Regardless of a country’s stand on religion and secularism — in both scenarios, why is a woman’s choice of the garment always politicized? The opinion that a piece of clothing is oppressive or not should be with the women wearing it. Not the men in her life, not her community and definitely not the government in power.
Recently, the hashtag #HandsOffMyHijab went viral after the French senate under the administration of President Emanuel Macron voted to ban children under the age of 18 and mothers who accompanied them on school trips from wearing the hijab and burkinis at swimming pools. Global voices like American Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar condemned the action. Not only is this discriminatory in nature towards one religion (while 18 other religions can continue to cover their heads in different attires), it also isolates Muslim women from practicing their beliefs.
Just when the mainstream world of fashion, sports and arts had started acknowledging women for their individuality and making space for them by promoting modest campaigns and allowing them to participate in athletic competitions with headscarves, this regressive decision by countries like France, Norway and Switzerland undo their progress.
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On the flip side, until a few years ago, women in middle eastern countries like Iraq, Saudi Arabia could be arrested for not covering their heads. In Iran and the Indonesian province of Aceh, it is still mandatory. This radicalization has forced women, both Muslim and non-Muslim, to wear a hijab under this draconian law.
In 2017, a campaign called White Wednesday was created to advocate for women’s freedom of choice in Iran. It invited men and women to wear white scarves or bracelets to show their solidarity in revoking the forced veiling law. Vida Movahed, a protestor whose video went viral where she’s supporting the campaign by silently waving her headscarf on a stick, was arrested for the same. It sparked a social outrage; the police silenced many women who came out in her support. Till today, women in Iran are fighting against their human right violation.
The narrative that clothes reflect culture is where the problem lies. The patriarchal policing on what’s appropriate and what’s not has existed since time immemorial. In Indian culture, a cropped top is shamed, while a sari is taken as a symbol of tradition. Ironically, both silhouettes are torso-baring, then what makes one more pious than the other? During the significant #MeToo movement, arguments about the length of a woman’s skirt being the cause for her sexual harassment have also been made while comparing her to a religious deity in the same sentence. As self-proclaimed protectors of female sanctity, they have been making, breaking and altering these rules according to their convenience.
For instance, in the 1850s, during the first wave of feminism, middle-class women launched the Victorian dress reform movement (a.k.a the rational dress movement). Women wanted to adopt a more functional form of dressing instead of being suffocated and sexually objectified in tightly-laced corsets, crinolines (skirt lining) and bustles (bust pads). According to the reformists, this style of dressing was not only hazardous for their health but also the results of male conspiracy to make women more obedient by instilling this slave psychology in them.
The movement caught momentum and spread across the United States and multiple European countries, igniting the fire of change. The socio-political shift in women’s economic position in the 1920s further accelerated their say in what their closet should possess.
At the end of the day, none of these decisions about removing hijab or making it a compulsion addresses the actual issues women face. While we want the attention to be on matters like safety, gender pay gap, reproductive health and rights, access to education and menstrual stigma, the focus, unfortunately, continues to remain in the search of our misplaced morality.