaming arguments I have heard from Muslim men in the Arab world. My own mother told me that when she was growing up, hardly anyone wore the headscarf yet there wasn’t this widespread harassment and men were much more respectful. I actually don’t have a problem with the argument that to wear it is to assert your Muslim identity- I have a deep problem with the arguments for “outward” modesty however as it again essentialises women as sexual beings in a way that is never applied to men.

      Maghrebi

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