Re-Engaging with the Other “Liberation Theology”

Complete with your standard extreme close-up of a hijab-clad woman confusingly looking at the voyeuristic lens before her, the Guardian’s “Comment is Free” section recently featured a piece by writer Nadiya Takolia, entitled: “The Hijab has Liberated Me From Society’s Expectations of Women.”

Probably like many readers of this blog, my initial reaction consisted something of a suppressed cough-caught-in-a-groan. A cough because this topic and argument are so overdone and done in the same exact way everywhere and every single time; a groan because I knew CiF trolls would come out dressed to the nines in bigotry.


The picture accompanying Takolia's article, via the Guardian.

(And they did.)

Takolia’s piece resonates with a lot of young Muslim women, especially those who live in North America and wear hijab; she argues for the hijab beyond religious ethics and within the framework of feminist liberation and responding to socially-imposed exploits of the vain persuasion. As Takolia says it “not religion but politics” that drives, so to speak, her hijab:

“I do not believe that the hair in itself is that important; this is not about protection from men’s lusts. It is me telling the world that my femininity is not available for public consumption. I am taking control of it, and I don’t want to be part of a system that reduces and demeans women. Behind this exterior I am a person – and it is this person for which I want to be known.”

For many women, the adornment of the headscarf is the representation of the antithesis of female objectification and subjugation in a social sphere where the female body is, essentially, a capitalistic transaction. Women’s bodies and women’s bodies in sex are used to sell us – men and women – nearly everything, and this undoubtedly has an effect on how women engage with their own bodies and how men and women both engage with one another and in sexual affairs. The headscarf can then become a tool for fighting perceived gender oppression and social violence. This, of course, is not the case for all women who wear the hijab. For instance, for many other women the headscarf is a sign of piety, spiritual elevation and a great obedience to the Will of God. And for many other women still …the headscarf is far from a choice, or even a passing thought. And then there are all those women who find themselves shifting in between and far outside these three cookie-cutter categories of religious engagements I’ve laid out for unfortunate convenience.

The hijab, just as a headscarf and not as an internalized external practice in piety, is complicated not just for each and every different group of women but even for each and every individual woman. So, I’m not here to talk about that (shut up, I realize I kinda already did) really because I think this discussion can be endless and, quite honestly, futile. I think we need to move beyond that. But I also think it’s as important to challenge staple arguments for the headscarf as it is to challenge staple arguments that speak against it – primarily because oftentimes both of these arguments, however different in the details, are framed in the same way and are ultimately not all that different from one another save in their conclusions.

Takolia argues, in her piece, that through a series of growing experiences with socially-given vanity and body objectification, she was drawn towards the hijab. It was, for her, a political project to protest the sexualization and commercialization of her body, a woman’s body:

“From perfume and clothes ads to children’s dolls and X Factor finals, you don’t need to go far to see that the woman/sex combination is everywhere.”

While Takolia’s own journey to and experience with the hijab resonates profoundly with my own personal journey and experience (cue violins), I cannot help but urge that the Liberation trope needs dire re-examination.

A body clad in a headscarf is not a body liberated from social expectations and demands. From both within the Muslim community and from outside of it, women remain encumbered with pedestals for their looks, their personalities and their bodies. This isn’t a problem of religion; it is a problem of cultures and communities – often clashing. There are expectations for hijab-clad women, within many of the diverse North American Muslim communities, in how they handle themselves, how they interact with the opposite sex (if at all). Even their religiosity and level of religious knowledge are assumed. Women wearing hijab are no longer allowed to be humans prone to err, as God created us and as God acknowledges, but rather are expected to have achieved some sort of unwavering piety resulting from fabric choice. Instead, they can become objects for observance and representation; a sort of silent groups of members of a “clergy.” And these standards, of course, are not necessarily the same for women without hijab – as they are often already seen as “not quite there yet,” or outside the fold of physical, “tangible” piety. As I have written elsewhere, the hijab emphatically provides a privilege at the expense of Muslim women not wearing it:

“…since piety is paramount in Islam and since physical manifestations of piety are more than just paramount in many North American Muslim communities, does not the veiled group receive a privilege over the other young women particularly in their communities? Outside of the community, the situation is vastly different and reversed more often than not, but the issue of perceived piety persists which in turns gives veiled women a certain privilege within their respective communities over those who choose not to veil.”

In addition to this particularity of privilege, there is also the issue of hijabofashionistas. There is a growing culture of hijab fashion (makeup, clothing, hijab styling), both in the blogosphere and on the runways – how does this, in turn, fit in with our argument of the liberation theology of the hijab? If the hijab can be worn to “liberate” us from bodily expectations, can it not also become a part of that oppression itself? How do we then deal with the trope of scarf-clad liberation? The problem remains that we look solely to the hijab for “liberation,” not realizing that it is merely a part of a long journey through and towards the liberation of the self from the Self – our religion prescribes more ways for us to deal with the daily mirror battles – and the war with the muffin top jean effect and the livid horror of uneven skin tone –  than by simply putting on a headscarf.

