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Feminists need to oppose hijab bans as much as hijab mandates


A small piece of cloth scares big governments again.

The most recent example is in India, where the Supreme Court announced in early March that it would set up a three-member chamber to hear a case challenging a hijab ban in educational institutions in Karnataka state. In October 2022, the top court had issued a divided verdict on the ban, which the Karnataka High Court had previously upheld.

As a result of the Indian hijab ban in educational institutions, thousands of girls have been unable to go to school for a year and this year even a temporary lifting of the ban for their practical exam was refused.

And thanks to the same restrictions on religious dress in France, thousands of French women must choose between exercising their heartfelt spiritual beliefs or pursuing their love of football.

The French Football Federation has banned women and girls wearing headscarves from its competitions. France’s senate voted 160 to 143 in January last year to extend that ban to all sports competitions, though the move was ultimately rejected in the country’s parliament. Meanwhile, France’s hijab ban on state-run academic institutions remains in place.

As always, these bans have been partly justified by supporters as acts aimed at the emancipation of women. Nothing says women’s empowerment quite like controlling women’s clothes.

Why is the hijab so often the obsession of bigots around the world? What is it about this piece of fabric that evokes so much passionate protest from opponents? And why are Western feminists so deafeningly silent when it comes to this kind of state control of women’s bodies?

I asked myself these questions when I received hate mail after my appearance on the Daily show with Trevor Noah in 2016. In response to a question about my head covering, I told Trevor it was an act of spiritual devotion, but, turning the tables, I put my own question to him. Paraphrased, I asked, “Oppression is the taking away of one’s power. So what are we really saying about women and the source of their power if they are oppressed when they privatize their sexual energy?”

Trevor slowly tried to reply, “We’re saying they’re only powerful when they’re sexy in public?” he ventured shyly. “Am I right?” The audience roared and the clip went viral.

While I received an overwhelmingly positive response to the appearance, every piece of hate mail was about this segment. Most of the women who claimed to be “feminists” couldn’t believe my arrogance to attribute an empowering quality to the hijab, or to point out the inherent misogyny of seeing it as demeaning.

The great irony, of course, is that all these supposed “saviors” of Muslim women who want to free us from our religious dress because they claim it degrades and limits us are doing just that by limiting or ridiculing our choices.

Indian and French girls must choose between their education and the practice of their faith, and thousands of French athletes must make a similarly painful decision between their careers and their beliefs.

How poetic is it that the very people who rightly disapprove of the Taliban’s treatment of women, in part because the group excludes women from education and athletics, support a hijab ban that ultimately has the same effect?

Some would point out that the hijab is indeed sometimes enforced and sometimes politicized by authoritarian systems that restrict women’s education and freedom of movement. So, they claim, it is a symbol of oppression that must be abolished.

This argument denies women their freedom of choice. That’s according to representative survey research conducted by the Washington-based Institute of Social Policy and Understanding, about half of Muslim women in the United States wear hijabs. The most popular reason The reason those who wear it do so is “religious devotion,” cited by about half. Next comes ‘so that people know I am Muslim’ (21 percent) and ‘modesty’ (12 percent). Only one percent of those who wear a hijab said it was in accordance with the wishes of a family member or spouse.

But let’s draw a logical conclusion from the argument that anything that is sometimes coerced or politicized is inherently oppressive and must be fought against.

Let’s apply this idea to something else that is much more commonly forced on women than the hijab, and see where we end up: sex. One in four women are victims of sexual assault during their undergraduate education in the United States. And sexual violence is not only politicized, it is also used as a weapon of war in conflicts from Bosnia to Ukraine.

So since sex is often coerced and even weaponized, should it be banned? Should the state prohibit consenting adult women from voting in the name of women’s emancipation?

Should well-meaning self-proclaimed “feminists” shame and humiliate other women for making it a part of their lives?

If the answer is no, then perhaps Western feminists should consider this Women’s History Month to oppose hijab bans as vehemently as hijab mandates.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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