I grew up oblivious to patriarchy.
Growing up in a house with two sisters and loving and proud parents who have always supported my every goal, I never had cause to believe that there was a systemic reason for why I could not achieve anything I wanted to. My mom worked part time as a physiotherapist and my dad ran his business from home — as far as I knew, a woman could do anything a man could.
As I grew older, the warm bubble around my little corner of the world slowly began to fade away. At school, I read books about young girls in Afghanistan living under the Taliban regime, young girls who were forced to cover their hair and pretend to be boys just so they could leave their homes. It was then that I began to realize that the safety to which I was accustomed was not universal. I began to understand the privilege that living in a Western country afforded me.
I came to appreciate the values of the country whose passport I held, and beamed with pride whenever Canada’s multiculturalism was mentioned. Here in Canada, I could dress however I wanted. In Canada, my jejune perspective told me that I could become whomever I wished.
But when I did start dressing how I wanted, when I started covering my hair with a headscarf — as my religion, Islam, stipulates — I didn’t feel the same warm acceptance that my bouncy ringlets had enabled. The offhand comments laced with disdain, the stares and whispers I became a target of, shattered any pride I had in my country. Living in the Western world might indeed afford me certain privileges, but my identity as a Muslim woman mitigates these privileges.
Rejection hurts — as anyone whose crush has ever snubbed them should know. And it hurts all the more when it comes from a place to which you have only ever given love.
As the solace of the Western world faded away, I realized that my illusion stemmed from a very small corner of the world that preached freedom but then created a rigid definition of it. My world was small and safe; every step I took away from it made me realize just how small it was.
When I stand in front of the mirror every morning, I tie up my hair in a way that I know will elicit tangles and headaches, then hide it under a headscarf. It’s not always easy to know that I am making myself just a little less beautiful. But I make this choice every day because I want to be more beautiful in God’s eyes. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, as the saying goes, and I have made a choice regarding which beholder’s opinion I value.
Islamic guidelines ask women to wear a headscarf and guard our modesty in both how we dress and act. This modesty is called “hijab” — an Arabic word that means “veil.” While hijab commonly merely evokes images of the headscarf, it encompasses more than that. It represents the general idea of carrying oneself in a modest manner.
Regardless of any cultural or personal connection a woman has to her hijab, the underlying reason we choose to wear it is because God asks us to.
If you ask hijabi women — those who are free to make this decision without the encroachment of political or cultural values — why they wear hijab, you will get a myriad of answers. Some will say it frees them from being a slave to Western culture, which reduces a woman to her body. Others, that they take pride in displaying this outward symbol of their belief. Others still, that they value their modesty.
My hijab is simply a symbol of the strength of my belief — and a tool to hide bad hair days. But I am not the spokesperson for all hijabi women. Although we have the same underlying beliefs, our personal reasons are just that — personal. They concern only ourselves and God, not our fathers, not the old man across the street yelling at us to go back to our country, and certainly not any political leader.
While the ruling parties of countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia politicize women’s modesty, there is no basis for this in Islam. By no means does hijab involve external accountability; Islam gives neither men nor political authority figures the right to force a woman to wear a headscarf or punish her when she doesn’t.
In fact, Muslim men must observe the modesty of hijab by restraining their eyes even before women cover their hair. Instead of condoning or facilitating oppressive institutions such as Iran’s morality police, Islam does the opposite. If you see that someone is not observing the hijab, you don’t get to chastise them. You simply look away.
In contrast to Iran’s morality police, Islam’s morality police involve only one’s own conscience and one can only police their own modesty.
“There is no compulsion,” the Quran specifies, “in religion.”
This lack of compulsion, the freedom to act according to one’s own will, is also characteristic of the culture in modern Western society. North American culture and government appear to glorify liberalism and freedom of choice, to celebrate the acceptance of and displaying one’s identity.
