What's missing from World Hijab Day

World Hijab Day in New York City.

World Hijab Day in New York City. Photo: Twitter/ World Hijab Day

World Hijab Day was celebrated by a reported 116 countries around the world on 1 February this year.  The initiative, started by New Yorker Nazma Khan, seeks to promote understanding and harmony by celebrating the hijab and encouraging non-Muslims to try it on and see what it 'feels like to be a Muslim'.

It is fantastic that the world came together to celebrate the hijab.  If, however, the aim is to foster true connection and understanding of Muslim women, the focus has to be on more than simply focus on what they wear. 

The campaign has its merits; there is no denying that there is a space for symbolism in the public realm. But the initiative can also be seen as exploiting the symbolic nature of the hijab by using the style of covering as a gateway for people to engage with the religion in an introductory fashion.

The fact is, for better or for worse, the visibility of the hijab (and the ease in which it can be policed) has made it a powerful symbol. It has evolved into a lightening rod around which debates and discussions about Islam's role in the West are centered and goes some way towards explaining why the concept of a 'World Hijab Day' is popular.

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However, if the conversation stops at symbolism, which it so often does, the effect becomes to trivialise rather than achieve any sort of deeper connection and understanding.  By focusing on an item or style of clothing, we again run the risk of reducing Muslim women to objects. 

Ironically, this is the complete opposite of what the hijab is designed to achieve.  By intimating that donning the hijab will allow the wearer to 'see what life is like as a Muslim woman', it also subtly implies that the hijab is one of the only things that makes a woman Muslim.  This does have the unfortunate side effect of ostracizing Muslim women who choose not to wear the hijab.

This is not to say that the concept of World Hijab Day is entirely flawed.  By demystifying it in some sense, progress is made.  However, it becomes concerning when time and time again, the only discourse about Muslim women is confined to the hijab.

To enrich and broaden the narrative, we should instead focus on the stories, lives and achievements of Muslim women across the board, regardless of their choice of clothing.  We should recognise Muslim women as active and engaged members of the community. These are women who are doctors, engineers, accountants as well as  mothers, politicians and scholars.

Women like Ayesha Farooq, a female fighter pilot in Pakistan, or Ibtihaj Muhammad, a female fencing Olympian.  Women like my very own mother, who tells stories of standing up to soldiers during the coup in Sudan when she was a student.  She was never defined by her clothes but always by her steely determination to make the most of life and provide the best opportunities for her children. 

It has to be said though, that part of the impetus is also on us as Muslim women.  We cannot simply continue to be defined by, and allow the world to define us by, the clothing and modesty choices we uphold.  We cannot wait for others to tell our story.  Although it may be frustrating to have to do so, these are the times we live in and so we have to actively ensure that the narratives we tell about ourselves are more than just about our physicality.

When we reach the point where the hijab is no longer something 'remarkable' in the literal sense of the word, we have reached a true understanding. Let's aim for that. 

 

Yassmin Abdel-Magied is the founder and president of Youth Without Borders. Follow Yassmin on Twitter @yassmin_a

22 comments

  • I must admit I find the notion of World Hijab Day confusing. Modern Western women enjoying the benefits of modernity and secularism supporting their Muslim sisters who haven't had these benefits. In many countries where Islam dominates women are oppressed. Wester women should be encouraging Muslim women to throw off their shackles and ditch the Hijab. Instead it appears that the focus of the day appears to be on us westerners to stop giving Muslim women , and by extension Islam, a hard time.

    Commenter
    Roland
    Location
    Pennant Hills
    Date and time
    February 03, 2014, 8:43AM
    • What is also interesting is that in many Muslim countries where women are considered oppressed there is a much higher level of parliamentary representation.
      TAre they seen to have a voice, or do they really have one?

      Commenter
      david
      Date and time
      February 03, 2014, 12:41PM
    • According to this link: http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm

      Qatar has 0.0% female politicians
      Yemen has 0.3%
      Oman has 1.2%
      Iran has 3.1%
      Kuwait has 6.2%

      Rates are between 14-20% for Turkey, UAE, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Pakistan.

      There are no Muslim-majority nations in the top 20 places on the list. I'm not sure where the first one kicks in... maybe you can tell me?

      Those figures don't seem very impressive, honestly, and they certainly don't support your assertions that Muslim women are better represented in parliament than non-Muslim women.

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      February 03, 2014, 2:55PM
  • Why not have a "no hijab day" and see what the reaction is. For the women to be seen as non muslim? Is that a fair expression of freedom too?

    Commenter
    anon
    Date and time
    February 03, 2014, 8:48AM
    • In contrast, see how the other half lives by a Muslim man or woman wearing a cross, or seek to build a church, in an Islamic country of their choice. Then we'll talk about which society is the more tolerant, and appreciate who has the better life. Let's face it, it is muslims seeking safety, peace, asylum in the West and not the other way round. And sadly, some of these who went seeking peace, raise havoc in their new homes. It is not surprising then, that there is suspicion held by the host country that it looks over its shoulder as it waits for disaster to strike.

      Commenter
      marym
      Date and time
      February 03, 2014, 9:17AM
      • There is no mandate in the Qur'an for women to wear hijab, burqas or veils. The mandate is simple modesty. Muslim women across the world have defined themselves by the way they dress. It's difficult to understand why women would choose to symbolise modesty by wearing hijab, burqas and veils if their own religion doesn't demand it. They have defined themselves with this symbol, others haven't defined them.

        Commenter
        sidah
        Date and time
        February 03, 2014, 9:36AM
        • I think the point that the idea of world hijab day may ostracize Muslim women who choose not to wear it pretty much sums up the flaws with this idea.
          It may be a Muslim symbol/fashion accessory to many in the west but in many countries women are forced to wear the hijab and even punished for failing to do so.
          Surely the right of Muslim women to choose whether or not they wish to wear a hijab is the real issue and I feel that this whole focus on hijab day may trivialize the struggle women face in many countries to have the right not to wear the hijab and other clothing specified for them by others. The right to schooling, the right to work, the right to associate with who they choose, the right to drive a car. Are these not more compelling issues facing Muslim women around the world?

          Commenter
          Paul
          Date and time
          February 03, 2014, 9:45AM
          • Agree

            Commenter
            david
            Date and time
            February 03, 2014, 12:40PM
        • Good points, all, but there's another.

          While some women will view the hijab as a neutral or even empowering garment, many of us continue to see it as a symbol of religious, cultural and patriarchal oppression, that in many countries, women have no choice about wearing. For that reason, I can't imagine feeling willing to put one on to make a social statement, any more than I'd like to don a burqa or bind my feet.

          I am sure that this comment will offend someone, and for that I apologise. Wearing a hijab does not automatically mean a woman is oppressed and disempowered. However, let's not conflate the personally-empowering choices of some women with the social significance of the garment overall.

          Commenter
          Red Pony
          Date and time
          February 03, 2014, 9:57AM
          • Agreed, along with the comment prior.

            I can see it from the point of view of the women involved, but I think there's a bigger picture.

            Commenter
            bornagirl
            Location
            Melbourne
            Date and time
            February 03, 2014, 2:50PM

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