Foreign Policy Blogs

Hijab Awareness Day

Woman in Hijab, courtesy Syed Muhammad Hafeez Bin Wan Muhammad/Flickr

It may be a small cause — the World Hijab Day Facebook page has around 8,000 likes — but there’s no denying the reasoning behind the campaign: “Better Awareness. Greater Understanding.” Women worldwide, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, are invited to spend a day in hijab to experience modest dress (and because we’re in the 21st century, share it online).

The idea of dressing modestly isn’t unique to Islam: Various strands of Judaism also prohibit revealing clothing and suggest women cover their hair, and no-one particularly complains about nuns’ habits being oppressive. However, covering your head with a hijab or headscarf is a very obvious indication of where your religious allegiance lies, and therefore highly visible in societies where such dress codes are not the norm.

In the video interview below, Leyla Hussain, a French Jewish convert to Islam who chose to wear the hijab, discusses the cultural implications of choosing to cover her head in this way. She became frustrated as her appearance suddenly became paramount: “Because I have a scarf on my head, I can’t do my job properly.” Ms Hussain also talks about identity, choice and abuse.

There is also the question of other forms of modest dress, such as wearing the niqab or a burqa; how do you “draw the line” as to what is “acceptable” in a mostly non-Muslim society? In the video below from 2008, three Muslim women — one who chooses to wear the hijab, one the niqab and one who chooses not to cover her head — discuss why the style of dress they’ve chosen is important to them.

Of course, there are those who claim that requiring women to dress modestly is oppressive, pure and simple. But is it so simple? For a basic backgrounder, perhaps read this undergrad paper, wherein it is argued that “The veil can facilitate women’s assertion of independence, but this assertion nonetheless occurs on male-defined terms and within male-oriented contexts.” Ayesha Nusrat, in the New York Times, would disagree:

“Every time I see my reflection in the mirror, I see a woman who has chosen to be a rights activist, who happens to be a Muslim and covers her hair incidentally. My reflection reminds me of the convictions that made me take up the hijab in first place — to work for a world where a woman isn’t judged by how she looks or what she wears, a world in which she needn’t defend the right to make decisions about her own body, in which she can be whoever she wants to be without ever having to choose between her religion and her rights.”

Whether or not you choose to take part, take a minute to reflect on your own reaction to seeing women covering themselves in public, religiously motivated or not. More information on World Hijab Day can be found on the dedicated website.