Women's Section

The Muslim Hijab: A Tale of Two Moralities


Ayesha Mahmood Malik, UK
Editor – Law & Human Rights Section

Any discourse about the Muslim headscarf is anchored in what have become profoundly difficult questions of personal choice, or a lack thereof, and the corresponding scope of religious and personal freedom.  The visibly Muslim woman is routinely pegged to one or more of these anchors – ironically, her personal choices having become the subject of an intense and fiercely contested public debate.  As a consequence, wearing the headscarf or hijab in some places has been perceived as a defiant act of bravery and standing up for personal freedoms, while in others it represents the archetype of female oppression.  Therefore, the Muslim headscarf has become a polarising symbol, and in the lack of sufficient grassroots engagement with headscarf wearing women coupled with the stereotypical layers created around Muslim women by the media, the polarisation around the hijab has become hegemonic. 

Many impassioned voices permeate the hijab discourse, particularly over the merits of its existence in both substance and form. When it comes to the question of a Muslim woman covering her head, there appears to be a competing sense of morality – one motivated by religion, the proponents whereof are religious hardliners who seek to enforce their radical religious views on how women should dress, wholesale on all women.  The other strand of morality can be described as a secular morality, one trying to ‘save’ the Muslim woman both from religion and its fatwa-givers. The fierce nature with which these competing moralities dominate the hijab debate, and the wider public imagination, means that the moral reasons guiding the woman – who is the actual subject and the impersonator of the hijab – are pushed to the periphery and remain relatively unheard.  

Paradoxically the loudest voices in the hijab debacle are not of those who don the hijab, but those who do not.  Not only do women who choose to wear the headscarf freely of their own accord remain absent from mainstream narratives around what is their personal sartorial choice, they are forced to acquire an identity carved out for them by ‘fitting them into’ one of the pigeonholes of the dominant discourse.  As a consequence, when a hijab wearing woman is seen in public, particularly in the western world, she must carry the questions and the burden that surround her identity on her sleeve.  

The manner in which the Western media has engaged with the question of the religious versus the secular moralities has proven pivotal in forging societal perceptions around the hijab-wearing woman as a victim of circumstance, robbed of personal choice and freedoms.  The coverage of choice has been on the Muslim headscarf in brutal and oppressive regimes, such as Afghanistan and Iran, where women are subjected to the dictates of radical hardliners and forced into burqas and veils.  However, the dictates of so-called secularism that states that only a hijab-less existence equals actual freedom are entirely missing from mainstream media narratives.  This form of ‘radical secularism’ is epitomised by the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights (‘the Court’) in its case law on women and religion, wherein women contested bans on their right to wear a headscarf in different settings, but their challenges were unsuccessful. The Court maintained the view that the state must protect these women from the ‘detriment’ of religion, i.e. the ‘harm’ caused to them by wearing the hijab.  Instead of protecting the women’s agency in making their sartorial choices (the ‘freedom of religion’ argument), the Court instead chose to ‘dictate’ that women could only truly be autonomous when they had ‘freedom from religion’.  

Therefore, while these competing moralities are both radical in their own right, their influence on the socio-political landscape is very different – the radical secular view being championed instead of being held up to scrutiny in equal measure to the radical religious view.  Moreover, when the experiences of women living in oppressive systems are brought to light, little is done to delineate the ‘religious’ demands of these inhumane regimes with what the religion actually says.  Even a cursory analysis of Quranic injunctions makes it clear that the theological basis upon which fundamentalists make their claims finds no support in the Quran. Where the Quran provides, in Chapter 24, verse 32, that women should restrain their looks and guard their chastity, it instructs men to do the same and addresses men first in the preceding verse before addressing women.  While these verses provide guidance for women to choose such attire that does not reveal their beauty, except that which becomes apparent thereof, they prescribe no physical or temporal punishments on the question of modesty, leaving the matter firmly between the person and God.  Moreover, Chapter 2, verse 257 clearly states that, ‘There should be no compulsion in religion’.  Importantly, even the Holy Prophet (sa) has been addressed in Chapter 88, verses 22-23 as only ‘an admonisher’ and that he has not been ‘appointed a warden’ over men – so it begs the question – who appointed these misplaced faithful as the custodians of faith? 

It is clear therefore that these two moralities are ironically antithetical to their own cause – the religious morality in fact contradicts tenets of religion and the secular morality negates the idea of true freedom. Without this context and nuance, mainstream narratives on the hijab inadvertently scapegoat millions of hijab-wearing women in the subconscious biases of people around the world.  The polarising effect of this on the hijab-wearing woman has been that the moral compass that is in place to liberate her in fact becomes the one that enslaves her.  The hijab debate thus perpetuates a vicious and paradoxical cycle – popular discourses on the subject chastising the inhumanity of the morality police in extremist religious environments for hijacking a woman’s sense of freedom, yet the idea of a ‘secular moral police’ is given free reign, even though it continues to sabotage a woman’s liberty by forcing her towards its own self-proclaimed idea of freedom.  

About the Author: Ayesha Mahmood Malik is the Editor of the Law and Human Rights Section of the Review of Religions magazine. She is interested in Law and Religion, in particular Islam and Human Rights, the role of media in crisis reporting, International Human Rights and the import of religion on radicalisation. She has spoken frequently on these issues in the national media and various universities in the UK, including the University of Oxford and the London School of Economics. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School.