In the on-line version of Newsweek, Eleanor Clift writes, in When Is a Scarf Just a Scarf?, about Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s much-attacked decision to wear a headscarf, or hijab, while visiting a mosque on a recent visit to Syria. Clift writes that Pelosi’s choice “kicked off a debate here at home about whether the House Speaker did the right thing in bowing to a custom that to Western women symbolizes oppression.”
To some Western women perhaps. But Western women are not a monolith, and they include among them Muslim women who wear hijab. Islam is often counterposed with the “Western” world, and “Western” culture, in a way that assumes a neat geographical segregation of the religion. In fact, Islam, the world’s fastest growing religion, is very much present in the Western world, including in the United States, where millions of Muslims live. And does hijab necessarily represent women’s oppression? While some Muslim women oppose headscarves, countless Muslim women in secular countries choose to wear hijab, and they have diverse, and even feminist, reasons for doing so. In Critical Race Feminism Lifts the Veil?: Muslim Women, France, and the Headscarf Ban, 39 U.C. Davis L. Rev. 743, 759-67 (2006), Professor Adrien Katherine Wing and Monica Nigh Smith survey some of the reasons why women choose to wear hijab. For example, one woman quoted in the article explains:
[I have] accepted hijab so that I can be appreciated for my intellect and personality rather than my figure or fashion sense. When I face a classmate or colleague I can be confident that my body is not being scrutinized, my bra-strap or pantyline visible. I have repudiated the perverted values of our society by choosing to assert myself only through my mind.
The authors add, “Thus the scarf desexualizes women, prioritizing the intellect over the body.”
Of course no Muslim woman should be forced to wear a veil, and Muslim women in many countries do suffer very real oppression. But Western non-Muslims need to be careful not to make quick and judgmental assumptions about religious practices they know little about.