From hijabi Barbie to the hijabi emoji, the Muslim headscarf is now ubiquitous. For some, a woman with her hair covered or her face veiled evokes victimhood and a system of domination, or perhaps exoticism (think of the real-life and theatrical versions of “Not Without My Daughter”). Fox News host Jeanine Pirro stoked those fears this month when she said the “hee-jab” worn by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) is “antithetical” to the Constitution. That’s one of many myths that persist about wearing hijab.
This month, Army Times reported on an alleged incident in which an Army sergeant was ordered to remove her headscarf by a senior noncommissioned officer, even though the sergeant had “an approved exemption from her brigade commander to wear a hijab in uniform.” In a story about first lady Melania Trump covering her head for a 2017 audience with the pope but eschewing a scarf for a visit to Saudi Arabia, NBC News reported that the Saudi government “did not request that Mrs. Trump wear a head covering known as a hijab, or a headscarf.”
“Hijab” means “curtain” or “partition,” not “headscarf.” The Koran uses forms of the words “khimar” and “jilbab,” but not “hijab,” when describing women’s dress. “Khimar” means “cover” and corresponds to what we would call a scarf; “jilbab” is an outer garment.
“Hijab” has become a common way of describing a Muslim woman’s head covering, but sharia rules on modesty are about more than covering one’s hair — they deal with a range of attire and conduct, applicable to both men and women, intended to protect interactions between men and women from sexual innuendo. It’s not necessarily offensive to use “hijab” as a synonym for “headscarf.” (It’s a lot closer than other terms, as long as you say “wearing hijab” rather than “wearing a/the hijab.”) But either way, fixating on one piece of cloth misses the point of sharia’s holistic rules for modest behavior.
After railing against Omar’s political views — fair game — Pirro said: “Think about it; Omar wears a hee-jab. Which, according to the Koran, 33:59, tells women to cover, so they won’t get molested. Is her adherence to this Islamic doctrine indicative of her adherence to sharia law, which in itself is antithetical to the United States Constitution?” Lamenting a challenge to the West, the Middle East Forum’s Daniel Pipes pointed out that “fashion houses have taken up hijabs.”
Not only are they wrong about sharia — which, crucially, makes a distinction between rules of personal comportment and enacted laws to be enforced by government — but they’re forgetting that religious practices like wearing hijab are exactly the kind of freedoms our Constitution is meant to protect. The First Amendment’s establishment clause says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” which means the government cannot favor, or disfavor, one faith over another. In other words, Islam isn’t any more antithetical to the Constitution than Christianity. The First Amendment also bars any law prohibiting the “free exercise” of religion.
“This is a symbol of oppression,” wrote Rita Panahi in Australia’s Daily Telegraph four years ago. “Please don’t celebrate it.” Gap’s 2018 back-to-school campaign featured a girl wearing hijab, earning a rebuke from Lydia Guirous, a spokeswoman for French political party Les Républicains, who tweeted, “I have denounced several times the rise in power of the veil imposed on little girls, which is a form of abuse and a trampling of our values.”
But the notion that wearing a headscarf is inherently oppressive ignores the agency of the person who dons it. Third-wave feminism holds that women should get to choose which practices are best for them without having to contend with anybody else’s expectations. That, not an uncovered head, is what liberation looks like. What’s more, compulsory uncovering has been, in different times and places, a tool of oppression. Secular governments around the world (including in Muslim-majority countries) have forced women to bare their heads to attend school or hold public office, or sometimes even to just walk in the streets: Near the end of Iran’s monarchy, in an effort to mimic Western societies, “traditional dress styles were discouraged,” according to a history from the University of Central Florida. In Turkey, for decades, wearing headscarves in government offices was banned. to promote secularization. Today, France infamously imposes legal restrictions on wearing hijab. Against that history, voluntarily covering oneself can be an act of empowerment, not subjugation.
According to the findings of researcher Seren Karasu, “religiosity is linked to commonly Islamic associated practices, such as wearing the Hijab.” An article on IMB.com, the website for a missionary branch of the Southern Baptist Convention, says, “For Muslim women, wearing a veil or head covering acts as a show of obedience to the Qur’an and to Allah, as well as being a symbol of modesty.”
But whether a woman’s hair is covered is a bad barometer for how religious she is. Some women wear hijab but don’t pray regularly or fast during Ramadan. Many Muslim women do not cover their hair but regularly pray and fast. On the blog MuslimGirl.com, Shayreen Izoli outlined her view that “while the hijab is indeed a woman’s obligation in Islam, it is not a pillar of Islam,” one of the five core tenets of the religion (which are faith, prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage to Mecca).
Some Muslim women cover their hair because they say the faith requires it. Others say it’s not required. Muslims can find support for both approaches. Some Muslim women cover some of the time; some not at all. One of us (Nadia) covers her hair in public all the time, while the other (Asifa) used to but now covers on and off, depending on the circumstances. We both consider ourselves — and each other — practicing Muslims. Some women wear it as symbol of cultural solidarity. Some wear it because it is the normal practice in their family or community. Some women find it an effective way to insulate themselves from the self-esteem challenges of the fashion industry. As Laila Alawa wrote for Mic in 2014, “The belief that one can pinpoint the degree of religiosity a Muslim woman possesses by looking at what is upon her head is degrading, invasive and pretentious.”
Last year, Macy’s introduced a clothing line for women that included modest styles and, as the New York Times reported, “hand-dyed hijabs.” Nike sells the “Nike Pro Women’s Hijab.” And Merriam-Webster defines hijab as “the traditional covering for the hair and neck that is worn by Muslim women.”
But “hijab” refers to a set of practices for a modest lifestyle. Some of these rules apply to women and some to men. When men wear tight T-shirts to show off their muscles, for instance, they are going against the Islamic notion of modesty, as an article for Islamic Insights titled “The Hijab of Men” put it. Similarly, writes Shaykh Saleem Bhimji for Al-Islam.org, a man “must not wear clothing that is not appropriate, tight fitting, and those that show off his body.” As Muslim American lawyer and activist Qasim Rashid wrote for the Independent in 2017, “When when addressing hijab, the Quran does not address women first. ... Wearing the headscarf is one form of hijab, but men often forget that hijab is much more. And at the genesis of the hijab discussion, the Quran commands men to not stare at women and to not be promiscuous.”