Hijab Perpetuates Women’s Oppression? The Reality is Much More Complicated

By John P. Bartkowski and Jen’nan Ghazal Read

In their New York Times op-ed, “Wearing the Hijab in Solidarity Perpetuates Oppression” (http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2016/01/06/do-non-muslims-help-or-hurt-women-by-wearing-hijabs/wearing-the-hijab-in-solidarity-perpetuates-oppression), Asra Q. Nomani and Hala Arafa contend that the hijab—that is, the headscarf worn by many Muslim women—is uniformly oppressive. They characterize the hijab as “a symbol of a dangerous purity culture, obsessed with honor and virginity” linked to “puritanical interpretations” of Islam. The “tyrannical” purity culture signified by the hijab, they charge, “segregates, subordinates, silences, jails and kills women and girls around the world.” These claims may make for intriguing copy in an op-ed. But they simply do not square with the facts. The role of the hijab in Muslim culture is a complicated one, and is certainly not reducible to a practice that is uniformly oppressive for women.Hijab photo

For the past several decades, social scientists (e.g. Paul Eid, Nick Hopkins and Ronni Michelle Greenwood, and Anna Mansson McGinta) have carefully collected evidence about women’s motivations for wearing the hijab and the circumstances under which they do so. Two findings from this research are especially relevant. First, many Muslim women choose to wear the hijab because it signifies devotion to their faith. Other Muslim women choose not wear hijab and, in doing so, opt for other ways to express their religious devotion.

To be sure, wearing a headscarf is a gender-specific means for women to express their religious devotion. But, in the minds of women who wear a headscarf, this practice is not oppressive, especially in circumstances in which they have personally chosen to wear the hijab. We could dismiss these women’s views as misguided, fanciful, or a product of false consciousness. Yet, as feminist researchers who are not ourselves Muslim, we believe that taking women at their word is absolutely crucial. An effort to describe these women as “well-intentioned” but ultimately “on the wrong side of a lethal war of ideas that sexually objectifies women” blatantly disregards the complexity of women’s motives for wearing the hijab. Such claims do not advance the cause of feminism and ultimately promote an (unveiled) one-size-fits-all solution to a complicated issue.

Second, Islam is a large and fast-growing worldwide religion with a breathtakingly diverse range of adherents. The circumstances in which the headscarf is worn strongly influence women’s motivations for engaging in this practice and profoundly affect its social consequences. The characterization of the hijab as a tool of gender oppression may make sense in contexts where women have no choice but to wear a headscarf in public. But such rigid requirements are not the norm throughout the Muslim world.

Here, then, is the critical point: The hijab is a contested symbol that means many different things to various groups of people. Is the hijab capable of fostering women’s oppression? In some circumstances, it can. Is it able to facilitate women’s liberation from some of the oppressive facets of contemporary culture? Yes, if we are to believe the accounts shared by many Muslim women.

The conclusion, “it depends,” is perhaps one of the least satisfying ways to end a rejoinder to a strongly worded op-ed that merited publication in the New York Times. Nevertheless, that’s where the scholarship on the role of the hijab in Islam leads us. The hijab cannot be reduced to a singularly oppressive tool used by Muslim men to keep Muslim women in their place. We and other social scientists have found that the reality is considerably more complicated. And, in the trying times in which we live, we would all do well to consider this complexity instead of drawing battle lines to determine who is on the “right side” and the “wrong side” of what Nomani and Arafa have disturbingly called this “lethal war of ideas.” While we welcome their affirmation that “women have a right to wear—or not wear—the headscarf,” we contend that the next step is to recognize that the consequences of veiling are not uniformly negative for women.

Jen’nan Read, Associate Professor of Sociology and Global Health at Duke University, is a leading scholar on gender and Islam whose work has appeared in American Sociological Review and International Migration Review, among other journals.

John Bartkowski is Professor of Sociology at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Read and Bartkowski are the coauthors of “To Veil or Not to Veil? A Case Study of Identity Negotiation among Muslim Women in Austin, Texas” (Gender & Society, 2000) and “Veiled Submission: Gender, Power, and Identity among Evangelical and Muslim Women in the United States” (Qualitative Sociology, 2003).


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