"Bridging the Disconnect: Unveiling the Hijab and Islamic Feminism"

Diamond Sharp

Every morning, seventeen-year-old Malikat Rufai carefully covers her hair with a veil. Having decided that wearing the traditional hijab, a Muslim head covering, was not for her, she instead devoutly wraps her head with elegant scarves, thereby altering the hijab to fit her personal style.

Her head wrap has become an extension of her personality, a reflection of her religion and culture. "The respect that is commanded by the hijab and the dignity and grace that exudes from it is liberating."

The veil or hijab is in many ways symbolic of the Muslim feminist movement. The term hijab is the Arabic equivalent to "cover" or "veil" and has become synonymous with the head covering that Muslim women wear.

As a Muslim woman, Malikat regards her choice to wear the hijab as one garnering much respect. This view is not shared by everyone. Some interpret her headscarf as a sign of oppression. As Islamic feminism gains worldwide attention, the debate over the hijab has become forefront.

Islamic feminism promotes the equality of all Muslims regardless of gender. Islamic feminists advocate for women's rights, gender equality and social justice rooted in an Islamic framework. However, Islamic feminism also incorporates non-Muslim ideas, recognizing that Islamic feminists are a part of a worldwide feminist movement. Advocates aim to highlight the teachings of equality in the Quran and encourage a critique of the traditional patriarchal interpretation of the religion of Islam.

This growing feminist movement in the Muslim world is credited to the closing educational gap between men and women in Muslim countries. Now more than ever, women are reclaiming their own faith based on an equality understanding of Islam. And more often than not, Muslim feminists dote the hijab.

In recent years, the hijab has become the catalyst for even more dispute with Islamic terrorism at the forefront of news media. France banned religious headwear in school. Belgium and some German states proposed bans against religious headwear and in Italy, a teacher was forbidden to wear her veil over concerns that it would "scare the children." In England, a young girl lost the legal battle to wear her hijab and burqa to school. And in the U.S. wearers of the veil and other traditional clothing have fallen victim to discrimination.

The legal banning of the hijab in France and the proposed banning in other countries angered Malikat. "I believe this [the banning] is the most disgusting breach of religious freedom I have witnessed. Islam is not so much a religion as a lifestyle, and to deny a Muslim woman her right to live her life in the manner that she has chosen for herself should be illegal."

The veil exists as a dichotomy. In countries such as Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia, women are forced to wear it against their will and suffer physical violence, cultural exclusion, and even death if they do not adhere to the laws.

Women in Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia must follow strictly enforced dress codes; the hijab is mandatory. In other countries, wearing the hijab is not required and is only encouraged and worn at will.

Juxtaposed to women who suffer violence and the oppression are those who cover their hair freely for their own religious and cultural beliefs. Some women use the hijab as their own form of independence against a society that increasingly displays the female body as a sexual object.

Whether or not to become a hijabi (a woman who wears the veil) is often a personal choice that a young American Muslim woman makes for herself.

Nafia Khan, nineteen, decided to wear the veil after entering college. "I felt it was my time. I had researched before doing it but the final step was to believe that God was going take care of the rest."

Her eighteen-year-old sister Marium has not decided to wear the veil because "Right now, I do not feel that I have fully comprehended the responsibility and understanding that comes along with wearing the veil. Islam is not just a religion, but a way of life. I feel as though I do not have to wear a veil to prove my religion, values and beliefs."

The common stereotype is that Muslim women are forced to cover themselves, and although that is true sometimes, the sentiment does not apply to the entire Muslim population. "Islam is a religion that cannot be forced on anyone, especially because so much is based on intention. If it was not your intention to become hijabi of your own freewill there is no purpose of doing so, because the hijab is first and foremost in the heart," Malikat affirmed.

The resurgence of veil wearing, especially by young women who do not live in majority Muslim countries, has been credited to a backlash against a Western society that demoralizes women and demotes them to sexual objects.

Wearing the hijab has become some Muslim women's way of liberation from the commercialization of beauty that consumes our nation and others like it. The criticism against the hijab confuses many. "I feel as though that when we live in a world that has made walking outside in clothing so revealing and flashy okay, why is it a crime to want to cover ourselves up?" asked Marium.

Still, many Muslim and non-Muslim feminists are adamantly against women wearing the hijab. They view the hijab as a product of the patriarchal nature of Islam, which teaches that all Muslims, male and female, must present themselves modestly. The fact that only women must wear the veil in order to be considered modest is sexist. "Why are men not forced to wear anything?" feminists commonly ask.

But to Muslim feminists, sameness among the sexes is not the goal; equality is.

"Many women find that the equality they seek in feminism does not mean sameness. For them, it is no bother that Muslim women are urged to cover their hair, and that Muslim men are merely encouraged to grow beards and required to cover themselves from the navel to the knee. For them, equality lies in the eyes of God. They are equal believers and equal participants in the faith of Islam with different responsibilities due to their gender-oriented social roles. This is Muslim feminism," responds twenty-two-year-old Usra Ghazi.

The lack of knowledge about another culture is often the root of prejudice and judgment. "I think many people think of wearing the veil as oppressive because they are ignorant of the real meaning of what it signifies. Although our actions speak out for our beliefs and values, the wearing of the veil goes another step forward by showing them. I think that people have not truly understood the meaning behind the veil," Marium remarked.

Dialogue between Muslim and non-Muslims is the only way to end misconception.

As Malikat Rufai embarks for her freshman year at Spelman College, she is unsure if she will continue to wear the veil. "I think my hijab has empowered me because it is an external shield for the beliefs I carry within me. I have become a stronger person as a result of my wearing it, and definitely more in touch with who I am as a person."

But because she began wearing it at such a young age and was influenced by her parents to do so, she wants to make sure that the decision to wear the hijab is completely hers.

"I am now toying with the decision to forego wearing my hijab when I transition to college in a few weeks. This decision is not because I feel the hijab is negative; it's actually quite the opposite. I want to be absolutely certain that when I wear my hijab it is for me, and not for anyone else, so I think I'll test myself by not wearing it for a while, but it will always be my intention to come back."

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