Trying to Make the Hijab a Feminist Statement

Many of you will have read Jerry Coyne’s post at Why Evolution is True yesterday: ‘Hijab hijinks at Harvard‘.

It refers to an article in the Harvard Gazette, ‘Islamic studies scholar addresses myths and mores behind the veil‘. That article is about a talk by academic and Muslin, Celine Ibrahim.

As described by Jerry, and I have to agree, it’s another move in the constant attempt by some in Islam to try and convince the West that their religion does not oppress women.

Ms Ibrahim’s Presentation

In her talk Ms Ibrahim complained about the perception of her religion in the West. She talks of the 2011 Pew Research Center study that found  “… a median of 58 percent [of respondents] across four Western European countries, the U.S., and Russia, called Muslims ‘fanatical’.”

Again I agree with Jerry that “fanatical” is an unfair characterization to apply to all Muslims. I feel Ms Ibrahim is quite justified in complaining about that. “Fanatical” applies only to a small percentage of Muslims, as it does to most religions.

She goes on to make some other claims that I find more problematic though. She talks of the widely held perception that Islam oppresses women. From the Harvard Gazette:

Not so, says Islamic studies scholar Celene Ibrahim … In fact, she says, Islam is an “equal-opportunity religion,” whose principles “affirm women’s pursuit of knowledge and literacy; affirm women’s inheritance, earning and managing of wealth; and affirm women’s spiritual potential.”

Muslim Education Worldwide

It’s true that the Qur’an encourages the pursuit of knowledge in both men and women. However, it doesn’t seem to be a part of the Qur’an that Muslims have always taken a lot of notice of, especially when it comes to women. Muslim countries have made big strides in education in recent years, but they are still amongst the most uneducated on the planet. That is especially true of Muslim women. The Pew report ‘Religion and Education Around the World‘ released last week provides this summary of those with no formal education by religion (page 14):


It shows that Muslims are significantly less educated than those in most other religions, and that there is also a significant gap between the education of men and women. That gap is decreasing, but still 43% of Muslim women have NO formal education compared to 30% of men. For those who are educated there is also a gender gap with  men significantly ahead: 10% of Muslim men have a post-secondary education compared to 6% of Muslim women.

It is no longer typical in the OECD for men to be better educated than women. In New Zealand, even amongst the older generation (55-64 years) women are significantly more likely to hold a degree. (39% of women compared to 31% of men; OECD average is 23% of women and 25% of men in the same age group.)

Pew reports that Christians, Jews, and the unaffiliated have seen this same worldwide reversal in gender gaps. In those three groups, women are now, on average, better educated than men.



Muslims are better educated when they are the minority

Ms Ibrahim herself is clearly extremely impressive, but she is not typical of Muslim women around the world. Majority Muslim countries do not educate their people well. They do far better when they are a religious minority and their religion has little or no effect on their level of education.


The map above shows that Muslims have the highest level of education in countries where their religion is irrelevant. Their best option is New Zealand (14.2 years) where there is not a single Muslim religious school in the whole country.

Ms Ibrahim accurately quotes the Qur’an on education. However, the religion of Islam has different rules for women and men. Traditionally that has meant women suffer in the sphere of education.

Islam and Inheritance

Back to Ms Ibrahim’s talk. As I noted above and according to the Harvard Gazette, Ms Ibrahim stated Islam is an “equal-opportunity religion,” whose principles “affirm women’s … inheritance …”.

Well yes, Islam does affirm women’s inheritance. It mandates that women should inherit a lesser share than men. What the Qur’an says on inheritance is:

Allah instructs you concerning your children: for the male, what is equal to the share of two females. But if there are [only] daughters, two or more, for them is two thirds of one’s estate. And if there is only one, for her is half. And for one’s parents, to each one of them is a sixth of his estate if he left children. But if he had no children and the parents [alone] inherit from him, then for his mother is one third. And if he had brothers [or sisters], for his mother is a sixth, after any bequest he [may have] made or debt. Your parents or your children – you know not which of them are nearest to you in benefit. [These shares are] an obligation [imposed] by Allah . Indeed, Allah is ever Knowing and Wise. (Surah 4:11, Sahih International)

I don’t know about you, but I am unable to square that with the phrase, “equal-opportunity religion.” There’re more rules relating to other situations too. I’m not too sure about Allah being “… ever Knowing and Wise,” either as the proportions don’t add up.

Islam and Women Earning Money

The same sentence in Ms Ibrahim’s talk that extolled Islamic inheritance laws included praise of “women’s … earning and managing of wealth.” Again, women have control of money they earn. However, especially in Muslim majority countries, they often have to have a man’s permission to earn that wealth in the first place. In Saudi Arabia the International Labor Organization reports that only 18.6% of the workforce is made up of women.

