Tuesday, February 5, 2013

It's All On Your Head

This is what I look like now:

This is what I looked like three years ago:

Yeah, I know, braces sure make a difference, don't they? All joking aside, most people I talk to are surprised that I used to be a very religious Muslim. Some of them are even a little freaked out. I read the whole Qur'an, prayed five times everyday, the whole nine yards. If someone had told me back then that I would become a full blown atheist activist now, I probably would have been offended.

All of that being said, I have a rather unique perspective to offer when the topic of Islam is brought up in atheist circles. I have become especially interested in the hijab, as it was a significant part of my life for a good portion of my high school career. The question of hijab was raised on the Secular Women Facebook group the other day. It was mentioned in response to this BBC article on World Hijab Day, an occasion on which non-muslim women are encouraged to try wearing hijab for a day so that they can see what it's like. On the Secular Women group, members were discussing whether or not the hijab is an instrument of oppression. There really is no simple answer to this question. I don't think we should even try to answer it simply. Here, I do not wish to discuss the merits or lack there of of the Islamic religion in general. Everyone should know where I stand here; I am an atheist. I intend to elaborate on the post I made in reply to the original post on Secular Women and, hopefully, bring up some relevant points that may not be initially obvious or apparent when it comes to the single issue of the hijab.

What is hijab anyway?

Explaining exactly what a hijab is might be a patronizing way to start this discussion, but it's surprising how many people aren't familiar with the different types of headcoverings you might see Muslim women wear. A hijab is the the one that goes on your head, neck and shoulders. Nothing more. Sometimes, hijab is worn only on the head. The difference is often cultural. I have also heard "hijab" used for the practice modesty in general for both men and women. In this context, I am focusing on the physical garment. A hijab is not a burqua, a hijab is not a niquab, a hijab is not an abaya or a chador. All of these types of clothing are sometimes associated with Islamic modesty, but they are not the same and the all have cultural histories and traditions that I am not entirely qualified to discuss. It's pertinent to remember for our purposes, though, that when talking about hijab and the oppression of women, we are not talking about women with every inch of their body and face covered. We're only looking for now at the head veil, which is probably the most common in the west.

Myth: Women who wear hijab are more "conservative" than those who don't.
We cannot deny that the culture of United States is saturated with Christianity. Though the Bible technically calls for women to cover their heads, the only women who we see wearing head coverings (or any sort of specifically modest dress) in American Christianity are those who adhere very strongly to the old traditions of their church or denomination. Orthodox Christians, conservative catholics, the Amish and the lovely ladies of the WBC cover their heads and these happen to be the more old-fashioned, conservative sects of Christianity. This is not always the case in Islam. There is no official Muslim church or pope, so Islamic religious practices are quite variable. As such, womens' reasons for wearing hijab are also variable. Some women who wear hijab are very religious. On the other hand, there are other women who are very strongly Muslim who do not wear hijab.

When I was in high school, I went several times a "foreign language day" at Michigan State University, where we participated in mini-sessions to learn about foreign languages and cultures. During one session I attended on women in Islam, some of the presenters wore hijab, others didn't. One of the women with hijab asserted that her veil was a choice, but not required. Another woman in hijab said that she was taught that every hair a woman exposes is equivalent to time she will have to spend in hell for it. Even between those two women, there was a huge difference in opinion as to whether or not a Muslim woman should wear hijab. Within the subset of Muslim women who believe that hijab is required, there is debate as to precisely which body parts should be covered. There are still others who believe that hijab is technically required, but that forsaking it is forgivable in the West where it may be frowned upon or even banned and thus, might cause the woman more harm than good.

Some women wear hijab for reasons other than religious requirement. There are those who do it as a symbol of their identity. Some do it as a matter of culture or because the country they live in requires it. In my case, I just wanted to. I liked how it looked, it was practical. All of this complicates the issue of whether or not hijab is inherently oppressive to women. Free choice and agency is a deciding factor in the matter of oppression. If someone covers their head because they want to, the head covering is likely not oppressive. This brings us to another big issue that comes along with the choice or obligation to wear hijab: modesty.

Modest is hottest?
Whether a woman chooses to wear hijab or whether she feel obligated to do so by her religious beliefs, the reason most Muslim women give for wearing hijab is "modesty". Modesty and humility are seen as virtues in all of the Abrahamic faiths and in much of the secular world as well. Most of us are "modest" to some degree. In the United States, it is generally considered inappropriate to reveal the breasts or sex organs in public. Some (myself included) go so far as to never remove their clothes in front of anyone but an intimate partner or doctor. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have followers that express modesty and humility in a different way, through head covering. We frequently associate modesty with the downplaying of the sexuality, but "plain" or modest clothing is often symbolic (as with the head coverings of the Jews and Amish) and has little to do with sex. In this case, we cannot fairly say that the outward projection of modesty is inherently oppressive.

There is another side to modesty in Islam, however. Many Muslim women are taught that one of the purposes of hijab is to downplay their sexual assets so as not to attracted the unwanted attention of men. This notion is sexist and, arguably, oppressive. Women should not be expected to cover for the benefit of men or to protect themselves from the supposedly wild male sex drive. To have this expectation, especially with equivalent for the male, is akin to slut shaming and, by extension, victim blaming. Unfairly gendered expectations such as these should always be challenged. Covering one's body does not, in fact, prevent rape. That being the case, compelling a woman to dress a certain way for no practical reason is simply oppressive.

What should female secularists do?
Secularist women who wish to irradiate gendered religious oppression are faced with a glaring problem when it comes to hijab. It is not always clear whether and to what extent its presence in our society should be addressed.

