A woman in a black headscarf holds her fist up next to the phrase "Iran 1970s."

Video of the Day: 100 Years of Hijab as Political Defiance

It surprises me how in the most liberal of feminist American spaces, there remains incredible discomfort — if not outright bigotry and discrimination — towards women who choose to wear a headscarf. As a Muslim woman who does not wear a headscarf and is often read as racially (and religiously) ambiguous, I’ve been around far too many self-proclaimed liberals and feminists who feel comfortable indulging their racism around me—commenting on how Muslim women are oppressed, naive, brainwashed, being beaten by scary brown and black men, and/or suffering from intense mind control by choosing to cover their hair. Other times, parents of white friends (or white friends themselves) will connect my lack of a headscarf to progressivism, labeling me as a “good” Muslim woman who is politically sharp enough not to adorn the hijab.

Well I do adorn hijab. Almost every day. I cover most of my legs, arms, and try to wear loose clothing. The Qur’an requires men and women to wear hijab—or dress modestly—but does not specify exactly what covering up looks like. Muslims are not a monolith (surprise!) and therefore differ on what modesty requires, meaning that there are a variety of practices in different cultures and countries: for some, including my family, hijab means a headscarf, for others like myself, it means wanting to wear a headscarf but not feeling safe enough to do so in their home country. For others it means a style of dress that includes a niqab (face covering), abaya (loose black gown), or none of the above.

Because patriarchy has existed in Muslim societies—just as it has in non-Muslim societies—rules around modesty have been applied unequally, with women in some communities being made to cover much more of their bodies than they might otherwise choose to. That being said, the overwhelming majority of Muslim women in the United States and many other countries who choose to wear some sort of veil wear it freely, as an expression of their spiritual commitments and often their political ones. As MuslimGirl.net explains:

 [...] the headscarf is a religious garment just as much as a political one. For generations, it has been a powerful symbol of Muslim women’s defiance against the male gaze, colonialism, and Islamophobia as we know it today. It’s also become a politicized garment that represents Muslim women’s control and autonomy, and has been at the center of a tug-of-war between governments and the people for its reclamation.

Like many other tug-of-wars, the folks most impacted are also the ones most often erased. This is why the video MuslimGirl.net just released,“100 Years of Hijab Fashion in 1 Minute,”  is so dope: it shows us the diversity in how women have donned hijab in various countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia throughout the last century, and it highlights the fact that women have often worn it not as a sign of submission but of powerful political defiance and as a way to connect themselves to anti-colonial, antiwar, and other liberation struggles that exist well beyond the headscarf.

During an era of immense anti-Muslim violence—from wars the United States has fought to “liberate” kill Muslim women to the daily violence women who are visibly Muslim experience in the workplace, from law enforcement,  and on the streets—it is so important for non-Muslim folks to familiarize themselves with the hijab and uphold a commitment to the belief that Muslim women too have a right to bodily autonomy and freedom of expression—which includes choosing whether or not to wear a headscarf.

Check out “100 Years of Hijab Fashion in 1 Minute”.

Mahroh is a community organizer and law student who believes in building a world where black and brown women and our communities are able to live free of violence. Prior to law school, Mahroh was the Executive Director of Know Your IX, a national survivor- and youth-led organization empowering students to end gender violence and a junior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Her research addresses the ways militarization, racism, and sexual violence impact communities of color transnationally.

Mahroh is currently at Harvard Law School, organizing against state and gender-based violence.

Read more about Mahroh

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