Dressed Not Oppressed: A Feminist POV on Islamic Modesty & Veiling

Sofía Stiletano

For years, discussions centred around Islamic head covering and choice have turned societies to raise their voices in the name of women's rights and religious freedom. Today this discussion is more current than ever. To shed some light on this topic, artil invited two Muslim women and declared feminists to talk about religious attire, prejudice, faith, women’s rights and autonomy. 

Kadi Sow was born in Cote d’Ivoire and moved to the United States with her siblings when she was six years old. As a young Muslim child in the US, she felt that her surroundings were not culturally or religiously diverse. However, that started to change when she entered middle school and met people with similar beliefs. Nowadays, Kadi is an International Cooperative Law student and works at a humanitarian centre in a programme that helps immigrants and refugees assimilate by teaching them English.

Madee Azmi is a Journalism student who would like to pursue a master's in Film and Cinematography upon graduation. She was born and raised in Malaysia in a Muslim family and community. Being part of this article was very important to her since she has suffered from bullying and microaggressions for her clothing choices and violent threats for using her platform to help women inform themselves about their rights.  

“According to the Qur’an, the deeper meaning of the headscarf is modesty— but deciding to wear it is up to you and your comfort level. For me, modesty has to do with my actions and not on how I dress.

Do I treat people with respect? Do I care for others? It is more about giving than receiving. It is about charity, or ‘zakat’,” says Kadi, for whom headscarves symbolize religious identity. “I have friends who used to wear the headscarf and took it off later in life. Maybe they felt that they were forced to wear the hijab. Maybe their connection with it changed. Everyone is on their own journey with religion. Some may wear a scarf to cover their head and neck, while others wear a full niqab that only reveals their eyes; there is no right or wrong.”  

Kadi began to wear a hijab in middle school. In the 7th grade, she started having a hard time with her choice since she didn’t have friends who wore it and lacked the motivation to use it. Years later, inspired by her sister (who wore colored turbans) and Instagram, she finally found looks that make her feel comfortable, trendy and modest. This was when she found her style with scarves, which were more comfortable for her than the hijab. She still, however, recognizes her privilege compared to that of most other women who wear hijabs, “Using a scarf gave me a voice — it made me more aware of my surroundings. Now, since I have been wearing it for so long, if I take it off I feel like there is a hole; as if I am doing something wrong. But every woman has a different situation. There is a really big gap between Muslim women who wear a scarf versus the ones that don’t in the US. If you can physically see someone wearing the headscarf they will most definitely be discriminated against in the workforce, education systems… basically in anything that has to do with society. Islam empowers me because my voice is being heard and I get to be seen because of my hijab.”

Madee had a different upbringing. Growing up, it was common for her to see women wearing hijabs in her community, and even though her family wasn’t extremely religious, all of the women were veiled. As a young girl, she didn’t have a deep understanding of the hijab; she just started wearing it because everyone else did. However, once she finished high school and won a university scholarship, things started to change. Surrounding herself with new friends opened the door to a different universe. “Vanity wasn’t a thing for me as a young girl. But when I started university I was surrounded by all these women who I thought were so much more beautiful than me. I started questioning why I was wearing the hijab if it didn’t make me feel beautiful.” 

As a consequence, Madee stopped wearing her hijab for two years. During that time, she says she hit rock bottom. She wasn’t feeling like herself and sank into mainstream culture to be accepted. This ironically made her more curious about the meaning of veiling. “My hijab gives me a sense of power because no one will look at me in a certain way. Who I am behind my hijab is only reserved for certain people. Now, I use it as armour and use my actions to speak for me. For me, a hijab symbolizes choice, empowerment and authority over my own body.”

Many people see the hijab as the public face of the discrimination suffered by thousands of women within a particular religious context. It is seen as imposed on women by Islamic culture, but for Madee, “Religion doesn’t necessarily promote misogyny. I think every garment can symbolize patriarchal oppression. Let’s say that someone tells me to take all [my clothes] off in the name of God. It is not about the garment; it is about the choice.”

Madee goes on to question the idea of equality worldwide, “Nonetheless, the idea of western equality may not be the same as women's rights in Islam. The freedom to act or cover oneself as one deems fit is not the same for every Muslim woman around the world. According to western standards [of feminism], women and men should be the same; meaning that their strength is equal, their skills are equal, and they can be in equal fields. In Islam, it is more of an equity thing. Men are in certain fields and women are in others, and that creates a balance. I think that when people read the Qur’an they interpret that women are below men; that is not the case. People use that as an excuse.” She also shares her thoughts on societal judgements of women working,

“Not every Malay or Muslim woman in the world wants to be a wife. When girls become adults and want to be a model or a doctor or follow a different path than marriage, they start being questioned or labelled as a whore because they don’t conform to certain standards or behave in a certain way. They become women that have authority over themselves. When women don’t want to do something, society tells them it’s not ‘sunna’ [religiously correct] to behave in that way; they weaponize this term to force women into doing things.”

Madee thinks men love the idea of having a smart woman as a partner but don’t like it when a woman’s intelligence surpasses theirs, or a woman is able to prove them wrong. “Men want the [traditional] Qur’an version of a veiled woman, but it’s impossible for women nowadays to be like that because the world has changed. Men themselves think they uphold those old values but they are not the way Muslim men were thousands of years ago. So women are oppressed not because of Islam, but due to men who stick to misogynist values and mask their actions in the name of religion. This is why feminism is so important because it teaches us that women can be subjected to equal choices.”

Women dressing modestly is not only a discussion of different traditions, religions, or expectations but also one of objectification. It seems that the debate topic is always about how women should behave — why don’t people use all that energy to question men’s misogynist values?

A woman's attire is not the basis of gender equality. Transforming a piece of clothing like the hijab into a chauvinist symbol is a social cnstruct. In reality, to many, it is a symbol of empowerment. 

Instead of constantly questioning women's decisions through the lens of old stereotypes, we should start by questioning why society insists on being intolerant. To this end, the cornerstones that will allow women to thrive in society involve ending misogyny and violence against them and their choices, and educating ourselves on what these choices mean to them.

Sofía Stiletano

"The beauty of writing is that it can silently create a ripple effect. This is why I choose this medium to contribute to defend individual rights; by raising my voice to create awareness about the importance of representation and being kind and considered towards others and oneself. So that all of us can rise cooperatively and find a space in society that makes us happy, especially in this times of dehumanization and disconnection from the organic world."
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