Is hijab really a symbol of liberation when millions are oppressed into wearing it?

One has to see objectively what the hijab, niqab, and burqa have come to signify. There are symbols of oppression of the unwilling, and the atrocities faced by Muslim women who don’t keep their “proper” place

There is much debate around the concept of the veil in Islam.  In my city of Srinagar, in the predominantly Muslim province of Kashmir in India, the attitudes towards females covering up for modesty were always conservative but turned quite ugly in 1990 with the breakout of the Pakistan-backed Islamist insurgency in Kashmir against the Indian State.

Before 1990, attitudes about female modesty were similar to those in the rest of the Hindu majority, multi-ethnic Indian subcontinent – a certain restriction of dress and behaviour on girls after puberty.  I remember when  I was told to stop wearing jeans and skirts, and to start wearing the shalwar kameez, traditional South Asian female clothing, with a dupatta or chunni, a long-flowing piece of cloth that covers the upper torso and can be adjusted to cover the hair as needed, typically in the presence of elders or while praying. The instructions weren't strict, and the attitude was lackadaisical with no enforcement of the dress code except when visiting a shrine or praying and handling the Quran. Contrary to the intent, this change of dress in fact brought unwelcome, and frequently harrassing, male sexual attention as it represented a transformation from childhood to womanliness. However, unpleasant though it was, it was nothing compared to what the rise of Islamist aggression in Kashmir was to bring.

The launch of the Islamist militancy brought with it the first diktats of the newly appeared militant guerrilla organisations, the tanzeems, which started issuing farmans, or official orders,  that any Muslim girl or woman found wearing jeans or not having her head covered would have acid thrown on her or be shot at. Hindu girls and women were mandated to identify themselves as such with the bindi, a vermillion red dot otherwise worn cosmetically on the forehead.

I remember these farman being laughed at initially, but then reports started coming in of women being shot in the legs and knees for wearing jeans. There was panic. Mothers, aunts, grandmothers rushed to cloth shops for black fabric and tailors were swamped with orders to stitch up clothing that met the approval of the armed Islamist enforcers. Old burqas and abayas, mostly those that our grandmothers had long discarded, were dug up and girls and women held try out sessions to match everyone to the burqa that fitted them. We laughed about how on earth our grandmothers had been able to get around with only a net for vision and breathing.  But it turned serious when they said this was 'taawan', a curse.

 They said they had given it up as it had come to be considered backward and very rural  to not show their faces. My grandmother talked particularly about using hers only when she went to the mosque to hear the khutba (Friday sermon) as that was a tradition. These matriarchs were the most vociferous of all the women about the explosion of tanzeems and their farmans, cursing the 'misguided youth' on the "Islam they were bringing".

My mother’s generation of women however had a different problem altogether – rebellious daughters who refused to get behind the veil, come what may. Mama spent many a sleepless nights worrying about what could happen if the Islamists diktat was not followed.

Soon enough, the militants clashing with the Indian armed forces made the streets of the city unsafe. Curfews became routine. The population became virtually confined indoors.  The veil became something to be put on if we went out so as not to attract the ire of the militants or some zealous lunatic.

The whole dressing sense of the city changed. Even conflicts can't stop creativity and women became creative with designs, especially with the upper class women settling part time in the countries around the Persian Gulf, and the then new phenomenon of cable TV piping entertainment and fashion into our homes. These wealthy women started setting up boutiques and beauty parlours surreptitiously in upper crust neighborhoods of the city, hidden from public view.

Ever wary of being shot in the legs or having their knee caps shattered, they slowly changed the fashion sense of the city as more and more women turned to creatively designed hijab, burqas and abayas. We watched with fascination the various techniques of putting on the hijab with coloured pins or safety pins; heard the increasing jokes of getting pricked in the wrong places.

But then came the rising association of piety with the practice of the veil. Horrifically, the slut-shaming began of those who chose not to 'veil up'.

I used to walk everyday to a bus stop to commute to my day job, and one day a man of the neighborhood threateningly shouted at me, demanding why I didn’t have a poosch (veil in Kashmiri). In a flash second, all the frustration of years of confinement indoors, the discontinuation of sports, the constant moral policing, the justification by women of the 'piety' of the veil came rushing to my head, and I whirled and slapped him with maximum impact. The whole street, the mechanics in the shops beneath a mosque, the passers-by stopped in stunned silence as I ran him off the street. Decades on, this man still cowers every time he sees me.

It was then that I started reading about Stockholm Syndrome, white guilt, etc.

I started to realize then that the women who were advocating the veil the most were the ones who found meaning in the approval of the Islamist frat boys that they earned through subjugating themselves with the 'penguin dress'. 

Muslims opposing the hijab have to face arguments about personal choice from hijabi women, but it’s not about freedom of choice at all. It’s about hijabi women wanting to preserve the roles, responsibilities, obligations and limitations of women in Muslim society. That this results in pressure on all women to fall into line is not a problem for the hijabis because they think it perfectly right for women to know and occupy their proper place.

So the millions of women who are forced into the hijab, face not just the men who command it, but also the women who agree with those men, and dress it up as “freedom of choice”.

It is my experience and looking at the motivations of hijabis I have known even as some of us are making the assertion that the hijab is an instrument of oppression of women in Muslim society, a number of hijabi women, supported by Western feminists, are defending the hijab as a matter of a woman's freedom to choose what she wears. On the surface, that seems a reasonable assertion. However, these women are not defending the freedom of clothing choice of women. These are women who are in agreement about the position of women with the men who bully women about the Hijab.

What is in question is not the freedom to choose to wear the hijab but the freedom for a woman to choose the position in Muslim society for themselves that the imams and the mullahs decree. That's a right they have, but in pretending that it’s about the freedom of choice of clothing, they contribute to the firmness of the mullah's decree and so assist in denying space and freedom to those women who would prefer to reject the hijab and the oppression it represents. The "freedom to wear what I choose" argument is in fact an insidious dynamic of women sustaining the mullah directed patriarchal order of Muslim society, and treating those women who reject it as enemies of the correct and proper order of Muslim society.

One has to see objectively what the hijab, niqab, and burqa have come to signify. There are symbols of oppression of the unwilling, and the atrocities faced by Muslim women who don’t keep their “proper” place.  When the Taliban got projected into our living rooms in the 90s with their stadium executions and thrashings of women in blue burqas, there was no doubt as to what was going on.  With the advent of Wahabbism/Salafism across the Muslim world, the hijab is being enforced on girls as young as three.

So I find it very hard to accept the efforts of women in free countries to use the symbol of oppression as a means of showing solidarity.  I can only label it as either ignorance of the Liberals of the West, or outright appeasment by the regressive Left of the backward, oppressive, misogynistic attitudes of Muslim society.

I am still unable to understand the desperate desire in the Western democratic Left to appease and coddle the most regressive aspects of the conservative Muslim right.

Arshia Malik is a Srinagar-based writer and social commentator with focus on women issues and conflict in Kashmir. She makes her living as a school teacher and is an avid collector of literature. She is currently writing a book about her life as a female in Kashmiri Muslim society

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