The critique of hijab should not require identitarian qualifications simply because it is largely worn by Muslim women of a darker disposition than Anglo-Saxon women. Irrespective of what the hijab means to individual women, and without supporting the legislative policing of women’s choices, the disingenuous discourse to render it as a cloth of both spiritual and material empowerment must be questioned—all evidence is against this revisionism.
If the hijab were not simply the product of customary objectification of women, why is it that the spiritual growth of women is so strictly connected to their temporal bodies, while that of men functions in a larger, more visible playground that extends beyond their husk? Primarily, hijab is centred around the physical appearance of a woman, considering her body a liability that could damage the spirituality of a man. It is especially here that the inequality of sexes in the traditionalist understanding of hijab is highlighted—the spirituality of women itself is built in such a way as to protect the religious self-actualisation of man. So how are women convinced of its empowering qualities, when to be empowered, one must first assume that men, by nature, and incorrigibly, are lecherous, warrant suspicion and, at their basest, all rapists? This veiling of women through hijab (or worse, the niqab) is not simply a physical covering, but a code of ethics that determines the interactions between women and women, women and men and women with the society in which they must function, though not to the full extent that men do. These limitations quite naturally prohibit women from public spaces, but especially those spaces where the private and public meet. When a hijabi participates in society as man’s equal, her hijab loses its singular reason for existence. So what, ultimately, is the purpose of wearing it?
At its essence, the hijab of traditionalists pertains to sexual modesty, and in the belief that men are less in control of theirs; hence, it is obligatory for women, we learn, to control theirs. The dichotomy of hijab for men and for women is usually best displayed at beaches where women in burkas and burkinis are seen with their husbands, who are free to saunter with their bare nipples melting in the humid heat. That visual alone, and of men’s bare heads, should clarify the purpose of the hijab. The piety of men comes from within their heads, whereas the piety of women rests on top of theirs. If it were truly a matter of spiritual growth or material equality, the rulings of hijab would be mandatory for men too. Asking women their rationale for veiling results in a trickery of discourse best avoided by asking Why don’t men wear the hijab? Hijab’s sexual nature is most evident in who, besides men, is exempt from it—prepubescent and menopausal women, those not considered in their reproductive prime. Therein lies hijab’s sexual dimension, and thus, its reduction of women into fertile vessels that require self-protection in the form of hijab and masculine protection in the form of a mahram who will enforce the rules of modesty in both public and private spaces.
In spite of the evidences of what hijab is from numerous hadeeth (the Qur’an itself does not specify in literal terms what constitutes “modesty” or “aurah”, but interpretations range from “intimate parts” to “a woman”, indicating her entire physical existence, which must be veiled.) easily available from the most popular Islamic sources, the media still entertains apologia from both Muslim hijabis and their allies, often left-leaning white women whose seal of approval has the negative effect of sealing the voices of millions of practising Muslim women, like us, who prefer to uphold an Islam where spiritual justness can only result from material equality between the sexes.
Like any “men’s interest” magazine, the Islam of conservative Muslims primarily understands women to be sexual objects that will be gazed upon by men—a gaze that, is assumed, will translate into more outwardly sinful behaviour, from flirtation to rape. This truth, which demeans men in order to oppress women, is taken at its face value. It is never the nature of the gaze or what it results in that should be corrected through spiritual growth, but the material clothing and imprisoning of women instead, which, ultimately also reduces their economic power, and thus, their political determination. This may happen domestically, where the injustices are hidden and value is harder to calculate, or it may be public spectacle.
Lastly, if modesty is from the hijab, what constitutes immodesty? If a young girl is taught that goodness and righteousness is in the veiling of her hair, and with it, her body, save hands and feet, then what lesson does she learn of women who do not adhere to such customs? Furthermore, what of the entitlement is she groomed to practice, perpetually chastising practising and lapsed Muslims who do not observe the rigid customs of hijab? The natural assumption here is that those who expose skin are in a state of sin that demands some form of repentance on the sinner’s part and a stream of sympathetic prayers on the hijabi’s. The seed of intolerance is thus sown, so what use are the merciful chants of feminine unity by progressive hijabis? One may think that critics delve much into the private affairs of women, but there are no personal decisions when those decisions are public statements on what defines a good, righteous woman. The hijab is always a political choice made for the gaze of imperfect, disobedient women who are forced to coexist in a world where their value is forever doomed between those who want to expose their nakedness or bedim their existence to the point of nonexistence. It is no surprise that, in such societies, women face harsher penalties for perceived offences, while men, preachers and clerks, are offered far more leniency and doubt, even when they clearly abuse their religious powers to exact erotic and sexual favours. No more is the idiocy of hijab more apparent than in the interminable civil war among hijabis over the extent to which hijab can be capitalised for fashion and market. The hijab is shallow piety and itself a mockery of the rich spiritual traditions left behind by 1,400 years of Islamic evolution. So we must create new traditions. We must then stop asking why women wear hijab because some stories do not deserve a discourse. Instead, let us ask women Why never the hijab?