By Khadija Khan
US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a Somali-American, recently said in a Vogue magazine interview: “To me, the hijab means power, liberation, beauty, and resistance.”
The debate around modesty culture has a great sway on how it is perceived in different cultures. Most commonly it is associated with the oppression of women in conservative societies.
It is rooted in religious and cultural mores to control women’s bodily autonomy, restraining a woman’s sexuality in order to rid society of moral depravity that may provoke male arousal.
This modest way of life obsessed with a dangerous purity culture, honour and virginity denigrates a women’s worth as a human being and reduces their existence to a sexual object that is only created to serve men.
Many women comply with this toxic modesty culture under duress across the Muslim world, where they are treated as a man’s property.
This modesty culture perpetuates victim blaming, honour killing and the overall subjugation of women by putting the onus on women to protect themselves from harassment and assault. Hijab, burqa and niqab are the visible pillars upon which this misogynistic system is upheld.
A handful of privileged Muslim women born and raised in free Western societies have been attempting to change the perceptions about modesty culture, by normalising the usage of hijab and other articles of clothing belonging to the ultra conservative Muslim traditions.
The characterisation of so-called modest wear, namely hijab, as a symbol of female empowerment may make sense where women have a degree of choice in western societies. But this doesn’t change the context in which certain garments were invented as a tool to repress women’s individuality.
The word hijab means ‘barrier’ or ‘partition’. However, in Muslim societies, partition entails gender apartheid, which further reinforces this modesty culture, where women are expected to be obedient to the authority of men. Therefore, the celebration of hijab as a symbol of women empowerment is a smokescreen.
Ironically, these very privileged Muslim women arguing for breaking barriers and demanding change never seem to challenge rigid religious beliefs which are overtly discriminatory toward women. They remain oblivious to the fact that imposition of hijab has always been a cornerstone of conservative and political Islam.
They cautiously use progressive lexicon about individual rights, freedom of speech, female empowerment and other characteristics of secularism/liberalism to normalise religious obligations for women, which is farcical.
They disingenuously try to project the progressive understanding of feminism onto their religion, which is inherently conservative when it comes to women’s rights.
Sadly, we now see female Muslim public figures making misleading statements about female empowerment in Islam while pandering to this toxic modesty culture that forces millions of Muslim women to live in miserable conditions under strict religious laws in Muslim countries.
It is beyond reasoning how the hijab, an instrument of gender oppression, is trending in the fashion industry, presented as a symbol for Muslim women: Sports Illustrated, which had a burkini-clad model on its cover; Playboy; Gap, Mattel Inc. and Nike have all done similar projects to glorify hijab.
Promoting a tool of women’s oppression as a badge of honour is nothing more than emboldening an extremist mindset that measures women’s modesty by the length of their cloths.
It ironic how model Halima Aden posed in a very sexual manner in her hijab and burkini for Sports Illutrated, when the purpose of the garment is otherwise and when, in conservative Muslim communities, women are also denied sexual agency.
It is also pertinent to mention that items of clothing, be it the burkini or bikini, hold no meaning for women’s liberation in the absence of the agency to act independently. By celebrating a culture which is specifically engineered for controlling women, they are tapping into the ugly side of the modesty culture.
They sell us the idea that the head-to-toe body covering is the choice of the individual, when in reality it perpetuates misogynistic attitudes that ties a woman’s character, modesty and piety to a piece of cloth.
But these attitudes are not limited to women living in Muslim countries. Many cases have been reported in the west of young girls and women being harassed, tortured, alienated, and ostracised – and in worst cases killed for refusing to comply with the modesty culture.
Shafilea Ahmed, a 17-year-old British girl was reportedly murdered by her parents for her ‘westernised’ behaviour. Pakistani Canadian teenager Aqsa Pervez was killed by her family simply because she dared to challenge the strict rules of this honour culture and refuse to wear hijab. These horrific murders are just the tip of the iceberg that make headlines and are then soon forgotten.
Muslim women in the public eye hardly mention these heartbreaking incidents, because it doesn’t help them gain popularity with their core supporters, the mainstream Muslim organisations that are dominated by conservative Muslims. The latter purposely promote those who wear the hijab as representations of “good Muslims”.
This is also how the prism of religion becomes the only identity for Muslim women and those who don’t comply are treated as not authentic enough, while the most conservative voices get the opportunity to dictate rules for women and how they should conduct themselves socially.
Those who are challenging this are fighting against all the odds. We owe it to these women fighting for women’s liberation in conservative societies. We need to amplify their voices to discard every single symbol of misogyny and patriarchy whether it comes from religion or not.
Western Muslim women who are free to make a choice should to stop pandering to this toxic modesty culture and stand in unconditional solidarity with these brave women.
Khadija Khan is a journalist and commentator based in Germany. You can follow her on Twitter.