The Plague of the Hijab Issue

Sarah Swick, Minaret of Freedom Institute, www.minaret.org

I was recently invited to represent the Minaret of Freedom Institute at an international conference in Cologne, Germany sponsored by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (Foundation). The topic of the conference was “Women in Islam: Between Oppression and (self-) Empowerment.”

The Conference brought together Muslim and non-Muslim women[1] from around the World to discuss ways to improve the status of Muslim women.. The credentials and passion of the women assembled impressed me, however I was distressed by the constant confrontations over the “hijab”[2], both by women pro and con hijab (headscarf). It seemed we could not get beyond the issue and lost valuable time in which we could have spent more time discussing the more vital issues, such as divorce, forced marriage, domestic violence, and discrimination. However, these heated, if not repetitive, debates about the hijab allowed me to come to a personal ‘revelation’: women, themselves, are largely to blame for the constant attention paid to a piece of cloth, inhibiting real progress on the vital issues mentioned above.

On the ‘con’ side, I was disappointed in the close-minded discourse presented. For example, a respected Moroccan female academic even went so far as to say, “I do not believe a woman can be free if she wears the scarf.” I don’t believe that we can determine someone’s freedom simply on the basis of their clothing. Moreover, a representative of the Forum Progressive Muslims of Switzerland argued at the conference that female teachers should not be allowed to wear the scarf, as in her view, such women are not good role models for children. Again, I would argue that one cannot judge someone’s morality by their clothing, moreover I would insist that ‘judging of morality’ is not an exercise for humans, rather it should be left to the Divine.

Similarly, problematic is the discourse on the ‘pro’ hijab side. At the conference, and even more generally in the Muslim community, there is a feeling that a woman not wearing the scarf is somehow ‘less Muslim’ or ‘not-as-good of a Muslim’ as one who does wear it. This judging of piety on the basis of clothing is also very problematic in my mind, and, again, should be left to the Divine.

Morality and piety are personal and internal to the mind and heart. As the cliché goes “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” I also implore Muslims not to judge a woman by her cover (or lack thereof)! For me, this all comes down to individual and personal liberty. In deciding which interpretation of the Qur’an to follow, I believe that, in addition to using intellect and reason, we should remember to listen to our hearts as Allah guides our hearts.[3] So, for example, Dr. Asma Barlas (who was a speaker on that panel) and I may disagree about what the Qur’an says about the hijab. My intellect and heart tells me something different than how she understands it, but that does not mean I am any more right or more ‘guided’ than she or vice-versa. I believe that it is only with such an approach, which stresses the personal liberty and responsibility to reflect on the Qur’an, that we can be healed by the plague of the hijab issue and move on to greater illnesses in our ummah.

As part of a three part series on this conference, the next of my blog comments will be on “How we should understand the role of the Qur’an in our lives today?”


[1] There were also a few men in attendance.

[2] The scarf that covers the head and not the face.

[3] “No kind of calamity can occur, except by the leave of God. and if any one believes in God, (God) guides his heart (aright): for God knows all things.” Qur’an, 64:11 (Yusuf Ali translation).

7 Responses to “The Plague of the Hijab Issue”

  1. Asma Fayyad says:

    No one ever talks about the power within. Women need to feel empowered. Empowerment comes from freedom. The freedom to choose what God has chosen for his creation. Who could possibly know human beings more than the creator, the Almighty Himself.
    Women and men as well need to find the heart to change perception. The enemy is not out there! The conflict is not with someone else. Our outer lives mirror our inner lives. When we Learn to free ourselves from the norms, the trends and what might and should have been and initiate a movement towards the source of empowerment and freedom GOD. Then Hijab comes naturally. Thank you!

  2. Dain says:

    You are great Sarah. I’m going to link to this on my blog.

  3. teresa says:

    the Koran does not specifically state that women must wear Hijab it is stated in Hadith.

  4. farzana says:

    sura an nisa in the quran has evidence of hijab
    http://www.answers.com/topic/an-nisa

  5. Maria Guessous says:

    I am very proud that the female who said that about the hijab is moroccan. I dont think she is close minded : I think she is courageous, and realistic; The hijab is a man made male made, instrument of absolute oppression taht does not exist in islam. It is a shame on the name of islam and on those women who wear it. and yes, i do believ that no free woman or claiming herself as such, can wear the hijab. It is absolutely antinomic and the fact you are denying it, only shows how close minded YOU actually are.

  6. Maria Guessous says:

    farzana eitehr you don speak arabic, or you must reread the quran : surat an nisa talks about women s breast! what is wrong with you? and it has a context! the university of al azhar in Egypt has declared the hijab is NOT a quranic obligation. and even if they had not stated this, anyone who can read can see that there is NO SUCH THING in the quran as cover of the hair. and the quran is very precise. shame on you to lie about the quran : read again, and put your glasses!

  7. Maria Guessous says:

    and if the quran appears mysoginistic, it must be restudied, and understand you must have understood it badly. what about the part where it is allowed for a man to hit a woman? do you agree with that too? There s a lot of dark history about changes in the quran, you must follow your brain, and the free will and capacity to think for yoursel that allah has given you. I hope you teach your own self, and dont become only the subproduct of an arab country ruled by males, not by quran nor by allah subhanah!

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