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Is the Hijab a Symbol of Diversity or a Symbol of Oppression?

By Valerie Tarico ~

Coca cola hijabCoca-Cola’s America the Beautiful ad on Super Bowl Sunday aimed to be a celebration of diversity, showcasing the many ethnicities that make up our modern social fabric. Right wing pundits jumped on the ad as a symbol that White Christian America is under assault. Not surprisingly, the Left reacted by praising and sharing the ad all the more because Right wingers hated it.

To criticize the ad from the Left, then, is like rooting for the wrong team in the Super Bowl itself. But according to some liberal and secular Muslims, Coca-Cola did women no favor by choosing the hijab as one of their symbols of diversity.

Americans value diversity in part because it is a proxy for another cherished value: freedom. Different styles of clothing and hair, skin colors, and family configurations are symbolic reminders that here in America we are free to pursue our quirks and interests, to become the best we can be, to love whom we love, and to worship (or not) as we see fit.

But for many secular Muslims and former Muslims, the hijab is not a symbol of freedom. It is a symbol of the fact that women in Islam are second class citizens and that this status is encoded in both sacred text and tradition, enforced by culture and law. The hijab lies at one end of a continuum with the burka, a portable fabric wall that prevents subject women from engaging fully with the world, and vice versa. It is a reminder that for millennia women have been chattel--literally property of men--and that this is the case in all of the Abrahamic sacred texts including the Bible and the Koran. This is why, in the Bible a rapist can be forced to buy and keep the damaged property. It is why, just last month in Dubai, a raped Austrian woman was told to marry her rapist.

For tens of millions of women around the world, Islamic head covering and isolation are not a matter of choice. In India, the practice of Purdah—keeping women shut away in walled compounds—has been a part of the culture since the time of the Mughal conquest. In Iran, Afghanistan, and some parts of Saudi Arabia women face fines, beatings, and worse for daring to show their hair. Before the U.S. deposed Saddam Hussein, Iraq had one of the highest rates in the Middle East of women in Ph.D. programs. Today, a woman with her head uncovered in some parts of Baghdad may be a target.

Many women claim that they wear the hijab voluntarily, and surely some do. But for others, such statements simply mask the overweening power of internalized ideology and of men. Faisal Saeed Al Mutar is a Washington D.C. based writer and the founder of Global Secular Humanist Movement who emigrated from Iraq. His life experience makes him skeptical about the hijab as a symbol of religious freedom:

Many women who wear the Hijab even in Western countries are forced to wear it due to a pressure from society or their families. I personally know of cases in which women have been beaten up or rejected by their families for refusing to wear the Hijab. My Egyptian friend Reem Abdul Razak was disowned by her father for taking the veil away. An Iraqi friend was kicked out from the house for refusing to wear the hijab any longer even though her reasons were not primarily anti-religious but rather because of the extreme summer heat in Iraq.

for millennia women have been chattel--literally property of men--and this is the case in all of the Abrahamic sacred textsMore insidious, perhaps, is the kind of psychological pressure that leads a woman to submit without question to practices that she otherwise would reject. Vyckie Garrison is a former member of the Christian Quiverfull movement, in which women are expected to birth as many babies as God deigns to give them. For years, as Garrison dutifully bore seven children at repeated risk to her life, she perceived that she participated in the movement willingly, even joyfully. Now founder of the blog No Longer Quivering, she looks back on those years through a different pair of eyes. Specifically, Garrison rues her inability to see how her own desires had been manipulated.

Quiverfull leaders such as Nancy Campbell are masters at SPIN. Playing on a woman’s sincere desire to serve the Lord wholeheartedly … they use the scriptures to convince a woman that she WANTS nothing more than to stay home, have lots of babies and serve her husband – even if these choices might cost her everything.

Garrison has written a series of articles on the question whether women like her who “choose” such roles, for example Michelle Duggar, are actually doing so freely.

In the same way that the fundamentalist Christian God allows people to exercise their free will by choosing between worshipping and serving Him or else burning in Hell forever – the Quiverfull woman must make the decision to trust God and perhaps die physically, or trust in the Pill and her own common sense – and die spiritually for all eternity. That’s not a choice – it’s an ultimatum.

When a Christian woman realizes that such a role is not for her, she often needs help and support from others who have found a way out. Dr. Marlene Winell is a California psychologist who works full time with “reclaimers” – people who are leaving conservative Christianity and rebuilding their lives. Among other things, she helps to connect clients with likeminded communities because, like Al Mutar’s friends who refused the hijab, many are rejected or shunned by Christian relatives. This can leave them alone, depressed, and destitute. When a situation crosses over into abuse, Winell works with them to get appropriate assistance and protection.

Al Mutar would like to see similar assistance and protections put in place in the U.S. so that women who are subject to Islamic edicts such as hijab against their will would have options.

I suggest creating a help line or a foundation to help those who are forced, giving them safe houses to escape to. A similar foundation was set up to prevent female genital mutilation by Ayan Hirsi Ali, and the AHA Foundation gets calls and emails on daily basis from desperate women.

Both England and France have higher rates of Muslim immigration that the U.S. and more open debate about hijab and other traditions that keep Muslim women covered or isolated from men. A French short movie that went viral recently explored sexism by having men play the parts of women. In one scene the protagonist arrives at his daycare to find that his provider (another man) is now wearing hijab at his wife’s request. The awkward scene is oddly poignant.

Maryam Namazie is a former Muslim who runs the “One Law For All” Campaign in England. Despite receiving death threats, Namazie is outspoken about equal rights for women, including the right for women to leave Islam and for Islamic women to dress as they choose. In recent months, when conservative Muslims in London won the right to gender segregated seating in university halls, Namazie organized secular Muslims and fought back.

Al Mutar sees the American Left as oddly naïve about the religion of his birthplace, not only about hijab and the freedom of women, but about freedom in and from Islam more broadly. He draws an analogy between the Islam of the 21st Century and the Christianity of the Dark Ages, pointing to the thirteen Muslim dominated countries in which atheists are subject by law to the death penalty. He points to the nonexistence of gay rights and even the religiously sanctioned murder of gays in places like Saudi Arabia and Iran. He points to Morocco, which drops criminal penalties for rape as long as the rapist marries his victim. He points to how religious minorities are treated in places like Pakistan. He finds it painful that so often Western liberals—in reaction to the militarism and xenophobia on the Right—side against Middle Eastern liberals who share their quest for freedom and equality.

I understand the liberal impulse to respect multiculturalism, but aren’t human rights more important than cultures? Humans have rights, cultures don’t, cultures evolve and reform. Liberal friends and allies ask churches and pastors to accept gay rights and women’s rights. It is disrespectful and even racist to ask any less of mosques and Muslim leaders.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of Subscribe to her articles at

Related at AwayPoint:

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What the Bible Says About Rape and Rape Babies