This response is from About Islam’s archive and was originally published at an earlier date.
Thank you very much for contacting About Islam with your question.
Also, thank you for your concerns regarding freedom of faith and how Muslim women should exercise their rights in full freedom.
I think that the misunderstanding comes from the fact that you confuse Muslim societies with Muslim regimes. While many societies are overwhelmingly committed to Islam and want to find their way to progress and democracy — based on their vision — most of the elites see progress only in terms of Westernization.
Hence, the “image” of a modern woman who is active in the economic sector and the political and civil sphere is necessarily that of a secular woman who looks like the Western career women in Hollywood movies.
Funnily enough, they do not only attempt to follow that model in their personal life — a right to individual choices we would respect — but they also embarked on the project of turning this into a state policy that deprives Muslim women of their right to appear in the public domain as they wish to.
It is striking that the regimes that prohibited hijab have witnessed an Islamic awakening among the young and educated women who started recognizing hijab as a progressive and liberating outlook that heals the malaise of over-obsession with the outer appearance and the body.
They learned the lesson from the struggle of women’s liberation movements in the Western societies and realized that uncovering women’s bodies has more to do with the market than with freedom and liberty.
Turkey is an example, also Tunisia. Even in some Islamic countries — like Egypt — where women have the right to wear the hijab, a woman in hijab is denied some official posts. This is especially in the media and in the foreign office.
In some cases, the banning of hijab is backed by a legislation ratified in a non-democratic People’s Assembly, but in many cases, it is just a common practice rather than a law.
It is sad that the hijab would become a subject for political disagreement. So, it ends up being seen as THE symbol of commitment to Islam in Islamic circles; or, on the contrary, the symbol of backwardness in secular circles.
This puts a lot of pressure on women both ways and undermines the social rather than the political essence of it.
In my opinion, a woman in an ideal Islamic society would not be forced to wear the hijab, as much as she should in no way be forced to take it off. It remains a socio-moral issue rather than a pillar of faith as it is sometimes portrayed.
The current challenge, however, in some countries at the moment is the market rather than the polity. Instead of being a symbol of modesty, egalitarianism, and humanization of the female body, instead of over-feminizing it, hijab becomes a fashion, indicating, along the line of its material and style, socio-economic differences.
I am sure many women know about the political pressures, but many are not aware of the consumerist pressures to turn the hijab into yet another commodity in the market economy.
Muslim women need to understand the logic of hijab as much as Muslim men should recapture the modesty of clothes Islam ordained to them as well.
If those who have hostile policies towards Islam depart from the middle ground to secular extremism, we should not leave our moderation to an extremist form of overstating the hijab.
It is a balanced vision of Islam on the issue of the body and the appearance that we need to revisit again to give the matter the weight it was originally given by Islam. It is only then that we will give more attention to the manners and codes of ethics related to hijab instead of losing a sense of these things in a battle we did not choose to fight.
Thank you and best regards. Please keep in touch.
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