This all started when I saw this tw**t from Sarah Haider, co-founder of Ex-Muslims of North America:
. . . which referenced this Facebook post by Haute Hijab, a community of hijab-wearing fashionistas:
And what happened is shown in part below: Anniesa Hasibuan, a fashion designer who produces incredibly elaborate clothes for the hijab-wearer (see some of her designs here), had a fashion show in New York, and after the catwalk parade there was a standing ovation from a non-Muslim crowd:
This, of course, is something that would be—and probably has—been touted by PuffHo. Sarah was saying that the standing ovation was actually a celebration of women’s oppression—oppression in the form of the hijab, a scarf meant to cover the hair as a sign of women’s modesty dictated by some sects of Islam.
And at first I thought, “Maybe Sarah is being too harsh here. Maybe these women don’t wear the hijab to be modest, but simply (as Jews wear yarmulkes) to be “closer to God.”
But then I thought, “But Islamic scripture says that you’re closer to God not simply by wearing the headscarf, but because you’re covering the bits of yourself that could inflame men’s desires.” And if that’s the case, then we have not only hypocrisy—the combination of hair covering to enforce modesty combined with glitzy fashion designed to show yourself off (makeup, outline of the bosom, glamorous fabrics)—but Regressive Leftism, in the form of a liberal crowd applauding the women precisely because they’ve exercised this hypocrisy but kept their all-important hair under wraps.
And I think Sarah is right. Yes, women should certainly have a choice about whether to wear the headscarf, and I’m sure some of them do wear it by choice (though fewer than we think), and some do it not to obey religious custom, but to make a political statement. But even that political statement is deeply entangled with faith, for Islam is the most political of religions.
The fact is that there’s nothing in the Qur’an or hadith about covering the hair (see below), but there’s plenty about being modest (see here and here, for instance), and Islamic scripture is clear that women must be far more modest than men. But there is no scriptural requirement to cover one’s hair, as noted in Wikipedia’s piece on “Intimate parts in Islam“:
And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw their khimār over their breasts and not display their beauty except to their husband, their fathers, their husband’s fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or the slaves whom their right hands possess, or male servants free of physical needs, or small children who have no sense of the shame of sex; and that they should not strike their feet in order to draw attention to their hidden ornaments. (Quran24:31).
You’re supposed to cover your intimate parts, but not necessarily the hair. What has happened in some Islamic countries—and this is recent—is that the hijab worn over the head has been interpreted as necessary for modesty, even if not explicit in Islamic scripture. It’s the interpretation of that scripture that has changed, so that in the last 40 years in places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, and Egypt, hijabs have become more and more common as a sign that a woman is a good Muslim. (Google image “Women Tehran 1970” and then put in “2015” to see the difference. Or substitute “Cairo” or “Kabul” for “Tehran.”)
For most hijabis, then (and I am guessing here from what I know), wearing the scarf is a religious signal, meant to show that you’re abiding by old Islamic dictates of female modesty and newer dictates on how the modesty is instantiated. But all of those dictates, new and old, were and are enforced by men; they’re part of the corrosive patriarchy that pervades Islam. If the hijab makes you feel “closer to God,” then it often does so by making you feel that you’re adhering more closely to an entire code of conduct designed to oppress and marginalize women.
So Sarah is right. Those hijabi fashionistas are simple hypocrites: they’re trying to obey the letter of Islam but violating the spirit. They’d immediately be whacked by the morality police if they appeared on the streets of Kabul in that garb! More important, they can’t have it both ways: hide your beauty under a headscarf in the name of modesty, but flaunt it below the neckline. Well, of course you can do that, as these women have, but let them flaunt their brand of modesty in Kabul or Saudi Arabia!
But what’s even worse is the New York crowd applauding this, not because the fashions are particularly spectacular, but because they’re topped with a hijab.
Yes, Sarah’s right: the crowd is applauding not the women or the designer, but themselves—their liberality, their open-mindedness, their show of support for what they see as an oppressed minority: Muslims. After all, Muslims are people of color. What the enthusiastic crowd doesn’t realize, though, is that it’s simultaneously applauding the oppression of women, symbolized by the very garment that elicited all this approbation.