I took off my hijab long before I became non-religious. I got sick of being looked at funny, of getting discriminated against or getting pity for supposedly having been beaten and brainwashed. Even my own family treated me badly because of it. Even now, one of the reasons I rarely tell people about my religious history is that I haven't yet made peace with the way I was treated as a Muslim. Not to mention the fact that people are made uncomfortable by the thought that I used to be Muslim. Whether or not we think Islam is incorrect philosophically, we have no excuse for discriminating against people who happen to subscribe to that religious persuasion. I fully support wearing hijab for a day to see what it's like if need be. If we ever want to convince anyone that we're right, we have to be able to empathize with them rather than making assumptions. Are all Muslim or ex-Muslims going to agree with me on these points? Nope! Almost every point I have made here is contentious. Everyone has a different experience with them. In the end, female Muslims are women too. We will solve no problems with oppression if we ourselves become the oppressors.


  1. Bogdan Cvetkovic
    Like where do you generally stand as an atheist? What I mean is this. Richard Dawkins, for instance, thinks with almost complete certainty there is no Christian God and that all religions are poisonous falsehoods. A YouTube user HannibaltheVictor13, while not subscribing to any faith, believes religion will always be part of human existence. For UJames1978, issues are nuanced and the real enemies are not specific religious doctrines but inner demons like fear, ignorance, prejudice, conformity etc. For me my beef with religious institutions is that they act all too much like worldly political parties interested in keeping and abusing their powers.

    1. In the most general sense I lack belief in any god or gods. The extent to which I am certain depends on the god in question. I am fairly sure that most anthropomorphic gods do not exists. To vague, deistic conceptions of gods, I am more unsure, but I do not assert belief in them because there is no good reason to do so.

      All of the religions I have studied or become familiar with have shown to be generally false and I think that secular philosophy is more than enough for things like ethics, etc. I don't think that anyone inherently "needs" religion as some people have asserted. I actually think that secular philosophy and learning to properly deal with one's emotions are better than religion for dealing with life. That being said, so many people are so convinced that they do need religion that making it a goal to wrench religious belief away from everyone would be futile.

      I do think that everyone should try to believe true things and question their own beliefs. In this sense, I am kind of anti-religious. BUT I am not against religious people. I don't think that getting in people's faces and being dicks to them is productive. I will criticize religion openly, but I will only do it from a purely rational point of view and I will try my best to represent the religion fairly and accurately. I will also not force believers to engage in this kind of discussion if they don't want to. Again, I think it's unproductive.

      I actually think dogma is more dangerous than religion. I think that organized religion is generally negative, but it is not the source of EVERYTHING wrong with the world. Eradicating religion should be less of a goal than teaching people to think critically. Getting rid of religion would get rid of something that causes harm, but it would not eliminate the root of the harm, which is not exclusively religious.

      I am an atheist activist, not because atheism is all important to me, but because atheists are. I am against religious tyranny, privilege and oppression more than I am against religion.

    2. Since you dignified me with a response I will do the same and elaborate my own general beliefs regarding religion. I wanted to take time to think to make a good response. I hope we keep learning from each other in the future.

      I am an atheist in a general sense of lacking any belief in gods. I do not subscribe to any faith or doctrine because I don’t find any reason in the mind or the heart to do so. However, I do find the existence of other dimensions/planes of reality and other beings a good possibility. That does not mean however they’re necessarily gods.

      My atheism has less to do with whether gods exist and has more to do with being whole and mature enough to be your own guide, to be your own intellectual, moral, and creative source, and not to be dependent on another’s doctrine, whether god or human. It’s similar as you said, secular philosophy (thinking critically of, and not just reflect our culture), and learning to properly deal with one’s emotions, about being intellectually and emotionally whole. There is a really good video by QualiaSoup (I’m sure you’ve seen it) where he allegorizes his beliefs and ideas as a cupboard. Originally is a cupboard just like his parents, the popular form of Christian faith in his culture, but gradually builds his own cupboard.

      My take on Islam is (I hope) circumspect enough for the complexities of the issue. the huge prejudice against Islam and Muslims has to do with the centuries conflict between Christianity and Islam (we still think of things as a crusade >.<), the strains caused by the Wars on Terror, and America’s imperialistic attitudes. The Middle East is also very war-torn by rivaling factions, and the West keeps draining them for their resources. America is “civilized” not because of Christianity, which is as complex and loaded as Islam is, but because of material wealth and enlightened values, even if accepted only in a half-assed degree. I’m sorry you faced such discrimination when you were Muslim and I hope you one day overcome your past and make peace with it.

      My beef with religion has less to do with religion itself, but more to do with the oppression of religious institutions, which are just another political party interested in their own power, and just another form of oppression. (There are many forms of spirituality and religion that aren’t oppressive like aboriginal practices.) Like you my real enemies are oppression, and religious institutions are one of many oppressive systems that oppresses the mind as well as the body.

      What I think there really needs to be is an internal revolution, a revolution of the mind, a profound change in the way we as a species perceive, think, and act in this world. Progressive movements like the atheist movements are a way of doing this.

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  3. I thought this would be a better place to ask for a more substantial discussion. You have a nuanced handling of issues and think deeply, so I am curious how that applies in your broader philosophy.

    *Sorry for the obvious comment delete. I'm a perfectionist. *shrugs*

    1. The problem is, she does not have one. She sees hijab as a cloth only, without being aware of spiritual, psychological, moral and philosophical meanings of it. Therefore, she has to remain in shallowness, change herself to what her nafs likes more (the two pictures in the beginning).. I would recommend her to start with some philosophical works and read Nasr's Knowledge and the Sacred..

  4. Whelp, I think this deserves a response/open discussion. :-) Look for jt next week.

  5. Brave, smart and beautiful. The world would be a better place with more people like you.


Please be civil. :)