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.