In 2006, the Saudi Minister of Labour, Dr Ghazi Al-Qusaibi stated:

The [Labour] Ministry is not acting to [promote] women’s employment since the best place for a woman to serve is in her own home. … therefore no woman will be employed without the explicit consent of her guardian. We will also make sure that the [woman’s] job will not interfere with her work at home with her family, or with her eternal duty of raising her children.

The idea that a woman’s “eternal duty” is “raising her children” is one that comes from the Qur’an. Of course, Muslim women who live in countries that have been more influenced by the Enlightenment have more choices. That has little to do with Islam. Muslims who live in the West have the opportunity to reinterpret their scriptures in the same way Christians have. That is why they experience a greater level of equality. It has nothing to do with Islam or any other religion.



Islam and Women’s Clothing

I found Ms Ibrahim’s comments on this topic astounding. The Harvard Gazette reports:

Ibrahim talked at length about the symbolic, religious, and practical purposes of the hijab, the headscarf worn by many, but not all, Muslim women. The headscarf is a symbol that has a certain power, she said.

“Wearing the headscarf is a matter of feminism, aesthetics, and solidarity for me,” she wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece earlier this year. “The hijab is fun and dignifying … it’s part of my morning routine.”

Non-Muslim women who want to show support sometimes participate in the annual Feb. 1 Hijab Solidarity Day, but Ibrahim cautioned that some people believe that may hurt women who wear them every day of the year.

“Some say that only perpetuates the sexist dogma of conservative clerics,” she said.

Responsible gazeI’ve written about this topic at length before. The whole concept of the hijab in Islam is women’s modesty. It’s not that long since we got past this idea in the West, and it’s still not wholly accepted. But HOW WOMEN DRESS IS NOT A CONTRIBUTING FACTOR TO THEM BEING RAPED. Rape, or any other sexual assault, is not the victim’s fault, whether male or female.

If a woman wants to wear hijab of whatever type, I’ve got no problem with that. I do have a problem with it being linked to women’s modesty and how they are treated by others. I can understand a head scarf being a fun item of clothing and wanting to express solidarity with co-religionists. But dignifying? That one escapes me unless she wants to “perpetuate the sexist  dogma of conservative clerics.”

Separate Spaces for Women

bill-gatesThe Harvard Gazette also reports that Ms Ibrahim stated, “There are some spaces where gender segregation is appropriate.” Beyond public bathrooms, shower and changing facilities, and separate dormitories on school trips I can’t imagine what she’s thinking.

Does she consider mosques should be segregated by gender? Of course, it’s not up to me or any other non-Muslim to tell Muslims how to run their mosques. However, more and more mosques are not segregated and they seem to be doing just fine.

“Arab Countries Seem To Be Engaged In A Perpetual War Against Women” States Lebanese Columnist

And so we come to a recent report by Hazem Saghiya who lives in one of those Muslim-majority countries. When people like Reza Aslan extol the virtues of Islam and how well it treats women, he always mentions the number of women who have led Muslim-majority countries. This goes down particularly well with the regressive left in the US where they’ve never elected a woman president.

Hazem Saghiya has a different view of this. He writes:

But the fact is that women are excluded from public discourse, and are suddenly remembered [only] when there is a need for proof of Western conspiracies or Orientalism that distorts [our image]. In any case, [the discourse on women’s issues] is confined to a handful of feminist men and women and a few legislators and activists in civil society organizations whose noble [intentions] and enthusiasm exceed their [actual] influence. The same is true for the Western pressure on our governments, for our governments deceive the West by beautifying [the facts and keeping up] the charade until the Western official’s [plane] leaves the airport, and then things go back to the way they were.

It’s great that Ms Ibrahim feels that her religion doesn’t limit her options in life. That’s the way it should be. However, it’s not Islam that deserves the credit. It’s the Enlightenment thinkers, the Founding Fathers of her country, and the feminists who have battled for women’s rights over the years.


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14 Responses to “Trying to Make the Hijab a Feminist Statement”

  1. Very well researched, Heather–far beyond what I did. Good job. Don’t forget, too, that in a sharia court a woman’s testimony is weighted as only half of a man’s.

  2. rickflick says:

    This is a good review of the issue. When I was in dialogue with some women on a FB post about an image of happy women wearing the Hijab, I mentioned that smiles were fine but the oppressive symbolism was important to keep in mind. I included some material similar to your post. They denied and objected or, to my surprise, found the limits to women’s freedom a non-problem.

    • I agree. What you describe is another form of the brainwashing of religion. It’s like when people compare more extreme forms of the hijab like the niqab and burka to a nun’s habit. A nun has a choice whether she becomes a nun, what order to join (therefore whether she even wears a habit or wears a more or less restrictive one), she joins as an adult, has a long novitiate to ensure she’s chosen correctly, and she can stop being a nun. If she decides to not be a nun, she can still be fully involved with the religion, change religions, or become an atheist. There will be no punishment.

