OPINION: The Problem With World Hijab Day

Photo: Jordan Woodson/Forum

World Hijab Day, celebrated on Feb.1  in over 100 countries worldwide, is an observance calling attention to discrimination against Muslim women, especially hijabis–women who wear the hijab, a traditional Islamic head covering.

Though World Hijab Day originated as the brainchild of New Yorker Nazma Khan, it has since been absorbed as the mission of the nonprofit World Hijab Day Organization, Inc.

For the second year in a row, Nora Bouzihay helped organize an on-campus event in celebration of the day, with sponsorship from UA Little Rock’s Muslim Student Association and Islamic Center of Little Rock.

The event, which took place outside of the Diamond Cafe, gave students, staff, and others the opportunity to try on a hijab and participate in a balloon launch for victims of “all forms of discrimination.”

Bouzihay called it a day of awareness, bringing people together for the purpose of mutual empowerment and education on the meaning of the hijab.

It is a noble mission to acknowledge discrimination–against hijabis or otherwise–but the day’s official website fails to address an issue deeply intertwined with hijab: choice, or lack-there-of.

Bouzihay, on the contrary, feels that World Hijab Day addresses all the necessary facets which a conversation about the garment should.

She says that, even in the Islamic world, it is 100 percent the choice of a woman whether or not to wear the hijab. While she did admit that certain cultures require women to wear the headscarf, she does not think this is an example of religion being forced upon them.

Indeed, a woman’s freedom of dress varies by country. Women in Turkey and Morocco are under no legal obligation to wear the hijab, but in Saudi Arabia and Iran they are. In the latter country, protests over such policies have even erupted.

However, even if a woman is theoretically within her legal rights to wear or not wear hijab, societal pressure means that too many women throughout the Islamic world do not truly have the freedom to choose.

Of seven Islamic countries surveyed in a 2014 Pew Research study, Turkey and Lebanon (a country with a sizeable Christian minority) were the only two in which more than 25 percent of people thought it was appropriate for women to leave the house without any form of head covering. In none of them did a majority think it was appropriate.

In addition, Palestinian women have long faced formal and informal coercion regarding their choice of clothing, and in Afghanistan, the pressure to wear hijab or other traditional Islamic garments is high.

Based on Islamic doctrine, Malaysian authorities bar women from entry to certain buildings for wearing clothes that are “too revealing,” and Indonesian women who wear hijab do so largely out of the fear of molestation.

Intellectual Asra Nomani and news editor Hala Arafa, themselves Muslim women living in America, have voiced opposition to the practice of “wearing hijab in solidarity.” They argue that the idea of hijab as a central pillar of Islam is shaky at best, and that it reflects a victim-blaming mentality wherein women are regarded as a “sexual distraction” and are responsible for preventing sexual assault by concealing themselves from men.

So, why is this part of the conversation not the primary focus of World Hijab Day?

Scrolling through the organization’s website, one finds articles such as “Why hijab should be considered a basic human necessity,” and “The world treats you the way you allow it to,” which no less than completely praise the hijab as a positive force in and outside of the Islamic world, casually batting away any question about the issue of a Muslim woman’s choice to dress as she pleases.

Unfortunately, these articles do not seem entirely removed from that mentality identified by Nomani and Arafa.

If World Hijab Day is meant to raise awareness of all types of discrimination, while focusing on issues related to the hijab, then it is paramount that those organizing events locally and at headquarters address the discrimination that women experience in areas where they have no choice but to wear the hijab.

Without a doubt, discrimination against hijabis in the West is a problem–and one that the people behind World Hijab Day are right to throw the spotlight on–but it should not overshadow the larger issue surrounding the garment: the fact that, for a tremendous number of women who wear it, little choice is available. Muslim women have more rights in the West than in Islamic countries, and those fighting on their behalf must not forget this.

Bouzihay, herself a hijabi, says that forcing a woman to wear the hijab defeats the purpose of wearing it in the first place.

She is right about that; as such, World Hijab Day should be a time for cultivating honest conversation about the right of women, especially Muslims, to dress freely. It should be an affirmation of a woman’s choice to wear or not wear the hijab, rather than an apology for the wardrobe-totalitarianism common throughout Islamic culture.


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