The Hijab as a Cultural Symbol | By Sanaa Humayun

I grew up in a Muslim household, and there is a certain culture related to that upbringing.More specifically, there is a specific culture involved being an Islamic woman. The most appropriate symbol of that, in my opinion, is the hijab – a religious head covering for women. Growing up, my parents gave me and my elder sister the choice to wear the hijab. She chose to wear it; I did not. I’ve never fully identified with the religion and my parents understood that it was my choice. The difference in mine and my sister’s experiences growing up has shown me what a controversial symbol the hijab still is.

The hijab, in its ideal form, represents modesty. Not in a negative, women should be docile and domestic, sort of way. Instead, it represents the idea that there is more to women than outward beauty. It encourages people to look beyond appearances. I fully believe that Islam is not oppressive to women, and I think the hijab is actually a good example of that in what it represents. Ideally, it represents that women have a choice in their appearance, and their reverence to God within the religion is not determined by how they look.

But in reality, there are negative aspects to the hijab as a symbol of femininity within Islam, mostly because of misconceptions about what it means. Growing up, my sister received a lot of negativity for her decision from people outside the culture. People saw her as outdated. A woman once told her that she was “setting feminism back by 10 years”. Alternatively, I was on the receiving end of a lot of negativity for my decision from people within our native culture. I found that most of the time it was the men within the mosque who criticized me, while more often than not the women were silent supporters.  Men often told me that I was perceived to be wild and inappropriate. I was once called a “harlot.” People outside the religion condemned my sister because they saw her as submissive in her choice to wear the hijab, and these men inside the religion were outraged by my choice to not wear the garment, because to them, I was not submissive enough. A Muslim boy in my high school once told me that he thought that all Muslim women who didn’t wear a hijab were blasphemous and wrong, but at the same time, he wouldn’t date a woman in a hijab because it’s not “attractive” enough. This attitude is not uncommon, and I was floored by the double standard that Islamic women are faced with.

The hijab fails Islamic women everywhere as a symbol because of this double standard. When reading the Qur’an I understood that it was meant to be a symbol of solidarity amongst women, but I realized that it has been so incredibly misconstrued. It divides Muslim women into hijab wearers and non-hijab wearers, into religious and blasphemous, into submissive and free people. It creates this stigma, where if a woman chooses to practise Islam, she loses autonomy over her appearance, no matter what she chooses.

Illustration courtesy of The Wanderer Online Design Editor Janelle Holod

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  • Srosh Hassan

    Great piece on something rarely adressed, well done.
    How do you think the hijab will be percieved as a symbol in the future?
    Is there a solution to the double standard or should it not be treated as a problem in the first place, and just how people are?