Hijab: The Limits of Choice

Fadilah Ali

As a young girl growing up in a small Muslim-majority town in South Nigeria, I never found it necessary to explain my hijab. It felt as natural as a shirt or a sock. The thought to question it did not occur to me until I got to university and encountered harsh opposition.

Fellow students wanted to know why I wore something that made the heat unbearable. Others had offensive, albeit creative, names for me. One yanked it off my head and apologised the next minute with a smirk. A lecturer wanted me to take it off; he thought that the reason I asked him so many questions was that I couldn’t hear him properly through the fabric. The IT unit regularly clicked pictures of me for the school website to showcase the “diverse and inclusive” student body. An admin official wanted to know if I would be wearing “that” to the matriculation ceremony.

My response to each of these encounters was a single expressed in a variety of phrases: why does what I wear bother you so much? Why can you not accept that I wear what I want? Why won’t you leave me alone? It doesn’t affect you in anyway. It’s my choice.

Today, I realise that I had no actual explanation at the time for why I wore it. All I could respond with was strong-willed, monotonous defence.

Linguistically, the hijab refers to a wall, curtain, veil or anything that serves as a barrier. In the Qur’an, it is the whole system of prescribed modesty and decorum in dress, behaviour and speech. For the context of this article, the hijab will refer to the headscarf.

Obsession and Orientalism

The political discourse surrounding the hijab has been nothing short of stifling. The much-needed discourse on the nuance of cultural and religious intersections is instead plagued with sweeping indictments, deliberate obfuscation of inconvenient truths, and strawman arguments. As is now universally acknowledged, the hijab, for most purposes and intents, is the symbol of Islam.

Bans and mandates are passed regarding it. Conferences and seminars are held to contemplate its relevance in the dynamic socio-political climate. Activists build careers around it. Popular opinion swings from active celebration, to blatant opposition, to resigned indifference. Its symbolism, significance, or absence all depend on who one talks to and where.

Today, mainstream orientalist tropes of women in hijab as victims have become the touchstone for discussions on anything vaguely Islamic. Stereotypes peddled by white feminism, hand in hand with imperialist foreign policy, demand immediate emancipation of Muslim women from this oppressive style of dressing supposedly imposed on them by their (male) family members. Accordingly, these women do not possess the intellectual capacity to ascertain whether they wear it by themselves, or have been “socially conditioned” into believing it should be worn.

As Anne Norton remarks in her book, On the Muslim Question:

The rights of women become the justification for military adventures and foreign occupation. No woman in her right mind could defend veiling or polygamy, we are told: thus, any woman who does so must be deluded or compelled. Protests from the women who are promised liberation are thus read as signs of their oppression, more evidence that intervention is called for. This logic permits no appeal, least of all from those it silences.[1]

Therefore, in order to determine what is best for her, one must consult the opposition. In order to offer her the choice and freedom to wear what she wants, one must look to white saviourism, which gives her the merry options of either taking it off, or taking it off.

A great start in (rightly) protesting this lose-lose situation is to simply declare that the hijab is worn out of choice and not coercion. Freedom is, after all, the fundamental right of every human, Muslim or not. Even the most rabid of islamophobes who reject the hijab on grounds of perceived loss of autonomy would acknowledge that they would have to step back at this point, because if it is true that Muslim women really want to wear hijab, then who is to say they cannot?

To insist that the hijab should not be worn, even out of choice, is to betray the liberal West’s own prized freedom of self-expression. Insistence on the inherent offensiveness of the hijab, even after a declaration of choice, makes it evident that disdain for the hijab does not come from a place of kindness or concern for the loss of rights of Muslim women.

Besides its status as a politically lucrative endeavour, the insistence on the inherent oppressiveness of hijab, and Islam in general, is not unrelated to the current trend of assessing religious principles based on palatability to Western sensibilities. A decried clash of civilisations between the East and West culminates in the need to elevate the norms and practices of the West over every other. If the West affirms the goodness of a religious or cultural practice (e.g. yoga), then its adoption automatically lends respectability to the practice. However, if the West deems it regressive (e.g. hijab), then the rest of the world follows suit.

On both sides, the voices of actual practitioners do not matter — not in the face of white exceptionalism. Yet the justification of the hijab with choice subtly support cries for freedom to wear crop tops and mini skirts, like the western women these Muslim women are assumed to aspire to. Thus the throes of white supremacy manifest yet again.

