The media usually salivates and greedily laps up stories of “Islam oppressed me, but now I'm liberated! Let's celebrate!” by women who choose to give up religion. Which is what made the Open Page article, “Under the veil, we are free souls!'' (April 22, 2012) by Jumana Haseen Rahim, a pleasant surprise. While the Taslima Nasreens of the world hog the limelight with their views and definitions of freedom, it is rare that Muslim women, with conflicting views on women's liberation, are given a chance to voice their thoughts. However, while Jumana's article speaks out against labelling women in hijab (veil), it does not explain why many Muslim women feel so passionately about the hijab.
As an educated woman in her early twenties who chooses to wear her religious convictions on her sleeve by practising hijab, I have been subjected to animosity, and worse — pity, from feminists and those who cannot fathom the reasons behind my choice. While I can attribute hurtful, anti-Muslim slurs to narrow-mindedness and bigotry, the assumption made by the educated, so-called forward-thinkers, that we are all oppressed girls whose lifestyles are dictated by the men in their lives, is both frustrating and demeaning.
Hijab is more than just a religious obligation. People need to realise that, in its own right, it symbolises liberty. It gives women the freedom to show male strangers only the parts of the body that they wish them to see. Yes, the simple salwar kameez and kurti do come under the category of ‘modest' clothing. But if men want to objectify women, hijab just makes things harder for them. I would even go so far as to call it the ultimate feminist statement. A Muslim woman's definition of empowerment is being judged by her personality alone, leaving her looks to be appreciated only by those who matter. To those who refer to the burkha as a “medieval garb,” I ask: Why is it that a nun wearing a similar robe is looked upon with respect, while a woman in a burkha is labelled as ‘backward'?
Jumana's article has received a mixed response. While many agree that it all comes down to personal choice, others raise the valid point that many Muslim girls are compelled to wear burkhas. Having been born into an educated, open-minded family which has kept me aware of my rights as a woman, it is especially painful to hear stories of Muslim girls being forced into burkhas, being deprived of their rights and being made to conform to norms set by misguided men. But can anyone name ONE religion in which patriarchy hasn't reared its ugly head?
The niqab (face-covering) raises questions about its being not just a threat to security, but also the cause for a woman's identity to ‘fade away'. A woman who wears the veil is obligated to reveal her identity whenever security demands it — in airports, in banks and in court, and she is fully aware of that.
As for the danger of her losing her identity, it must be understood that the face-veil is worn only when she steps out of her home. It is not worn in front of other women, as well as close male relatives. If only male strangers lose out on the chance of seeing a woman's face, I fail to comprehend how that constitutes the loss of her identity.
Crimes against Muslim women cannot be attributed to Islam as a religion. Islam was the first to give women the right to own property, to divorce and to remarry (rights that were won by women of other religions only after fighting for them). In order to prevent girl babies being associated with burden, Muslim women are the ones who can ask dowries of their husbands. Islam doesn't oppress women. Men oppress women. The reasons behind the exploitation of women in all religions and communities are the same: women being kept in the dark about their rights, and patriarchal, skewed interpretations of the religious text.
(The writer's email ID is firstname.lastname@example.org)