Society has conditioned us to believe that a woman who wears hijab must be oppressed. Due to this, a lot of Muslim women are afraid to show their identity by wearing the cloth covering. But hijab is not a symbol of oppression; in many ways, it is liberating. Primarily, hijab is a way to achieve the goal of modesty, a characteristic that the Holy Qur’an instructs should be possessed by men and women alike:
“Say to the believing men that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Surely, Allah is well aware of what they do.” [24:31]
“And say to the believing women that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts, and that they disclose not their natural and artificial beauty except that which is apparent thereof, that they draw their head-coverings over their bosoms, and that they disclose not their beauty save to their husbands, or to their fathers … (a list of exceptions).” [24:32]
At another place God states:
“O Prophet! Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast their outer garments over their persons … that they should be known and not molested.” [33:60]
Females in U.S. society face so much pressure, starting from a very young age, to look a certain way, to dress in a way that attracts the other gender, to look just like the models in the magazines, to have a size zero figure, and so on. These unrealistic and artificial thoughts are embedded in our minds by the media. Of Muslim women, the media portrays hijab as an example of oppression by male authority. But when girls or women fall into the trap of trying to fit the concept of a paper-thin “perfect body” image, they give their freedom to such ideologies. Hijab gives that power back to each individual. It takes away the societal pressure and gives the woman wearing hijab the power, the freedom to choose to be the size she would desire, to dress how she chooses to.
Islam empowers women with hijab by giving them the ability to avoid the societal pressures of the time. Hijab is the tool to help achieve modesty, decency, and professionalism while interacting in the world, especially with the opposite gender. Hijab does not limit a woman’s abilities to achieve education and a career, contrary to the modern belief. In fact, the first woman in Islam, Khadija, who was the wife of Prophet Muhammad, was herself a very well-known, powerful businesswoman. The notion that hijab or Islam oppresses women is completely false. It is completely a woman’s choice to wear a scarf. God clearly states in the Holy Qur’an: “There is no compulsion in religion.” [2:257]
Different cultures have adapted the commandment of hijab and have come up with different outfits to cover themselves with. Some use a chaddar, a scarf, burqa, or a simple coat of a length that reaches below the knees with a covering that covers the head and chest. In the history of Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and other religions, we see that many times women wore head coverings and modest attire. Virgin Mary, a symbol of piety, is always depicted wearing a long cloak covering her head and body. Nuns, who are a symbol of righteousness, piety, and modesty, always cover themselves with a head covering and outer cloak. Islam is not new in spreading the idea of hijab. Islam has made it possible and has commanded all women to take their power in their own hands and reach the highest state of modesty by wearing hijab.
A Muslim woman has to work hard for the badge of honor represented by hijab. It is on her if she wears that badge while trying to hide away from the world or if she confidently displays that badge as a symbol of power and joy. However, we as the members of this society also have a responsibility to let people wear their badges proudly, as they wish, without scrutiny.
Hijab has liberated me. Not only am I following the commandments of my religion, but while wearing hijab, I am taking the power into my own hands of how much physical appearance plays a role in our society. Hijab gives me a sense of freedom: Freedom from the norms of what is “acceptable” to wear. Freedom from the need to fit in and starve myself to look model thin. Freedom from the prying eyes of the opposite gender. By wearing hijab I assert myself every day as a person who is beyond physical looks. I assert that I am not stepping out to seek the attention of others; rather, I am out in the university or out in the world to accomplish a goal, and hijab is a way to keep me focused on those goals.
Hijab’s purpose is simply modesty: modesty of clothing, modesty of action, and modesty of thoughts.
Ramlah Malhi is a guest writer for the Jihad of the Pen column. She is a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, the oldest Muslim organization in the United States. Raised in the Bay Area, Malhi is currently pursuing her undergraduate degree at the University of California, Berkeley. She also organizes and leads service projects such as the Muslims for Life initiative and teaches a class, Jesus, Muhammad, and the Modern State, at Berkeley.