Choice as a Safety Net

It is important to note that in and of itself, choice is not a fundamentally incorrect motivation in Islam. By being Muslim, one who has submitted to the Will of God, we agree to abide by God’s rules and instructions. An individual can decide to not fast the month of Ramadan. Yet it would be incorrect to state that rather than its being explicitly instructed, fasting has been made optional for Muslims by God.

Similarly, to say “I chose to wear hijab” would not be completely wrong. It is a choice because humans have free will. However, compulsively invoking freedom of choice anytime the hijab is discussed implies, among many other things, that covering the whole body is such an anomaly that no one would actually sign up for except out of thoroughly rationalised, conscientious agreement. The liberal principle of “anything is okay if by choice, but not if forced” is being applied here. Yet no one would say they “choose to wear jeans”, or it is their “choice to carry a backpack”. They just say they wear jeans or carry backpacks.

Emphasis on choice implies either one of two things. The first is that Islam is silent on dress code and, in its stead, Muslims have created the concept of hijab from scratch. Saying “what I wear on my head is entirely my own choice” is almost like saying “I’m eating a burger instead of chicken nuggets out of my choice.” It may get rid of liberal opposition, but it then becomes devoid of any divine significance. This is of course nonsensical because hijab is a religious mandate. On the other hand, to invoke “choice” could mean that while Islam does have a prescribed dress code, it is also completely voluntary. This is also inaccurate.

If an act is a obligatory function of being religious, then there is simply no option of choice as far as one believes in the religion. Human shortcomings exist and should be acknowledged and handled with mercy. But to modify the particulars of a set religious rule to accommodate and decorate these shortcomings is detrimental. Religion exists to serve a purpose and fill a void. If it becomes a buffet of feel-good platitudes, it becomes meaningless.

He said: “I know what ye know not.”

The question of why Muslim women wear hijab has generated countless answers. Some Muslims have flimsy analogies on standby about wrapped and unwrapped lollipops. Others draw up a more sophisticated reasoning, complete with all the buzzwords: empowerment through modesty, reclamation of marginalised Muslim identity, and liberation from unrealistic beauty standards. Some say it is a powerful fashion statement, and sing the praises of hijabi trailblazers on the runway. Some say it is meant to reduce a woman’s risk of experiencing sexual harassment. Others say it is meant to make Muslim women stand out as representatives of the faith. And many of course argue it is simply a tool of oppression.

Yet because the fundamental answer is that Allah has instructed us to, the question should not be why do Muslim women wear the hijab, but why has Allah has instructed us to do so. The answer to that is also the answer to why Allah instructed Muslims to fast from dawn till sunset, eschewing food and drink. The answer to that is why Muslims are commanded to pray five times daily. The answer to that is what Allah told the angels when they pointed out that humans on earth will cause so much bloodshed, violence and corruption.

Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: “I will create a vicegerent on earth.” They said: “Wilt Thou place therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood?- whilst we do celebrate Thy praises and glorify Thy holy (name)?” He said: “I know what ye know not.”

Al-Qur’an 2:30

In this verse, the angels seem to not understand why Allah plans to create man who is surely going to cause much mischief in the land. But they are content when they are reminded of their limited knowledge and wisdom, and that Allah knows all things.

This allusion to the infinite knowledge and awareness of Allah is observed again when the prophet Nuh (AS) asks about his unrighteous son and is told:

… So ask not of Me that of which thou hast no knowledge! I give thee counsel, lest thou act like the ignorant!

Al-Qur’an 11:46

For every religious practice, we can extrapolate a host of benefits. Maybe fasting is actually good for the health and encouraged by doctors. Maybe taking time to pray and connect with the Creator is spiritually fulfilling. Maybe the hijab empowers women, and sets them apart from the crowd in a society. These experiences are as numerous as there are Muslims on earth. But no one actually argues that Muslims pray and fast solely for physical and mental health. A woman living in a perverted society may find great solace and empowerment in wearing the hijab and defying beauty standards. Yet that does not mean that the hijab is meant to be worn just to make a political statement. When we rationalise hijab to this extent and provide new, politically correct reasons for it, we run the risk of stripping its fundamental intent.

