Here’s an irony: World Hijab Day—an initiative begun in the US in 2013 to promote cross-cultural solidarity by encouraging woman of all backgrounds to wear a hijab for a day—is celebrated on 1 February—the date on which, in 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned to Iran from exile, soon to impose mandatory hijab laws on all Iranian women. The anniversary of his return is a public holiday in Iran, known as Islamic Revolution Day. Thus, World Hijab Day and Islamic Revolution Day are both celebrated in February by women wearing hijab.
This coincidence draws attention to the absurdity of World Hijab Day, which treats hijab wearing as if it were simply a clothing choice when in fact it is the invention of a misogynistic ideology that sees women as inherently sinful, sexual objects whose face and hair need to be concealed under folds of cloth. All laws and customs that require hijab are designed to perpetuate a social order that subjugates women. In Iran, any woman who refuses to wear hijab is labelled a vulgar whore and subjected to inhumane treatment. Unsurprisingly, such archaic, sexist practices are deeply admired by religious extremists, including the members of Al Qaeda, ISIS and the Taliban. Thus, it is a travesty that those who celebrate World Hijab Day claim that, by promoting hijab, they are supporting female empowerment.
After the Taliban took over Afghanistan, they began depriving women bit by bit of their rights. For example, Afghan women and girls are now barred from going to work or school. They are forbidden to leave the house alone. They are instructed to cover themselves from head to toe. And when they take to the streets in defiance of mandatory hijab laws, they are viciously beaten and humiliated by Taliban soldiers.
This misogynistic mindset is not limited to a single country or culture. Women who don’t comply with such laws have been subjected to unjust and arbitrary punishments in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia and across the Muslim world. Women have not only been imprisoned, but tortured, merely for posting videos on social media—or for removing a hijab in public. And they are continually told that, if they defy so-called religious modesty standards, they “deserve to be raped.” In light of all this, it is safe to say that most women of Muslim heritage have never celebrated wearing a hijab as a matter of choice.
The truth about how the Muslim world imposes hijab on women shows that glorifying those face-coverings with a World Hijab Day is deceitful—and makes a mockery of the staunch resistance of the brave women who protest against them.
When the Taliban delegation was invited to Oslo, Norway recently for so-called humanitarian talks, they were not held accountable for their crimes against women. To add insult to injury, the US special envoy for Afghan women, Rina Amiri, donned a hijab during the talks to appease the Taliban delegation. It is appalling that the Biden administration chose to accommodate the sensibilities of religious fanatics with a gesture that undermines those Afghan women who are courageously resisting the draconian imposition of the hijab. It is appalling to see representatives of the free world bowing down before religious zealots in the name of peacemaking. Does the US really want to signal to Afghan women that Americans think they should be obedient?
Similarly, progressives in western countries, instead of speaking on behalf of the right of women not to wear hijab, have harshly criticised France and other European countries for enacting laws against face-coverings, dismissively framing those laws as Islamophobic. I wonder when they will stop being complicit with tyrants—when they will stop justifying the appalling practice of oppressing women in the name of religious or cultural beliefs.
The UK’s National Secular Society recently reported an Islamic charity, Utrujj Foundation, to UK regulators for publishing an article on its website that endorses violence against women. The article states that a man “has the permission to strike” his wife as part of “a process to salvage a marriage.” This instruction is taken directly from Quranic verses which explicitly allow wife-beating. It is ironic that the UK parliament is discussing a proposal to make misogyny a hate crime while this Islamic charity, despite having been reported, can publish such material without being held accountable for promoting violence against women. Does religious misogyny not constitute hatred and prejudice against women in modern-day Britain? Many westerners who celebrate women’s rights seem unwilling to extend bodily autonomy to women of Muslim heritage.
Many western progressives seem to think that all Muslims endorse the practice of hijab—and the misogynistic ideology behind it. But in fact, many Muslims see it both as a symbol of oppression and as an instrument that is used to normalise prejudice against women. For example, in a 2020 court hearing in Quebec, many Muslim parents supported the province’s religious-symbols ban (known as Bill 21), which protects their children from being exposed to the practice of hijab in schools. They believe that the hijab represents a “pernicious” sexist mindset, regardless of whether or why people choose to wear it. As one parent put it, “For me the hijab is a symbol of inferiority even if they [Muslim schoolteachers in Canada] say they don’t feel inferior to men. It’s a symbol of inferiority, and I insist on that point.” Unfortunately, in the west, members of Muslim communities who speak up against such archaic practices are often dismissed as being not Muslim enough or even smeared as Islamophobes.
Adult women who choose to wear hijab should also be able to remove it without any repercussions. Insisting that women have a right to wear the hijab while denying that they have a right to remove it is cherry-picking women’s rights. It runs counter to the fundamental human rights principle of equality for all—including women and children from religious backgrounds. Many practices that are seen as religious rights include practices that discriminate against women. The world needs to move on from supporting such practices. For generations, there have been oppressed women who have refused to conform to a centuries-old, patriarchal definition of modesty. That is courage. Meanwhile, today, some privileged women in the west, benefiting from the freedom to choose, have decided to celebrate hijab culture. That is betrayal.