However, this liberalism is inherently paradoxical — such acceptance of different identities and beliefs and values exists only within rigid, well defined borders. In an interview with The Varsity, UTM Political Science Professor Katherine Bullock explained this phenomenon: “Since religion is often considered dogma and not reason-based, and tradition and customs are seen as chains inhibiting individual freedom, liberal culture often looks askance at religiously-motivated dress such as hijab.”
The perpetuation of the idea of these chains is illustrated through the politicized, oppressive construction of the hijab in the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has led to the death of Mahsa Amini. In response, the world has erupted in outcry against the Islamic Republic of Iran’s oppressive laws and violent policing surrounding women’s modesty. Iranian women are removing their hijabs in protest of the regime’s regulations surrounding the headscarf and publicly burning their hijabs to symbolize their rejection of and rebellion against the regime. Women around the world are cutting their hair to display solidarity with Iranian women.
Such a movement is both necessary and noble, but the nature of the subject allows for misguided — even Islamophobic — rhetoric surrounding the religious symbol of hijab. The hijab is a visual symbol of the Republic’s misogynistic regulations. It is also, first and foremost, a symbol of faith for Muslim women around the world.
French actresses such as Marion Cotillard and Charlotte Gainsbourg are among those who have cut their hair to make a statement against a regime that makes a woman’s body the subject of public debate and anti choice regulations. However, the same description is fitting for France, where laws similarly restrict a woman’s decision to wear hijab.
Such inconsistency is not unusual in the Western world. As Bullock outlined, Western people “may feel a sincere desire to help Iranian people stand up to a regime that imposes hijab on women to the point of beating a woman to death.” However, she continued, “The impassioned rallies and reactions ignore the flip side in their own countries, where women are banned from wearing hijab or niqab.”
Bullock concluded, “One must support a principle universally, not selectively.”
Of politics and religion
Ruling parties in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia have imposed restrictive laws on women and are involved in horrifically violent practices surrounding women’s modesty, which have time and again received criticism, and rightfully so. However, not unlike how Iran transforms the hijab from a personal value into a political statement, Western countries impose legal restrictions on the use of the hijab — in the name of liberalism.
Laïcité, France’s constitutional principle of secularism, works to legally separate church and state and claims to adopt neutrality toward religion. However, the country banned wearing visibly religious symbols in professional settings in 2004, and wearing religious face coverings — such as the niqab, an extra layer of modesty that some Muslim women choose to wear — in any public setting in 2010. Several other European countries have followed suit, with Switzerland being the latest to adopt the latter policy in 2021.
These restrictive laws are not foreign to our side of the ocean; in 2019, Québec introduced Bill 21, which prevents public sector employees from wearing any religious symbols at work and denies government services such as health care and public transportation to anyone wearing face coverings for religious reasons.
The crux of these laws is that religious values should not bleed into government institutions. Never mind that a giant gold crucifix hung over the speaker’s chair in Québec’s National Assembly at the time the bill was passed.
Such legislation imposes restrictions on religion in the name of protecting secular governing, but in fact fails to separate the two, instead weaving them together by bringing politics into religion. Governments have found a loophole to paradoxically dictate the practice of religion under the guise of maintaining neutrality toward it.
Western governments’ practice of appointing themselves arbiters of religion is fruit — albeit of a less violent variety — from the same tree as Iran or the Taliban regime dictating what women must wear.
As a child, I found safety in the glamour of Western liberalism. Now, however, I chafe at any discussions of feminism, because such conversation requires a reference point and thus inevitably demonizes conservative ideals, such as those of my religion. By equating the religious symbol of the hijab with political control of women’s modesty, the same rhetoric that uplifts the acceptance we preach in North America leaves little room for accepting religion.
While Afghan soldiers or British colonizers need not have ever touched a headscarf, the hijab nonetheless became a weapon in their arsenal; they transformed it into a symbol of the enemy’s brutality that they claimed to be fighting to eradicate. By becoming the antithesis of the free woman, the hijab became the weapon of Western governments.
From the United States to Canada to France, our governments opine on and excavate the inner workings of oppressive laws of other states, but they only do so when politically convenient.
