In its most basic definition, the hijab is a headscarf that covers a woman’s hair. It is used in the Muslim faith as a way for women to maintain modesty in the presence of men. In some countries the hijab is only worn by married women. In other countries, girls begin wearing it following puberty as a rite of passage. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2011 reported that among the 1 million Muslim women living in America, 43% of them wear a hijab. With the greater freedoms that can be experienced in the United States, one can assume that the percentage of females in Islamic countries that wear a hijab is much higher. While wearing or not wearing a hijab in the United States can be seen as a choice, in some Islamic countries it is a mandate.
The hijab is required to be worn in four counties, which include Saudi Arabia, Iran, Sudan, and the Aceh Province of Indonesia. In Iran, 29 women were arrested for not wearing a hijab in protest. Tehran police were quoted saying that the detainees were arrested for “disturbing public security.” As more individuals in the Western world are beginning to wear the hijab as a form of liberation, individuals in Islamic countries such as Iran are trying to free themselves from the hijab and the sexual oppression that it represents.
Sexual oppression can plainly be defined as a prohibition of sexual rights and outlets by society. Most women wear a hijab because of the society that they live in. This society can be described as one that was made by and for men. The men see women as objects, useful only for fulfilling their own sexual needs and desires. Women are encouraged to cover their bodies so that men aren’t tempted by them. In the journal article, The Conversation, it states that the hijab is worn to “curb male sexual desire.” It is understood in these areas, that if a man sexually imposes himself on a woman it is her fault. In their eyes, she didn’t do enough to hide herself from him, so she has to bear the consequences. However, in most instances, women in these countries are fully covered, but still undergo harassment and assault from men. Nothing can be hidden from the human imagination, even if it is completely veiled. It’s as if the more the woman covers up, the more the man can imagine what is underneath. While most, if not all of the women in an islamic country wear a hijab to protect themselves, they continue to get harassed. The society acts as if it has put all of these laws and regulations in place to help women, but really it has just hurt them. A woman is just as vulnerable wearing a hijab as she is without one. This society shouldn’t be working to completely cover a woman, it should empower them. Why is it that a man can get away with his perverse actions, but a woman can get in trouble for wearing something that is considered indecent? These individuals continue to condone this immoral behavior because they are involved in it as well.
The Qur’an, which is the central religious text of Islam does not explicitly say that women should have to wear something that covers their hair and body. Oral traditions maintain that the practice was originated by the Prophet Muhammad’s wives. He wanted his wives to wear veils to separate and differentiate them from the people that came to visit him at his various homes. The hijab became more widespread within Islam about 150 years after Muhammad’s death.
In Iran, sexual harassment is a daily reality for the women that reside there. A woman named Sahar speaks of her experience in a country where the hijab was not mandatory and also in one where it was mandatory. “Growing in a Muslim country where the hijab is not mandatory, I have always been told: the hijab is there to protect women from men’s desire, because our body
is intimate and needs to be covered. The lack of hijab was thought to spread chaos among men. But then I came to Iran, where the hijab is mandatory, and I am still harassed in the streets. Men aggressively stare at me, talk to me, call me names. I feel naked, and worthless.” She thought that changing her clothing would help, but unfortunately, it did not. “I believed wearing a chador would protect me, but one day, I witnessed other women wearing chadors being harassed. I realized that whatever I wore, men would still chase me, just because I am a woman.”
Another woman named Aisha gives a theory to explain why there are such high rates of sexual harassment of women by men. “Girls and boys are separated from primary school to the end of high school. They never have a chance to interact and when they suddenly do, they can’t just make normal conversation. It’s like any interaction is implicitly on sexual territory. I remember when I was younger, young boys and teenagers used to catcall and follow us just to meet girls. Because we live in a society where there is no space for men and women to meet and communicate freely, they took to the streets. At first girls liked it, they took it as a compliment, but after a while, it became a problem. Boys and men openly expressing their sexual desire made us feel insecure and exposed, and there was nowhere to escape it.” These men see these actions as flirting, when really it is sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is not the same thing as flirting. The women are almost being treated like animals that are being hunted.
Lastly, Lucille, a French student who visited Iran, recounts her story. “Once, I was peacefully sitting under the shade of a tree in a park when a man asked me if it was okay for him to sit next to me. I was surprised he even asked, and thought he genuinely didn’t want me to feel uncomfortable about him being there. I was dead wrong. As soon as I said yes, he sat down and started pressing me with thousands of questions and asking for my number. I told him I wanted to be left alone but he didn’t stop. Eventually I got up and left.” This predatory hounding makes women feeling of powerlessness because it seems that, since they aren’t physically attacking you, you don’t have a right to do anything to them.
World Hijab Day is an annual event that is thought to encourage women of all religions and backgrounds to wear and experience the hijab. Some argue that the hijab is liberating for women. However, others will say that it isn’t empowering and instead is a form of submission. For those women who live in countries that have laws concerning the hijab and veiling, World Hijab Day can be seen as a slap in the face. World Hijab Day makes the oppressors out to be victims, and has overlooked those women who have endured the law. And yet the hijab is now celebrated in the West. There is nothing modest about brushing over the suffering of the women and girls of Saudi Arabia, Iran and other countries where the hijab is mandated to be worn.
Everyone that wears the hijab has their own personal reasons and values for doing so. However, it is important that people understand that sexual oppression is a reality for women living in certain Islamic countries. It can be seen that there is a need for women to have more equality and freedom to do and dress as they please in these areas. Although it may take time, the women that are fighting back at the system are showing that they can’t be held down. Men may have put the laws in place, but the women can change them.