Update (01/08/2016): I wrote this post 5 years ago and I’ve noticed how it is still one of my most popular blog posts. I’m grateful and glad people still find it worth reading and sharing. I still stand by every word I said in the original post, but over the years, I’ve noticed how this post has been misused, including by Islamophobes. The misuse has also come from liberals (often, but not always, white liberals) who aren’t exactly like the blatant Islamophobes like Pamela Geller or Robert Spencer, but nevertheless are condescending and leave comments like, “Islam is more sexist than other religions,” or “Islam needs to get with modernity.”
I know we cannot control how people use our posts, but I feel that if I add a disclaimer here, at least it will make it clear that I do not support the idea of non-Muslims using this post to perpetuate Islamophobia against Muslims/Islam. So, just to be clear: this post was written for Muslims ONLY. It is about an internal discussion within the Muslim community. It is OUR conversation, NOT one for non-Muslims to intervene or interject their opinions. I do not give permission to non-Muslims to use this post. I welcome non-Muslims to read it, but know that it is NOT your conversation and that you are NOT an ally if you think Islam is inherently sexist or misogynistic. If non-Muslims are interested in sharing it (in cases where they feel like they can draw parallels with sexism in their own communities), then please do so in ethical and responsible ways. Thanks for reading.
You can think of this as a sequel to my post on “Stop Telling Muslim Women How to Dress,” and maybe it sounds a little redundant, but I want to zero in on why Muslim men, whether they are scholars or not, feel entitled to speak about the hijaab. Moreover, why do we often hold their stance and opinion on the topic in such high regard?
I’m asking because Muslim male authority on the hijaab and “modest dress” (whatever that means) is something I’ve always noticed in the Muslim community. I remember noticing once that one of my Islamic books, brilliantly titled “Hijaab,” was written not by a woman, but a man! There were several times during my first years of college when I felt the necessity to defend hijaab, not only because of the way Islamophobes stereotyped hijaab-wearing Muslim women as “oppressed” and “submissive,” but also because I believed my opinion was highly valued by Muslim women.
I am not going to conclude that all Muslim men believe it is their “religious obligation” to encourage women to wear the hijaab, but from my experiences in mainstream Sunni mosques, Muslim Student Association (MSA) events, and interacting with Muslim men, the emphasis on “modest dress” is primarily directed at women, implying that they should wear hijaab. Also strongly present in this discourse is that Muslim women should dress “modestly” because it protects them from lustful gazes and a man’s uncontrollable sexual desires.
It is difficult not to see how Muslim men are (1) holding women responsible for their sexual thoughts, desires, and/or behaviors, (2) dictating how women should dress, and (3) reinforcing their authority and control over women. If the Muslim men who prefer their spouses or relatives to wear hijaab cannot impose it, they will preach it in a way that makes non-hijaab-wearing women feel guilty and like “bad Muslims.” More on this later.
The problem with Muslim men constantly preaching about hijaab and feeling a sense of urgency to talk about it is that it implies Muslim women cannot speak for themselves and that their opinions are not as important or credible. I find it quite awkward and irrational when a Muslim man, especially a scholar, shares his thoughts on hijaab for several reasons. For one, Muslim men do not and cannot fully understand the lived experiences of Muslim women, both those who wear hijaab and don’t. Second, it would be like asking a White non-Muslim man to discuss how people of color “should feel” about whatever experiences they may have had with racism in their lives. It doesn’t make sense when one could be talking to the affected people directly. What does a Muslim man know about being a Muslim woman and wearing or not wearing hijaab? Nothing. So, why not talk to Muslim women themselves? Why not let Muslim women scholars address and discuss this topic? Wouldn’t that generate a richer discussion instead of listening to Muslim men simply sharing their “thoughts” and “scholarly knowledge” about something that will never affect them?
When we allow male heterosexual interpretations dominate the discourse, it leads to pushing fellow Muslims out of our community. In particular, Muslim women who don’t wear hijaab are far too often stigmatized, marginalized, and excluded by other Muslims. At Islamic conventions, banquets, or even art festivals, the absence of non-hijaab wearing Muslim speakers, activists and artists is extremely shameful. At a time when Islamophobia is rampantly growing and hating on Muslims is defended as “free speech,” our community works very hard to break stereotypes, but at the same time, we ignore the oppression existing within our community – and I’m not even talking about what happens in Muslim majority-countries either, I’m talking about how we treat each other here in North America.
Let me quickly share a true story to illustrate what I’m getting at: the other day, I was waiting at the traffic light when I noticed a White police officer in the car next to me. He kept staring at me and shooting me dirty looks. I considered the possibility that the music I had playing reminded him of the sad and lonely time when he missed the “Niyaz” concert earlier this year, hence the angry look. Or, I considered the possibility that he was simply racist scum. Anyway, it is one thing for me to anticipate these kinds of encounters with ignorant White non-Muslims, but I believe it is worse when people of color do it to each other, or more specifically, when Muslims do it to other Muslims. This is why it upsets me when I hear Muslim women share their experiences of discrimination and judgment from within our community just because they don’t wear the hijaab. I cannot speak for them, but no one should have to feel that way in their own community (or anywhere, really). The fact that they feel this way and the rest of the community overlooks it – along with other problems like the way non-Arab Muslims are treated – represents a large and serious problem that we need to resolve.
If we Muslims truly care about the unity of the Ummah – something that we always seem to groan and complain about – then critical self-reflection is required. Rather than focusing on how Muslim women dress, Muslim men should turn inward and address serious issues like the misogynistic interpretations of the Qur’an, the way we’re conditioned to perceive and treat women, and how patriarchy is counter-productive to Islam’s message of gender equality. Muslim men need to trust that Muslim women are smart enough to discuss hijaab and dress code on their own. We also need to become allies for the Muslim women who seek equal prayer space, equal opportunities, and equal rights in our community.
These sermons on hijaab or how women dress are getting old and nauseating. It’s time we take some responsibility and examine what needs to be improved if we really care about preserving the Prophet’s message (peace be upon him).