If we are to speak of the liberation of our bodies, egos, minds and hearts, then it is important for us to approach this liberation holistically. The verses in the Qur’an that are interpreted to support the covering of the hair and bosom do not exist in isolation. They were not revealed in and of themselves –they came within the context of an entire message interspersed with several messages, for both men and women, outlining a diverse ethical theory for social relations as well as for self-preservation. If we, as Muslims, depend on what we wear and do not wear for our “liberation” from self-consumption and objectification, then we risk becoming victims of those exact things.

A Potential Burqa Ban at the Federal Level in Switzerland
Friday Links | December 19, 2014
Rejected (Muslim) Princesses: awesomely offbeat women in history
Happy New Year! + Taking a Break
  • Rochelle

    “It is me telling the world that my femininity is not available for public consumption. I am taking control of it, and I don’t want to be part of a system that reduces and demeans women”

    And yet she is reproducing that system by reinforcing the fiction (and social fact) that a woman’s sexuality is a distraction or obstruction to her display of personhood, and thus must be hidden or protected or somehow guarded from being “consumed”.

    To cover something is to acknowledge the object of one’s covering as well as its significance. Further, the act of covering actually infuses the object with seduction and desire, an enigma mystified by its cover. Covering reproduces an obsession with women’s bodies, not eliminates it.

    I’ve never felt more sexualized than when I lived in Iran. I was hiding something I didn’t even know I had. It was on my mind all the time. Was this skirt long enough, was this shirt loose enough. Everywhere was signs of chadori women compared to pearls or covered lollipops or other such nonsense (talk about objectification!) All the men were constantly looking at me to see how I was clothed and, by extension, what I looked like naked. And that dynamic, I really believe, makes that society even MORE obsessed with sexuality. They say we must cover so that we’re not distracted by s#x all the time. But by forcing all women to cover, the Iranian government was putting s#x on everyone’s minds, everywhere, all the time.

    And of course I must perform the defensive move of saying I don’t give a shit what women want to wear, from burka to bikini, and I’m not “anti-hijab” whatever the hell that means. I just don’t understand the logic of critiquing a hypersexualized culture by reinforcing the its very ontological basis: women’s body=s#x=objectification.

    [sorry for saying "s#x" - if i use the full word the spam filter cuts me out :) ]

    • Hyde

      I don’t get it…more pent up rage ?

  • anneke

    Thanks Sana for writing about this piece! I have come across it several times, have read a few alineas, but never really could finish it. It pushes so many buttons, and even though I can identify with some of the points, I never have felt that hijab/covering has liberated me, Islam has, but the headscarf definitely not. Never understood why it should too, never found a verse in the Qur’an: wear hijab, it will liberate thee, or something in that line of thought. Hijab makes me visible, and that emphasizes for me that I have to be on my best behaviour. It sends out a message that I (try to) adhere to certain values, but they go beyond just intimacy related issues. At the same time, I might not get hired everywhere, and some people may not wish to see beyond the clothing to find out who I really am, but that is always the case with appearance. Still, I believe that there is something about covering, of which the headscarf is just a small piece, that is beneficial to me. It is not the liberation, it is rather the limitation that it brings, the focus on things that are important to me, that helps me in my struggle to become a better person, woman and Muslim altogether.

  • Maryam Hajar

    Jazak Allah khair for this article. There is so much here to comment on, i’m sure i can’t address all of it, but bottom line for me is that i have been wearing hijab for over 3 yrs now, after i converted to Islam 4 yrs ago. I wear it because it is commanded by Allah swt. To add on other reasons such as deterring men from sin, liberation from objectification, or to be ‘taken more seriously’, earn piety, identify as a Muslim, etc. are not a reasons to wear it according to the Qur’an. These are all reasons that human logic have assumed. This is why i think hijab so controversial; no one can agree on the assumptions/reasons. As a 63yr old woman, i don’t think the hijab is liberating me from male lustful stares or objectification. I wear to please Allah swt and to identify myself as a Muslim (my reason). One thing i want to comment on that i feel is really detrimental to the purpose of hijab is the hijabi-fashionista pressure to look fashionable in designer hijab styles. The internet is flooded with website stores selling everything imaginable for hijabi fashion, along with thousands of tutorials on how to wear the lastest hijab style. And all the while, when Muslimahs are obsessed with hijabi-fashion, the Muslim men are absorbed in scholarly websites. All of the FB pages of scholars and Muslim institutes of sacred knowledge look like a Men’s Club, with no women in sight. It reminds me of Naomi Wolf’s book: The Beauty Myth. Hijabi-fashion designs encourage women to spend their time preening over their hijab styles and make-up and wasting their time with their appearance, rather than improving their deen and gaining sacred knowledge. When is the last time you went to a conference where there was more than one token Shaykah or Alimah as a speaker? There must be more than one Dr Ingrid Mattson out there…or are they too busy creating volume in their hijab style? We have to be aware of this and not fall into the Beauty Myth trap which distracts us from a much higher calling. Don’t get me wrong, i enjoy looking nice and wear make-up. It’s just a trend i see that is not helping the Ummah mature; but rather is imitating the non-Muslim pop culture which does objectify women. Wassalam

