Back when I was doing my undergraduate, one of the societies in our university was having a debate on the hijab. It promised to be the same old rhetoric that we’ve been hearing over and over again for years: is the hijab oppressive? Can Muslims be feminist? There was nothing new, innovative, or revolutionary about it.
When one of the people participating in the debate – a white, Irish guy – asked one of my friends – a white, Irish girl – if she had any opinions that could guide his debate, she pointed him in my direction. But it seemed he had little to no interest in hearing my perspective on the issue.
This experience encapsulates how we treat Muslim women and their perspectives in this day and age. Particularly when it comes to the hijab, which is unfortunately still something that is often met with disdain, contempt, ignorance, and is often referred to as a tool of oppression, and used to uphold colonial ideas about many Muslim-majority countries. Many people in the West are all too eager to share their perspectives on Islam, and particularly their views about the treatment of women in Islam, but without the pesky opinions of Muslim women getting in the way.
We see the erasure of Muslim voices over and over again when it comes to the media. Even when issues pertaining to, and directly affecting, Muslim people are discussed, it is rare to get a Muslim voice in the mix. With the rise of anti-Muslim bigotry in society, the erasure of Muslim voices is more problematic than ever. I am all too aware, that for many people that I interact with on a day-to-day basis I am the first Muslim person they have met. And many I have met have even expressed surprise at my liberal worldviews due to the fact that I’m not only a Muslim, but also a hijabi.
One of the most popular debates surrounding Islam is the hijab, and it is one that I have been grappling with since a very young age. People who I barely know feel entitled to ask why I wear the hijab, and often seem to come at it from their own prejudice. After the ECJ ruling allowing discrimination based on religious clothing, Muslim sisters of Éire hosted a twitterstorm where Muslim women expressed how their hijab did not, in fact, stop them from performing their duties.
But the twitterstorm was soon filled with anti-Muslim bigotry, with ‘feminist’ men and women claiming that they wanted to rip the hijabs off of the heads of all the women involved. There was even a Twitter user with a Repeal the 8th sticker as his profile picture who accused me of being backwards because of my hijab (or maybe because of my belief that I shouldn’t be discriminated against because of my hijab?). The message then was pretty clear – pro-choice, but not when it comes to the choices that Muslim women make over their own bodies.
Of course the most ironic thing was that this twitterstorm was filled with various women in Ireland giving their own perspectives on the hijab. But many were completely uninterested in listening to these voices. They were far more interested in sticking to their own prejudices, and perpetuating anti-Muslim ideas. These were purported under the guise of helping women – women whose voices they didn’t want to listen to. This is often the type of ‘feminism’ that is peddled out. Feminism to save Muslim women… at the expense of Muslim women themselves.
Nevertheless, there are many who are interested in hearing from Muslim women. Particularly when it comes to the hijab. And as many near-strangers have asked me about the hijab, so have friends with an actual interest in learning about my perspective.
This is why I was glad when I began reading Mirror on the Veil, a collection of essays about veiling, the hijab, and the headscarf. The essays are written both by, and about, Muslim women. They offer a variety of perspectives from a variety of different geographical locations and cultural backgrounds. They stretch from the European experiences of hijabis, all the way to Asia and the Middle East. Though most of the essays come from Muslim women themselves – hijabi or not hijabi, there are those that are written by non-Muslims who have encountered and befriended Muslims, or reside in Muslim-majority countries.
Perhaps the most interesting thing to me about the variety of essays offered in this collection is the precision of it. With Western discussions and perspectives pervading the topic of the hijab, or the headscarf, the conversation tends to go round and round, and offers very little insight into the actual issues at hand. The issues that Western discussion offers is superficial and lacklustre, at best.
But this collection of essays offers a deeper insight into the issue of the hijab. Asks important core questions about what is the hijab? And what are the reasons why women decide to observe it? Is there a difference between the hijab and the headscarf? (There is) Why do men not have to observe hijab? (They do) And is it only Muslims who have head coverings in their culture? (It isn’t).
These weren’t just Muslim women sharing their life experiences, but their informed ideas about Islam. The essays spoke of women who found protection within veiling, those who found themselves pressured into it, women who want to veil but feel pressured not to do so, and many other women with differing experiences with veiling. The essays weren’t all analytical. Instead, the collection found a mix of light-hearted ideas, and more serious issues.
What I liked most about the collection was the diversity of perspectives – something that is rarely afforded to either Muslims, or the discussion of veiling. One of the most interesting essays to me, in fact, was not by a Muslim woman at all. Entitled I Am My Hair, and written by N.B. Sky, the essay describes Sky’s love for her own hair and how she sees it as a reflection of herself. But when Sky begins to date a man who seems to love her hair as much as she does, he begins to try and control it. Sky writes:
“I was angry that this man felt he owned my hair and, through extension, my body and mind. Growing up, I had heard that it was the Muslim men who required their women to cover their hair. This was something of which I had always been convinced, yet, this man I was dating was not Muslim. Ironically, the man I was with previously was Muslim, yet he had never asked me to cover my hair. On the contrary, he had encouraged me to do what I liked with it. It became clear to me then that when a man tells a woman to cover her hair, it has less to do with religion and more to do with power and control”
Essay collections such as Mirror on the Veil are more important than ever in this day and age, when discussions on the hijab, and Muslim women in particular are pervasive in media, whilst Muslim women’s voices are not. And it is by reading, sharing, and encouraging the voices of Muslim women that we will begin to shed ignorance on their lives, and start aiding them on the issues that Muslim women do face.