Admittedly, it is empowering to do something out of your own choice and have your religion back you up. In this fast-paced world with rapidly changing ideals, where the Self is the most important thing to fulfill and gratify, religion is no longer a tool for spiritual fulfillment and connection with the Divine but merely a way to empower the Self. Thus, it is more acceptable to say “I choose to wear the hijab” than “I wear the hijab because, as a Muslim, this is what God wants me to do.”

Regardless, the hijab is worn primarily because Allah has instructed us to, and Allah knows all things.

Is The Hijab Inherently Oppressive?

A common counterargument to freedom of choice to wear the hijab is that the hijab is inherently sexist and oppressive because only women (and not men) are required to wear it, and thus, whether it is worn by choice is inconsequential.

We have to ask each other why it is necessary to problematise and deem inferior, frivolous or unserious anything that is specific to or dominated by women. From cooking and cleaning to careers like nursing and tailoring, there is often the notion that these endeavours are inherently inferior because of their traditional connection to women.

To claim that the hijab is problematic because men are not required to wear it is itself sexist. It feeds into the narrative that for anything to be respectable and worth doing, a man must be involved. We know this all too well from the culinary industry. For centuries, women cooked and so cooking was regarded as unworthy of the noble. However, all it took was for men to start studying at culinary academies, and cooking became recognised as art and a legitimate professional career. Sadly, this sentiment is popular with many people who believe that STEM-inclined careers are somehow superior to nursing or teaching or tailoring. Proximity to maleness becomes the yardstick for which misogyny and/or feminism must be measured. Female engineers are therefore more feminist than female nurses.

But no level of proximity to maleness will ever insulate the Muslim woman from liberalism’s insistent hypocrisy. The self-righteous liberal demands absolute equality (translated as sameness) of dress only for Muslim men and women. Western women wearing short dresses while men wear t-shirts and jeans are overlooked. In this case, the difference in dress does not imply inherent sexism but an expression of liberty. This hypocrisy even deliberately obscures the fact that the West’s standard of dress is significantly more gendered than any Muslim culture. From my country Nigeria to Pakistan, Morocco to Palestine, Kenya to Afghanistan, men’s traditional attire is just as modest, constituting some form of long robe and head covering. It almost seems like the issue is not that Muslim men should be required to cover as much as women, but that Muslim women should be required to bare as much as men or their non-Muslim counterparts.

There are those that argue that even if the hijab is not inherently misogynistic, it becomes so when women are forced or shamed into it. Thus, wearing the hijab cannot possibly be out of choice because the women’s families and/or communities will throw them off a mountain range or drown them at sea if they do not wear it. Whatever truth, exaggeration or falsehood there is to this sentiment, it is not a good enough counterargument. The use of force by some does not prove that the hijab itself is bad, but that the use of force is bad. This logic could very well apply to anything else. In Nigeria for example, it is not uncommon for parents to pressure and force their children to become doctors. Yet it does not prove that medicine is bad.

Conversely, the existence of choice behind any action does not translate to the inherent goodness of the action. This is contrary to liberal logic which posits that actions do not have inherent value; it only matters whether they are performed out of choice or not. Therefore, choosing to consume heroin would be okay, but coercion into consumption of heroin would be wrong. If enough people “choose” to perform a previously-frowned upon action, then it becomes good.  This logic does not present a good enough determinant of what is good or bad, since both lack inherent meaning and become completely arbitrary.

It’s Not About The Hijab

In the end, it’s not about the hijab, and the sooner the islamophobia industry admits this fact to itself, the better. Opposition to the hijab in various parts of the world is justified with humanitarian objections. Women’s rights. Freedom and choice. Clash of civilisations. It stands firmly rooted in its professed lack of bias.

But the opposition has yet to clarify exactly what aspect of the hijab it finds unpalatable. Is it the mere act of covering the hair? Is there a  particular type and colour of fabric that is anti-women? Is all clothing meant for the head inherently oppressive? Does that characteristic of oppression disappear if the hair is covered for decorative purposes or in the winter? Does a non-Muslim become oppressed if she throws a scarf over her head for any reason? Is oppression as basic as taking off or putting on a piece of clothing? Is it only problematic if worn for religious reasons? If so, then why are veiling customs from other religions (Catholic nuns) not also deemed unacceptable?