Take, for example, the US-Afghanistan war. In 2001, the United States’ then-President George W. Bush affirmed, “The central goal of terrorists is the brutal oppression of women.” However, Bush’s status as a women’s rights’ champion is dicey; while the American presence in Afghanistan did indeed enable Afghan girls to go to school and criminalized violence against women, his administration primarily focused its liberation of oppressed women only on women living in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia, women experienced a rivalling repression; male family members were ‘guardians,’ and had the de facto right to dictate a woman’s every step outside of the home — including whether she could even step outside of the house — as well as to exercise violence against female family members, and even file legal complaints of “disobedience” against the latter. Women could not drive and were denied custody rights.
But United States’ presidents have long adopted an effusive response to Saudi Arabia’s activities, including overlooking this oppression to maintain ties with the kingdom; such a response fosters military cooperation and preserves the States’ access to oil.
And when Britain invaded Egypt in the late seventeenth century, the first Earl of Croner, Evelyn Baring, wrote that this occupation was a quest to free Egyptian Muslim women from Egyptian men’s supposed ideals of repression, allowing them a chance at a civilized life. But Baring was apparently fickle in his advocacy for women’s rights, restricting it to countries whose values differed from England’s, since, back home, he was the president of the Men’s League for Opposing Woman Suffrage.
Bullock’s assessment of such cherry-picking activism is perfectly pithy: “Western governments, like all governments, usually place trade interests and security alliances ahead of a uniformly applied principle of human rights.
It is easy to point a finger at our southern border or criticize what we find in the annals of Europe’s colonization, but Canada is not a stranger to this inconsistent solidarity. Even the country’s response to the recent surge of global ongoing protest illustrates the Western practice of fighting for women’s rights only when the subject of ridicule has enemy status.
In an interview with The Varsity, U of T Faculty of Law Professor Anver Emon contrasted Canada’s lighting up the parliament with the colours of the Iranian flag to show solidarity toward the women of Iran with Québec’s Bill 21: “The largely silent response to the illiberal-cum-authoritarian Law 21 in Québec, when juxtaposed with protesting the Iranian government, is not about liberalism, or supporting women’s choice.”
“Rather, it’s consistent with a foreign policy that has, since 2011, demonized Iran,” Emon explained. Iran’s repressive laws indeed call for challenge and dissent but, as Emon noted, Canada’s own political agenda, and not the Republic’s cruelty, is the impetus for Canada’s show of solidarity.
After the United Nations Security Council imposed sanctions on Iran in response to the country’s nuclear program beginning in 2006, Canada was among the countries that followed suit. In 2010, under the Special Economic Measures Act, Canada tightened existing sanctions and, beginning in 2011, amended the act to impose the general prohibition of import and export with Iran.
These sanctions and their exacerbation through the 2011 prohibitions, Emon explained, “contribute to devastating [Iran’s] economy,” and thus also “Iran’s people.” As such, Canada shows solidarity with Iranian women while contributing to the suffering of these same people.
In Emon’s words, “Lighting up Parliament with Iranian colours in solidarity with the protests is hypocritical, costless, and politically convenient.”
Iranian women need more than a merely performative fireworks show; they need people in power to hear them, to take action to remove them from their suffering, to free them from oppressive political power.
And contrastingly, Muslim women do not need a white knight — no pun intended — to ride into our lives and emancipate us from the shackles of our religion or from a religious patriarchy; in a world that preaches realizing one’s identity, some of us choose to chain ourselves to these ideals.
Our hijab is not an evil we need saving from, nor can it be reduced to the definition that oppressive political regimes impose upon it. Here, in Canada, Muslim women might have the freedom to choose whether to wear hijab, but we walk on our tiptoes, afraid that this visible symbol of our beliefs will reduce us to an idea of the hijab that is synonymous with oppression, to the construction of hijab that permits self-congratulatory rhetoric from the Western world as it attempts to free us from this illusion of repression.
It’s not our hijab that veils our identity and freedom, but the shadows we have to hide it under.