Not a freestanding choice

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown notes and laments a retreat from progressive values among Muslims.

The hijab, jilbab, burqa and niqab are visible signs of this retreat from progressive values.

This article will divide people. Women I respect and like wear hijabs and jilbabs to articulate their faith and identity. Others do so to follow their dreams, to go into higher education or jobs. And an increasing number are making a political statement. I am not assuming that the coverings all represent simple oppression. What I am saying is that many women who take up the veil, in any of its forms, do so without delving fully into its implications, significance or history. Their choice, even if independently made, may not be fully examined.

The claim that it’s a “choice” and that that fact preempts everything else that could be said about it is very peculiar given the existence of so many places where it’s not only not a choice, it’s enforced with violence, including lethal violence.

Huda Shaarawi set up the Egyptian women’s union in the early 1920s. One day in 1923, as she disembarked from a train in Cairo, she threw off her veil and claimed her right to be visible. Educated Iranian women started feminist magazines and campaigned against the veil around the same time. These pioneers have been written out of history or are dismissed as western stooges by some contemporary Muslim intellectuals.

After the transformative 60s, Muslim feminists resumed the fight for equality. European rule was over. It was time. The Moroccan academic Fatema Mernissi, Egypt’s Nawal El Saadawi and the Pakistani scholar Riffat Hassan all argued for female emancipation. They rightly saw the veil as a a tool and symbol of oppression and subservience. Mernissi’s Beyond the Veil ( 1975) is a classic text. So too El Saadawi’s The Hidden Face of Eve (1975).

Mona Eltahawy’s Headscarves and Hymens can now be added to that list.

But do those who choose to veil think of women in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and even the west, who are prosecuted, flogged, tortured or killed for not complying? This is not a freestanding choice – it can’t be. Although we hear from vocal British hijabis and niqabis, those who are forced cannot speak out. A fully burqaed woman once turned up at my house, a graduate, covered in cuts, burns, bruises and bites. Do we know how many wounded, veiled women walk around hidden among us?

The burqa has many uses.



  1. Jean says

    The burqa has many uses.

    And as far as I’m aware, none of them is good even if the wearer has the illusion it is.

  2. says

    That’s a good point: adopting something as “a choice” that is mandated by violence elsewhere – is it tacit approval of the violent mandate? Or simply an acknowledgement of fear that the violence may eventually be turned on oneself?

    If I were a member of a faith that killed apostates openly in some countries and criminally in others, could I truly say I was “choosing” not to publish my apostacy if I lived someplace safe(r) from violence? Of course not. A “choice” that is violently compelled in one place, mandated culturally in another, and “not required” where I live right now … is hardly a “choice.”

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