Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

By wearing the hijab, I stand against sexual exploitation

It seems that the only time a hijabi’s voice is valued is when she gives a testimony describing her struggle for emancipation from Islam. Otherwise, she is either lying or in denial. I found this out the hard way in the past 10 days.

Last week, I made a video for The Guardian newspaper’s website. In it, I explained how I see the hijab as a feminist statement. As far as I’m concerned this is a straightforward statement; it follows directly from my experience of the world.

“In a world where a woman’s value is often reduced to her sexual allure, what could be more empowering than rejecting that notion,” I said. “By covering up, we reject the message that women must be sexy (but not slutty), stick-thin (but still curvy), youthful (but all natural). It’s a market that pressures women to try to attain the unattainable.”

My critique of capitalism was meant to reveal two things: not all women identify with the highly eroticised and commercialised femininity in western popular culture, and capitalism’s obsession with the female body has constructed women as multinational commodities. A business’s main priority is to sell, and women’s bodies have become a tool for that goal.

Brands make a conscious effort to tap into people’s insecurities by bombarding them with contradictory images and ideas of unattainable perfection. Never before have we been fed so much “advice” as to how women’s sexuality should and shouldn’t be regulated. Advertising in public spaces is full of unrealistic images that everyone should aspire to. Commercial control of women’s sexuality is more powerful than it has ever been.

But when it comes to women who cover up, it becomes more difficult to access the insecurities that companies thrive on. The control hijabi women have over their bodies challenges existing structures. Brands have yet to master how to truly sell to hijabis. The desire to undress women seems to be less about women’s needs and all about the global market’s entitled access to women’s bodies.

My focus on the exploitation of women’s bodies in commercial culture drew a lot of criticism. Mostly from people who define the hijab by its perceived “oppression” of women. Unsurprisingly, all the critics were either non-Muslim or ex-Muslim.

My critique of commercial culture was wilfully misinterpreted as an attack on “western women” – whatever that term means. I’m a western woman too. It surprised me how quick critics were to label me as the non-western “other”. One would be forgiven for wondering whether this anti-hijab sentiment is fuelled by a desire to reject anyone who is “different”.

I was even told that my choosing the hijab was a case of “false consciousness”, thinking I wanted something when it was really against my interests. This is not only patronising, but it also overlooks the fact that many Muslim women make informed choices in their adult lives.

I am a Muslim woman who began wearing the hijab at age 21, after three to four years of research and contemplation. For those against the hijab, it seems that it simply isn’t possible to choose the hijab. The false dichotomy of “liberated western woman” vs “oppressed hijabi” is not so much about real choice, but rather about the right to make the “right” choice.

Contrary to popular belief, not all hijabis dress modestly to “protect” themselves from men’s advances. Among many other things, the hijab constitutes Muslim women’s embrace and appropriation of Islam on their own terms.

For western Muslims, the hijab symbolises a reconciliation of their Islamic faith and their western culture. While for others it is a rejection of the aggressive sexualisation of women’s bodies by capitalist culture.

But it seems that complexity is lost on critics of the hijab. To them, we must be “oppressed”.

The problem with such an Orientalist construction of hijabi women as oppressed victims is that it silences the same women affected by the debate. A woman who is oppressed is seen as someone who is not meant to have a voice, as if she has nothing to say. The only voices that contribute to the discussion are of those who do not wear the hijab. As a result, anti-hijab “feminists”, of both non-Muslim and Muslim origin, speak for hijabis rather than with them.

And this technique of speaking for and “liberating” the oppressed has been applied to serve ulterior objectives throughout history.

Critics who compare my choice to wear the hijab to a case of Stockholm syndrome – siding with my oppressor – eerily echo colonial discourse, such as the French “civilising” mission in Algeria – during which a supposedly feminist agenda, which claimed to liberate Algerian women, was in fact used to dominate the population.

The colonial approach of dominating people through social control can be compared to contemporary neoconservative projects that are used to justify attacks on Islam.

In an interview on secularism and racism in France, author Olivier Roy argued that “social control happens through the control of women’s bodies, but under the pretext that this control serves to free the alienated Muslim women”. The rejection of the hijab, or the veil, is spurred on by political and economic agendas, rather than being motivated by any real concern for women.

Respecting the choice of Muslim women to wear the hijab does not mean that we ignore the plight of those who are indeed oppressed. It is not wrong to worry about the coercion of young women into wearing headscarves. It saddens me that I have to make explicit something that should be assumed: recognising and fighting genuine oppression is absolutely crucial.

However, real concern for the welfare of Muslim women should not be used to further an agenda that ultimately oppresses the very people it claims to defend. Pressure to not wear the hijab is just as oppressive as pressure to wear the hijab.

By refusing to respect a woman’s decision to don the hijab, we belittle her choice. Critics have attempted to dismiss my points by drawing a contrast between the hijab as a feminist statement and women who campaigned for basic human rights, such as better health care and abortion rights. To separate these causes, in an attempt to trivialise the argument in favour of the hijab, is to go against the broader struggle for equality.

Assumptions that people make about hijabis have made it difficult for Muslim women to find social acceptance and employment. Research shows that many western Muslim women feel under pressure to change their appearance for work, to downplay any visible ethnic or religious differences. Forgive me for thinking that social acceptance and employment for women is as much of a necessity as health care.

I am in no way demanding that the hijab be seen as the model of female emancipation. Instead, I ask people to stop labelling us all as oppressed simply because we refuse to accept the supermodel as our model. The prejudice faced by Muslim women is only the tip of an iceberg of broader intersecting social issues such as sexism, racism and religious discrimination.

Hanna Yusuf is a freelance writer with an interest in feminism and interfaith matters

On Twitter: @han_ysf.