      Obviously I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know here. I just go off on rants when I hear about people not being able to see the reality of a situation!

      • rickflick says:

        Rants probably do us a lot of good. Keep it up. 😎

        Perhaps a more apt comparison with the hijab would be the wearing of bikinis and low cut dresses in the west. 150 years ago these were forbidden. A young woman dressed so scantily would have had hell to pay from her local church and her family. Gradually, the west has relaxed dress codes, but ours were pretty up tight not that long ago. To ask some middle eastern cultures to uncover the hair would be somewhat similar. Effectively, we can see women’s dress as an issue of emancipation. We’d like things to change more rapidly in the Muslim world mostly so that the complex of social constraints surrounding gender can all be brought up to a par with the west. Voting rights, driving rights, abortion rights, etc.

        • True. When the bikini first came along, only women judged to he “whores” wore them. A mini skirt was an invitation for rape. We have come a long way in the last seventy years, and a lot of younger people don’t realize just how far.

  3. Pliny the in Between says:

    Hey Heather – thanks for the inspiration.

  4. Jenny Haniver says:

    I’m glad to have this in-depth refutation of all this rot, especially with the accompanying quotes from the Qur’an and Hadith. Since these hijabis look to the Qur’an and the Sunna as their divine instruction books, one must go straight to the horse’s mouth (or ass) for the definitive bullcorn.

    When Ms. Ibrahim says that “Wearing the headscarf is a matter of feminism, aesthetics, and solidarity for me,” she wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece earlier this year. “The hijab is fun and dignifying … it’s part of my morning routin​e,” it makes me sick to my stomach. She really is deluded or a huckster, perhaps both. The case of the Saudi woman who was recently arrested and received death threats for posting a photo of herself sans hijab on Twitter stands as stark rebuke to the infuriatingly mindless twaddle of this Muslim ‘feminist’ booby. I wonder just how many Muslim women who are compelled to cover themselves to whatever degree consider it “fun and dignifying”? When it ceases to be “fun” for Ms. Ibrahim, she can preserve her dignity and merely leave her headscarf at home, and no one is going to arrest her or make death threats. I’ve got a burka. I used to wear it on occasion just for fun because it bamboozled people and I found their reactions humorous and telling. But that was a long time ago and a different kind of “fun.”

    You’ve written other posts commenting on the execrable hijab couture and how so many hijabis turn hijab on its head and into an object or tool of seduction, such as pairing it with high heels, lots of make up, revealing clothing below the headscarf, etc. Last night, after reading your post, my mind completley lost its moorings. Forget headscarves and shawls, I began to trip on burka fashion and niqab fashion. Now, despite (or perhaps because of) their totally obscuring the female body, those garments have a definite possibility to serve as tools of seduction; and as I drifted off to sleep, I thought of all the pornographic fashion statements one could make with a little alteration in critical places — even simply wearing a burka or niqab with stilettos, and slitting the skirt up to mid thigh (naked thigh, of course, but even encased in tight pants) would be enough. I don’t see these feminist hijabis exploiting those truly radical fashion possibilities.

  5. Amy Carparelli says:

    Exactly, NO items of clothing are feminist statements apart from possibly a T-shirt with ‘I’m a feminist’ written on it (and that doesn’t mean the person is a real feminist). I was reading an article about the ‘corset’ being a feminist statement earlier, bloody crazy ideas.

    I know not all people calling themselves ‘feminist’ are real feminists but online definition:

    the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.”

    Whereas I would argue that hijabs are about segregation:
    the action or state of setting someone or something apart from others.
    Men don’t wear hijabs women do, men and women have to sit apart with people of their own gender/sex and from my understanding I don’t think some Muslim women are meant to be in a room ‘alone’ with a man they are not related to (which also demonizes men as a threat). Most men are not a threat.

    To quote myself from my article: “One of the most sexist things about society today is the way women are often judged as either dressing or acting “modestly” or “immodestly”. And this is one of several reasons I have read some Muslim men and women say women wear the hijab. Another reason I have read is ‘so women are a symbol of their religion’.

    To wrap up what I’m saying real feminism is meant to be about equality and working towards that and NOT about segregation. I would argue that if a Muslim woman decided to take her hijab off and not wear it that could be seen as a feminist statement because Muslim men don’t wear hijabs and it’s a step in the right direction. Having to hide behind a piece of cloth with all that fear put in your head making the women totally responsible if she gets advances from men is crazy and NOT feminist. We are all adults let’s all behave as adults and share responsibility NOT use women as symbols or objects that should be hidden. Sorry if any typos I just got up and leaning to the side when typing because my laptop burns my legs it get’s so hot.

    It’s crazy that when human’s started making and wearing clothes it was at least partly to survive colder weather as humans started to migrate and this is what has transpired.

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