Simplifying these questions makes it abundantly clear that anti-hijab rhetoric is not about the hijab itself, but a manifestation of (gendered) islamophobia. As Frantz Fanon famously wrote on France’s colonialism of Algeria: “This woman who sees without being seen frustrates the coloniser.”[2] It is not the item of clothing itself that frustrates the coloniser, but the belief system motivating it.

The recent upheaval in Karnataka, India where state authorities seek to ban Muslim women from wearing the hijab to their colleges is one of many. Just as Europe’s colonisation of many Muslim-majority countries instated European culture as the guiding star that every other culture must follow, the state-backed treatment of Muslims in India points to the fact that the existence of a Muslim minority is enough of an annoyance to the majority. Supremacist efforts are working to remake all religious minorities in India — Muslims, Sikhs and Jains, and even lower caste Hindus — in the image of mainstream Hinduism. This pattern of islamophobia reveals a deeper animosity towards Islam, and manifests itself through obsessive opposition to Islam’s most visible symbol. A smokescreen of infringement of women’s rights emerges in order to bestow legitimacy on acts of plain bigotry. Otherwise, it is hard to believe that a Hindu-majority government would make moves to ban the hijab on claims of concern for Muslim women’s (loss of) freedom, seeing as Hindu women’s traditional dress is quite similar.

The West and Western-influenced world sees Islam as its contender, laments a clash of civilisations and thus seeks to marginalise Muslims at every opportunity. It places an obsessive amount of scrutiny on Islam and Muslims around the world. Keeping the activities of Muslims under a microscope disproportionately magnifies the irregularities and dysfunction present in Muslim societies to divert attention from the injustices faced by women in other societies. It is high time to alert ourselves to this reality and cease diluting our faith in order to appeal to orientalist, islamophobic and white supremacist reasoning.

Fadilah Ali is a Southern Nigerian writer living in Edo State. She is currently studying for her MSc in Food Microbiology. Her flash fiction and poetry have appeared in Alternate Route, Briefly Write Magazine, and Overtly Lit. She also has a number of essays touching on Islam and women at The Muslim Women Times where she is an editor and in-house writer. Find her on Twitter @partyjollofism and on Instagram @beingfadz.

Sign up to The Qarawiyyin Newsletter for our latest content, resources and recommendations straight to your inbox!

[1] Norton, A. On the Muslim Question (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 7.

[2] Fanon, F. Algeria Unveiled in A Dying Colonialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1965), 48

5 thoughts on “Hijab: The Limits of Choice

  1. This is spiritually uplifting Fadilah. May Allah make us more steadfast on this deen because it’s a beautiful perfectly laid and envious path.


  2. As someone who received a religious education, I completely understand (i think), and respect women who wear the hijab. I have Muslim friends who are women who do not wear it, and at least one or two who do. Even though I want to like it, I find myself (in spite of myself) feeling a bit irritated by it, because if its wearer is approved by God for her piety and hard-nosed adherence to the straight and narrow definition of virtue, then what does that make me? Not having been raised in a culture where Islam was much known, I yet tried to follow the tenets of the faith of my parents. Does a lack of hijab make a woman someone with no morals? Absolutely not. And I know many women wear the hijab about of choice, and I respect it, but I don’t think it should be such a big deal. It’s just an external thing. People wear external things to appear however they want – to communicate a message to others. Yet, what they do is what matters.


  3. You make a good point about Hindu women and Muslim women both having antecedents with hair-covering. Actually, there are European and Jewish (if you want to separate different traditions) precedents for covering the hair, too. It was suggested by religious men in the Bible and I’m sure was traditional in pre-Christian Jewish society. I think it’s easy to over-estimate the western world’s “islamophobia.” It exists, yes. But at least in my country, the U.S.A., mostly there is a huge lack of knowledge. It’s easy to get fearful if you watch too much of certain news channels, but this fear-mongering is not the exclusive preserve of the English-speaking media. Also, if you look back a long way, there were dialogues about /Allah/faith between scholars of the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish faiths. This is much more productive (approaching debates as conversations rather than as polemics) and more conducive to peace (the prophet Mohammed MPBH’s aim). What is going on in India is very, very sad, and not represetative of what could be, if its citizens so chose, one of the greatest examples of a diverse, peaceful, tolerant, and multicultural society in the world.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s