    • Krista

      I have to say I have a hard time believing 1. that Muslim men are, on average, spending the same amount of time on religious websites that (some) Muslim women spend on hijab fashion websites (or that there aren’t equal numbers of Muslim women and men spending time on scholarly websites), and 2. that this is why Muslim women aren’t seen speaking at conferences. Some women are spending their time reading about fashion for sure, but let’s not pretend that male Muslims are only ever interested in strictly religious topics (and that’s not an inherently bad thing). There are also a ton of women who are very accomplished scholars for things that have nothing to do with fashion, and who are never invited to religious conferences. I think this has a lot more to do with the way that religious authority gets constructed as a male domain, and women are often systematically excluded and rarely invited. Incidentally, at every big religious conference I’ve gone to (including many of the Reviving the Islamic Spirit ones), there are definitely way more women in the audience than men, which suggests that there are a lot of women who are very interested in religious learning…

      And non-Muslims don’t have a monopoly on objectifying women, as Sana makes clear in her post. Muslims need to take ownership over the ways that we objectify women, rather than blaming it on a “non-Muslim pop culture” that we’re apparently imitating.

    • Hyde

      Your comment is really good, as it should open the idea women deposit being girlies when they want to be, have the burden of being Islamically educated, more so for the next generation.

  • Krista

    The part that bothered me most about Takolia’s article was this line:

    “Subconsciously, I tried to avoid these demands – wearing a hat to fix a bad-hair day, sunglasses and specs to disguise a lack of makeup, baggy clothes to disguise my figure. It was an endless and tiresome effort to please everyone else.”

    I’m honestly really happy to hear that hijab has been a liberating experience for her (just because it’s great to hear stories from people who are happy/comfortable with what they’re wearing – not because I have an opinion on whether she *should* be wearing hijab), although I share Sana’s concerns about the way that the article was framed. But I think there are also a lot of people for whom headscarves and loose “modest” clothing might be filling exactly the same functions that her hat and baggy clothes served here – not necessarily as a way of stepping outside of societal beauty norms, but rather as a way to hide the ways we don’t (can’t) live up to those norms.

  • Nicole

    I loved your article Sana.
    The thing that bothers me the most about Takolia’s article is that the subject is so tired. The platitudes about hijab and liberation. And then it gets published like it is bringing something new and different to the argument- as Krista and Sana mentioned, the framing for me from a media standpoint is the real issue, not the fact that the author has found her way with hijab (and more power to her).
    I also have to cosign what Krista says about baggy clothes- since dejabbing and being a part time hijab etc etc, I have had a lot of time to observe people and how they react to my body and clothing. When I dress less modestly (although I never get truly scandalous), I get one set of reactions as compared to when I do, with or without hijab. And the way people react to my body has nothing to do with hijab but my fat. When I hide the fat, I disappear in the woodwork, just like in hijab. If I dare wear something that shows some leg or chest, that is when the fat and the diet comments come out.

    The way society treats women and our bodies isn’t something that can be covered up with hijab. Hijab fashionistas are just a new twist on the old theme.

  • faisal

    Takolia’s viewpoint may seem well trodden but her experience is one that gets repeated by millions of women each day and will as long as women wear the hijab. Hearing her reasoning for why she chose to cover might sound like why someone chose Islam.

    Another way to look at Takolia’s reasoning might be to view it as an initial step in “liberation of our bodies, egos, minds and hearts.” Everyone progresses at their own pace.

    • Sana

      Salaam Faisal,

      I’m not trying to undercut Takolia’s experience–as I said, it is also my own. What I am saying however is that if we are to argue for this liberation we must move beyond simply adornment of the headscarf. The problem is that we think to wear the headscarf is to be liberated–we forget that everything in our religion aims to free us from the chains of our egos, from vanity and from self-consumption, all through the belief in one God and through worshipping Him (and how this belief plays out in our daily interactions and self-pursuits).

      Sorry for the brevity, in transit/on an iPad.

      • Hyde

        well said…I agree more with your comment than all of your post…must we always find a feminized angle to interpret everything….?

  • gregorylent

    i like costumes of all sorts … the wearer’s motivation and intention can be felt, and the attraction of attention is always a result … halloween or hijab

  • Maliha

    One of the comments made the observation that its men who aim to attain religious knowledge etc while the women are missing in action. I do think that is unfair as there are many intelligent, capable and bright Muslim women who take a great interest in the religion but sadly are ignored and overlooked. As for Muslim women who do not wear the hijab—well forget about it—never mind that they may be articulate, qualified and passionate about the religion, the fact that they do not wear the hijab is a big fat negative.
    So instead are treated like naughty children who are told they cannot join the fun till they behave. All along given patronising lectures on the ‘empowering’ qualities of the hijab and its protection against the morally corrupt society we live in.
    I am sure some people may well feel liberated by hijab. From my perspective it seems like it causes a lot of division and leads to the exclusion of some and that to me is not healthy.
    Excluding some of the best and brightest on the basis of gender and clothing does not seem to be an intelligent strategy and the entire community suffers….