Lately, two parallel developments have been discernable in the West’s relations with its Muslim minorities: the worrying rise of Islamophobia, racism, and prejudice amid fears of terrorist attacks; and increased efforts and calls by non-Muslim populations, including interfaith leaders, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Muslims in a climate of suspicion and tension. How? By donning Islamic headscarves, or hijabs – markers of Islamic faith and identity which render Muslim women both visible and vulnerable.
In one recent example, an Illinois college professor teaching at a Christian college recently wore a hijab to school to protest Islamophobia (she was later suspended for likening Islam to Christianity when asked about the meaning of the gesture); also in Illinois, Muslim high-schoolers hosted a “Walk a Mile in her Hijab” event, allowing non-Muslim teenage girls to try the hijab on for size in an effort to “denounce negative stereotypes”; and on February 1, women all over the world – both Muslim and non-Muslim – will don headscarves to mark World Hijab Day, a US-based initiative now in its fourth year.
The various initiatives, both individual and organized, have been met with a mixed response, generating significant criticism from those who see the Hijab as a symbol of oppression in some Muslim countries. They believe the hijab should be a matter of choice and not coercian – including in Iran, where just last month women drivers were warned their cars would be impounded if they were caught driving bare-headed.
In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Asra Nomani and Hala Arafa protested the hijab campaign, writing that it expresses “’solidarity’” – in quotes – not with Muslims, but with the ideology that “most silences” Muslim women. Namely, they referred to the Islamist conception of hijab as mandatory and as integral to Islam, a distinctly political – and not merely spiritual – interpretation “codified by Iran, Saudi Arabia, Taliban Afghanistan and the Islamic State.”
Over at The Daily Beast, which opined last summer that the hijab is used by the Iranian regime to control women, Maajid Nawaz was no less critical, noting in a report titled “The Great Hypocritical Muslim Cover-Up” that for “the millions of Muslim women who live under theocracies around the world,” every day is Hijab Day – and not by choice. Will his proposed ‘Hijab is a Choice Day’ catch on? Perhaps not – but the above-mentioned op-eds are valuable and necessary contributions to the public debate on hijab and Islam in the West, crucially complicating the conversation.