World Hijab Day Promotes Visibility, Not Meaningful Progress

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by Ruqaya Izzidien

Today marks World Hijab Day, in which non-Muslims are invited to wear the hijab for the day to foster religious tolerance and understanding.

Though well-meaning, World Hijab Day is a symbolic gesture that deals with only the visible elements of Islamophobia, and does so half-heartedly. Wearing the hijab doesn’t reduce attacks on Muslim women, combat structural Islamophobia, or affect the socially toxic narrative around Muslims.

As World Hijab Day enters its sixth year, the hijab has never been more visible, but Muslim women are facing more intolerance than ever.

Muslim women are three times more likely to be unemployed and looking for a job than their non-Muslim counterparts, and are routinely passed over for jobs and sidelined in the workplace. Muslim women are also experiencing a record number of Islamophobic attacks, and headlines continue to misleadingly vilify Muslims.

These are the battles I’d like our allies to stand up for, and they have nothing to do with whether you wear the hijab once a year or not. Freedom of choice should not be about the hijab itself; those forced into it or out of it are experiencing a coercion well beyond the visible.

What Muslim women need, is not visibility for visibility’s sake, but defence of a woman’s right to choose, for which you aren’t even required to approve of the hijab.

Currently, UK department store John Lewis and Vogue Italia feature hijab-wearing models on their homepage, L’Oreal, H&M and Fenty Beauty have all featured hijabi models.

British girl band Little Mix even featured a hijab-wearing vlogger in the music video for a song called Strip. Playboy has profiled a hijabi, Barbie has released a hijabi doll and a year ago, Tesco featured Muslims in its Christmas advert.

On the surface, all of these feats seem like cause for celebration. Of course Muslim women want to be presented as something other than meek and obedient, or violent and vengeful.

Of course we don’t want to be maligned and misrepresented.

But let’s not fool ourselves; we are featured in marketing campaigns because the hijab is considered edgy, outside-the-box and attention-grabbing.

Featuring the most fashionable, westernised Muslim women in a campaign doesn’t make life easier for everyday Muslim women, who we deem not integrated enough to be palatable.

And that seems to be what World Hijab Day is about.

Not the exchange of ideas or the defense of freedom of choice, but the sanitization of the hijab in non-Muslim-majority countries.

Is the thinking that if enough non-Muslim women wear the hijab, it will become acceptable? Because that’s not a normalization that I want, and I file it away with the poppy hijab, the USA flag hijab and the Union Jack hijab. A person should be free to dress however they choose and we should not have to alter their image to be accepted.

Or perhaps the principle of freedom of choice only applies to the choices with which we agree?

This is not a new claim for visible Muslims. Islamophobic comments towards hijab-wearers are often masked with the defense of freedom of choice.

Yet when hijab-wearers find themselves on the receiving end of prejudice, the same people who claim to defend the right to remove the hijab, do not think it prudent to defend the right to wear it as well.

When a man followed and filmed Muslim schoolgirls in London, calling them “black c***s” who are going to “breed like f***ing rats,” those who usually speak out for the right remove the hijab were markedly silent on the right to wear it.

That’s not to say that progress hasn’t been made for visibly Muslim women. Today, women in hijab have won the right to compete in modest swimwear, to wear the hijab to boxing competitions (though German boxer Zeina Nassar is still fighting to change the international rules) and in 2014 FIFA lifted their ban on religious headwear.

None of these gains can be put down to increased visibility of the hijab, rather the legal fights and hard-won battles fought by individual Muslim women. The result is increased participation, and genuine visibility of successful sportswomen.

Visibility is not a means to improving the lives of Muslim women, but a result of the removal of obstacles that limit or prevent the participation of Muslim women.

By skipping the hard work and focusing solely on visibility, we risk creating the false perception that the hijab is becoming more accepted.

?World Hijab Day organizers invite non-Muslim women to spend a day in the shoes of a visibly Muslim woman.

But wearing the hijab for one day does not offer this.

You won’t be denied a job, experience microaggressions or be subject to a slow stream of Islamophobic comments by participating in World Hijab Day, and it may give participants the false impression that they understand what it is like to be Muslim in today’s social climate.

Most baffling, though, is how the hijab continues to be a polemic issue, considered worthy of constant scrutiny and discussion by those who it simply does not affect.

It is a by-product of religious belief and its status as a perennial debate only underlines how obsessed society is with controlling Muslim women and their bodies.

Plenty of non-Muslims cover their hair. You’d be crazy not to in the current British weather. But many observant Muslim women also don’t show their arms, yet we don’t deem it relevant to discuss long sleeves in parliament, schools and newspapers – because long sleeves are exactly what the hijab should be: A non-issue.

So let’s talk about freedom of choice, of access to employment and education. And let’s look forward to the day when World Hijab Day no longer exists because the hijab is accepted for what it is – commonplace and none of anyone else’s business.

Ruqaya Izzidien is a British-Iraqi freelance writer specialising in social and cultural affairs. Her work has been published in The New York Times, the Guardian, the BBC and Al Jazeera English. Reprinted, with permission, from The New Arab.

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