Last week I wrote about sartorial liberty and the controversy in the West over Islamic dress codes for women (my TEDx talk will be posted soon.) My position - that dress codes are inherently illiberal, especially when applied only to a specific segment of the population or community, regardless of whether the source is secular or religious - remains the same. But, faced with the perverse idea of “World Hijab Day,” in which non-Muslim women are encouraged to wear a headscarf in “solidarity” with Muslim women, there’s one particular question which bears asking and needs honest answers.
The New York Times has published one of its “Room for Debate” series on the topic, and I unsurprisingly agree with those who argue that hijab is a conservative and superficial symbol of religion and identity, rather than a true indicator of someone’s faith, and that women who choose not to wear the hijab need just as much support (if not more,) than those who do. World Hijab Day legitimizes one particular conservative religious practice and expression over others and risks disempowering, delegitimizing, and undermining the religious credibility and identity of those Muslim women who choose not to practice hijab.
I believe that those in the most danger deserve the most support. This brings me to my question: is it more dangerous for a Muslim woman living in a conservative Islamic country or community to resist hijab or for a Muslim woman in a liberal society to wear it? I think it’s obvious that the former is much more dangerous, especially when taken on a global scale. Reports of fathers and brothers killing their own daughters, sisters, and wives because of perceived affronts to family honor by even appearing to be insufficiently modest are heard all too often, to say nothing of harsh official punishments in places like Iran and Saudi Arabia. Reports of women in hijab being harassed on the streets in Western cities are also heard, but with nothing like the scale or nature of the threat as the former. It seems obvious that a woman going without a headscarf in Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and many Muslim communities in the West would run a greater risk of harassment (if not arrest, corporal, or even capital punishment,) than a Muslim woman living in a liberal, secular country who decides to wear one.
This begs a larger question: which is a bigger problem in the world today - Islamism or “Islamophobia” (although I prefer Maajid Nawaz’s more accurate and helpful phrase “anti-Muslim bigotry.”) I tend to think the former is a bigger problem than the latter. It isn’t just that women, gays, and religious minorities are safer and better off in liberal democracies than they are in Islamist countries - Muslims themselves enjoy more rights and freedoms in secular countries than they do in theocratic ones. Anti-Muslim bigotry in the West is indeed a problem and it needs to be fought against. But Muslims in liberal societies tend to be legally far freer to worship, dress, and live as they choose than Muslims in theocratic societies. So who is really in peril and more in need of support and solidarity: the woman who dares to wear a headscarf in New York or the woman who dares to uncover her hair in Tehran?
The only World Hijab Day that would approach fairness or justice would be one in which Muslim women who do choose hijab remove it for a day in solidarity with their Muslim sisters who choose not to follow a dress code. Short of that, a day in which Muslim men are encouraged to try a headscarf for a day to support their sisters who wear one - either by choice or by force - might make for an interesting change.