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.
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