Many Muslim women have claimed that the wearing of the hijab — head-covering scarf — is not oppressive and that they do it voluntarily.
Could it be worn voluntarily and still be oppressive?
The answer lies in why it is commanded. Verses 30 and 31 surah 24 (The Light) read:
Say to the believing men that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts; that is purer for them; surely Allah is Aware of what they do. And say to the believing women that they cast down their looks and guard their private parts and do not display their ornaments except what appears thereof, and let them wear their head-coverings over their bosoms, and not display their ornaments except to their husbands or their fathers, or the fathers of their husbands, or their sons, or the sons of their husbands, or their brothers, or their brothers’ sons, or their sisters’ sons, or their women, or those whom their right hands possess, or the male servants not having need (of women), or the children who have not attained knowledge of what is hidden of women; and let them not strike their feet so that what they hide of their ornaments may be known; and turn to Allah all of you, O believers! so that you may be successful.
The list of who might see an uncovered woman can be distilled thusly:
There are two things that immediately stand out.
- Almost everyone mentioned here is a man.
- The only men who can see a woman are family members.
Additionally, notice that the instructions given to the men are much less demanding than those given the women. Men are to cast their eyes down and to protect their private parts; women get a whole shopping list of requirements.
The Koran also addresses hijab in Sura 33 (The Clans), verse 59:
O Prophet! say to your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers that they let down upon them their over-garments; this will be more proper, that they may be known, and thus they will not be given trouble; and Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.
It all tends to smack of women being the possession of men, doesn’t it?
Yet it’s also a bit demeaning to men: it suggests that men have no self control, that men will automatically turn any and all women in to sexual objects, and that the only way men can notice a woman’s mind is if the women are covered.
Caveat one: The New Testament, in 1 Corinthians 11, commands women to cover their heads when in prayer. A couple of caveats to this caveat: first, this is only in limited circumstances, specifically in prayer and when prophesying. Secondly, most Christians have philosophized that away.
Caveat two: Not all Muslim women wear headscarfs. There is a caveat to this, though: to do so in many Muslim countries is to risk condemnation or worse.
Notice: it’s a woman delivering the correctives, but a male police officer is close at hand, showing who the real authority is. Notice also that when the woman is discussing a poor stranger’s clothes, discussing her “sarafan,” a man walks by in a tight-fitting Western shirt, looking must un-Islamic. Nothing is said to him.
Caveat three: Nuns cover themselves. This is, however, an unequal comparison. Becoming a nun is a voluntary addition (or modification) to being a Christian. One can move into and out of a position that requires the head covering. Muslim women cannot do this.