18 July 2012

Your privilege is showing, Ms Nusrat

I have no issue with Muslim women choosing to wear the hijab. Even within the constraints of their faith, there seems to be enough latitude for them to exercise stylish self-expression with the hair-covering fabric. I can also respect their wish to dress modestly, even though I find their idea of ‘modest’ to be rather excessive. Compared to the niqab or the burqa, the hijab is arguably a less oppressive – certainly less dismal – garment that doesn’t erase its wearer’s identity.

The hijab can be chic.

But none of this should imply that the hijab is free from oppressive connotations. Let’s not kid ourselves; it isn’t. Being a Muslim garment, the hijab is inevitably bound to the doctrines of Islam, including those that render women second-rate human beings who should be subservient to men. It’s one thing for a woman to wear a hijab of her own volition, quite another when that same woman misrepresents her choice as being something that it is not: an unequivocal act of liberation.

Ayesha Nusrat, a Muslim Indian, is such a woman. In her New York Times op-ed, Nusrat seeks to dispel common misconceptions surrounding the hijab, chief of those being the perception that Muslim women who wear it are “downtrodden and dominated by misogynist mullahs or male relatives who enforce them into sweltering pieces of oppressive clothing.” Nusrat goes to great pains to establish her credentials as a Muslim feminist dedicated to human rights activism, yet for all her modest attire, Nusrat fails to cover up her privileged circumstances. She mistakes her own freedom to choose to wear a hijab with freedom for all Muslim women to make a similarly uncoerced sartorial choice.

Blogger Suirauqa points out Nusrat’s blindness to her own privilege in a scathingly critical post responding to the NYT op-ed. Suirauqa writes:

Clearly, to Ms. Nusrat, the hijab is merely a few yards of cloth. For far too many women in far too many countries (for instance, the Middle East, North Africa, Far East and the Southeast of Asia, not to mention Europe), the hijab is an obligatory article of indenturement that permits no choice, but is to be worn on pain of punishment and/or death; to them, it is a symbol of systematic oppression.

Nusrat proclaims her commitment to women’s rights and empowerment, a commitment that she believes is reinforced by her wearing the hijab, for it “can only contribute to breaking the misconception that Muslim women lack the strength, passion and power to strive for their own rights.” To this Suirauqa replies:

Ms. Nusrat's qualifier ‘only’ is misleading at best, or at worst a smokescreen. Her wearing the hijab while working for ‘causes’ can also serve as a reminder to many unfortunate women, that however educated, however passionate about ‘causes’ to work at, women in Islam would always be under the control of a patriarchy that dictates how they should dress, how they should cover up, what notions of modesty they would be judged under. To those women, it is a constant reminder that they are perpetually under a proscription not to incite male lust.

Suirauqa quotes human rights activist and ex-Muslim Maryam Namazie to buttress the above argument:

It’s ironic how hijabis often portray their wearing of the hijab as a form of liberation from the sexualisation of women in society when it is just one other form of sexualisation and control. In fact, it sexualises girls from a young age and demands that they be covered and segregated so as not to cause fitna or chaos in society... It’s no more a ‘choice’ than other forms of control and sexualisation, such as female genital mutilation or the chastity belt and foot binding.

But the heart of the matter remains Nusrat’s failure to see how her own freedom to both choose to wear the hijab and to consider it as a positive experience is contingent on secular and liberal safeguards that many, many other Muslim women are deprived of. As Suirauqa observes:

Does Ms. Nusrat even realize how she has focused… on her decision, her view, her choice? Of course, it is her choice. Ms. Nusrat, a citizen of a secular republic by birth, is able to make that choice, of her own volition, not under any kind of threat or intimidation, or fear of eternal damnation. A lot many women in the countries I mentioned above are not that fortunate. Consider that for a moment. And by embracing the hijab in order to make a statement (Ms. Nusrat wrote an Op-Ed, didn't she?), she has, in effect, denied agency to those millions of women, who cannot, who aren't allowed to, make that simple choice, to wear or not to wear.

Nusrat deserves condemnation not for her choice to be a hijabi, but for her obtuseness to the deplorable lack of choice suffered by her Muslim sisters elsewhere.    



  1. hi.. islam and the hijab do not oppress women - it is culture, men and the society in which they live that oppress them. Please don't confuse the two. In Islam women are loved and respected and equal to men in the eyes of god. it When she a daughter she is her fathers key to heave (provided he raises her Well), when she is a wife she completes half her husbands religion, and as a mother heaven lies at her feet.

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