It’s not the hijab, it’s the attitude that bothers me

Published: February 3, 2013
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The hijab is your choice, but don't look down on people who choose not to wear it. PHOTO: AFP

Legend has it that when the clock strikes midnight, a terrifying army of beasts awaken who call themselves “The Westernsteins.”

They comb our cities, with the sole mission of shaming and persecuting women who wear hijabs or traditional conservative clothing.

Such was the terror of Westernsteins that families across Pakistan forbade their women to leave their homes without donning skinny jeans and spaghetti-strap tops. The flame of hope had ostensibly been extinguished, when the nation decided to fight back with a passionate campaign to promote hijab.

The dream was that one day women would be able to wear hijabs as freely as they get to wear Western clothing.

Before continuing, I must emphasise that this satirical chutzpah is not meant to invalidate the difficult experiences hijab-wearing women have faced because of their choice of clothing. The object is to shed light on our nation’s collective paranoia about being oppressed by malignant foreign influences, to provide balance to the one-sided coverage of women being persecuted for their clothing, and to deal with some gross misconceptions people have regarding what liberals think of hijabs.

The commonest objection that liberals and feminists face is regarding their apparent hypocrisy of calling for women’s right to wear whatever they wish, while criticising their choice to wear hijabs. That is not what the criticism is usually about.

Their concerns are as follows:

Allocating respect by clothing choices

There’s a growing notion that the amount of respect a woman is entitled to be determined by the type of dress she wears. By portraying non-compliance with hijab as “immodesty”, we propagate a dangerous idea that women without hijab are fair game for judgment, scorn or even sexual harassment.

By doing so, the public can potentially pressurise women into choosing hijab in order to become socially accepted.

Hijab is never a choice, unless you have the freedom to remove it without being looked upon with contempt. Otherwise, it simply transforms into a social obligation.

More-modest-than-thou syndrome

Although certainly not a universal trait among hijab wearers, self-righteousness occasionally becomes palpable.

Your choice to wear a hijab is beyond question. Your choice to judge others for not abiding by the same dress code as you is unacceptable.

They may have different cultural values, or a different interpretation of religion and do not deserve your condescension.

Acceptance as a one-way street

You cannot criticise or shame a Western woman for her decision to wear a mini-skirt, bikini or any dress you’ve deemed too provocative, but cry a river when she displays the same attitude towards your hijab. Demand respect for your cultural values only if you’re willing to reciprocate it.

Gender-specific sartorial restrictions

Feminists traditionally have expressed concern for any restriction that disproportionately affects one gender group more than the other. Naturally, when they see women imposing excessive clothing restraints upon themselves – the kind that men never have to put up with – they tend to view it as self-discrimination.

Furthermore, they may see this as enforcing the idea that the onus is upon women to protect themselves from men’s uncouth or even criminal behaviour, instead of making men practice self-control.

Your right to wear a hijab is unchallengeable, and I find nothing wrong with the garment itself.

What liberals find disturbing is the promotion of hijab as an honourable choice as opposed to other choices that make you less worthy of respect.

It is the glorification of hijab, not just as a garment that brings you closer to God, but something that makes you better than others who, for their own reasons, have decided not to wear it.

It is the moisture of ethnocentricity and sanctimonious condensing around hijab that we find intolerable, not the hijab itself.

Read more by Faraz here, or follow him on Twitter @FarazTalat.

Faraz Talat

Faraz Talat

A medical doctor and bubble-wrap enthusiast from Rawalpindi, who writes mostly about science and social politics (and bubble-wrap). He tweets @FarazTalat (twitter.com/FarazTalat)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.