Muslim women are needed as critical agents of change in this historical transformative moment in Islamic history and the Middle East. Yet it’s tough to be a Muslim woman these days. We’ve become symbols, not individuals. And that’s in no small part thanks to the global fixation on the headscarf.
The west might ostensibly value individual identity over collective identity — but not when it comes to a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf. Clearly in this case you must be devout, traditional, obedient, oppressed, and conservative, just a few of the adjectives frequently used. Woman plus headscarf is one thing and one thing only; a religious person who follows a very rigid path in Islam.
This isn’t just an assumption made by non-Muslims. In the Middle East, a headscarf allows people to draw instant conclusions of your religious values too. A headscarf means you have no multiplicity in beliefs. A headscarf, it seems, is never just a headscarf.
So let’s take a look at some of the stories behind the scarf, and acknowledge that while, indeed, some women truly believe that wearing a headscarf is part of their duty and obligation to be a pious Muslim woman, the stereotype certainly does not apply to everyone.
Headscarf as political expression
Over the past two decades, increasing numbers of women have chosen to wear the scarf … sometimes against their family’s objections. Sometimes it’s a purely political expression of her identity: “I am a Muslim woman and proud to announce that through my physical adaptation of the scarf.”
Headscarf as social pact
Sometimes it is embraced as part of a social pact that high school or college girlfriends have with each other: “Let’s all wear the same color scarf.” This is no different from girls in the United States wearing the same sorority jackets as an expression of belonging to the same club.
Headscarf as a way to be free
Some young women wear the headscarf as a way to attain freedom of mobility, as parents often exact fewer restrictions if they see their daughter adopting the headscarf. They too assume she is pious. Sometimes it is a cover for her sexual emancipation. Yes, some women who wear the headscarf have boyfriends and sexual relationships out of wedlock.
Headscarf as a way to be safe
Sometimes a headscarf is used as a security measure to avoid unwanted attention. In countries like Iraq, the increased volatility of the last decade or more prompted a tremendous increase in the number of women donning the headscarf. It was their way of distracting attention.
Headscarf as a practical piece of clothing
Many women who adopt the headscarf do so due to cultural traditions, where both men and women wear outfits that include a headscarf. This is natural in a region where the desert is vast, the sun is hot, and everyone ultimately needs to protect his or her head. The scarf affords a mean to synthesize environmental needs with a cultural tradition.
So what of women, like myself, who don’t wear the scarf? We get the same assumptions applied to us too. The assumption in this case is that we must be secular. But what if I or another Muslim woman chooses to practice her religion in various ways? What if the headscarf has no bearing on our decision either way?
Instead, simplistic assumptions mean two choices: headscarf equals religious; no headscarf equals secular. There is apparently no room for complexity or for understanding the individual decisions that go into practicing religion within one’s life.
So, you see, you are doomed these days if you are a Muslim woman. All kinds of projections are put upon us just because we were born into a religion that is in turmoil at this particular time. There is no room for us to express ourselves without concern about how we will be perceived. So, too often, we keep quiet.
Yet we should encourage, and listen to the individual voices of many in this historic time. To bring about a safer, more peaceful world in the Middle East, we need to create the space to hear Muslim women for who they are individually and not to judge them merely as a monolithic community. The rights of Muslim women who do not wear a headscarf need to be as protected and respected as those women who do choose to wear one. And both are irrelevant to the individual woman’s identity and relationship to religion.
Assumptions about Muslim women risk bringing us onto a battlefield of political ideologies. Instead, we must claim our voices and express the values we choose for ourselves — regardless of political environment. Through active participation, we help create a new way for modernity and Islam to coexist in a respectful and peaceful way for all.
Featured image by Fabian Mohr/CC BY-NC-SA.