What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you see a woman in a hijab? Chances are you feel bad for her. You might even think she’s oppressed and forced to confine herself behind the veil. In all probability, you could be right about this for a large section of such Muslim women. But is that the only way to look at veiling as a practice?
The feminist movement has brought to light the backwardness of the veil, especially in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia where it is enforced by law. Some Muslim feminists across the world have highlighted the historical fact that veiling as a practice was evident long before the rise of Islam in parts of Arabia and the ancient Near East. Others have pointed out the verses in the Quran that refer to “men who guard their modesty and women who guard their modesty” (S. 33: 35)
For many, the veil is a mechanism for patriarchal control. They often cite the discourse of how it did not originate with Islam and is thus not a religious symbol, but rather political one. For them, it’s a tool used by men to keep the women from living life on their own terms. However, it is important to note that the same piece of clothing may be a symbol of faith for others.
In certain countries, the veil is enforced. On the other hand, in some countries, a large number of veiled women do not see it as a backward practice at all. Rather, they see it as just another piece of clothing. Some women don the veil because it symbolises their commitment to Allah and see it as a symbol of worship that is commanded in the Quran. They feel a connectedness with a broader religious community of other veiled Muslim women. The veil becomes significant because it serves as an identity for Muslim women which differentiates them from other women.
They also contradict the claims of restrictions on their movement and believe that the veil actually makes them feel more secure and free to roam around and not wearing the veil often makes them uncomfortable. For such women in secular countries, however, the fact that they wish to veil becomes more of a problem than the other way around. Since the image around the veil is that of oppression, these women are looked at with pity or disgust for following such a practice. In countries like France and Belgium for example, they are restricted by law to don their hijab or other forms of the veil.
Even if they do choose to veil, certain activities such as dancing or any sport require them to remove the veil while conducting the activity since it is uncomfortable and often gets in the way. They thus, have to adhere to those rules or have to struggle with the veil if they do not wish to part from it.
It was for this reason that Nike introduced a hijab custom designed so that a Muslim woman who wanted to cover her head could still work out. Religious female Muslim athletes trying to find a way of dressing modestly while still competing in high-level sporting events like the Olympics, finally found a covering that was suitable for their activities. The sportswear giant said it was inspired by Saudi Arabian runner Sarah Attar, who competed in the 800m race at the London 2012 Olympics wearing a hijab, and Emirati weightlifter Amna Al Haddad, who competed in the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
Nike received a mixed array of reactions for this invention. While a large number of people applauded them for creating inclusivity in the sporting world, they also received backlash from a large number of people for supporting an oppressive cause. People also spoke about how Nike supported body shaming and #boycottNike became a trending topic.
What’s important is to realize that at both extremes, where women are forced to veil or forced to give it up, it is actually the women who are losing out. They lose their freedom to voice their own opinions and to dress the way they want to. This deviates from feminism’s ideology itself, instead of actually liberating the women. We must thus focus on both aspects of the dichotomy since a single solution is going to get us nowhere.