Hijab: A Muslim Woman’s only Achievement?

As a person who interacts with a Western Muslim community that places great importance in women’s clothing and female modesty, I am rarely surprised by the focus on hijab as the sign of piety. Similarly, I have unfortunately gotten used to the obsession in some Western media with hijabs and black robes as symbols of oppression.  Hijab is everywhere. It is in my mosque, in my community, and in the media. However reading the multitude of recent media stories on hijab over the past few weeks, I was struck yet again both by just how problematic “hijab stories” are.

While I personally believe that the idea of the hijab as the “icon of Islam” has been vastly overdone both in some segments of the media and by some Muslim communities, and I consider that hijab is a matter of personal choice, I understand the religious and political connotations that it has around the world. Nonetheless, the kind of attention that hijab sometimes receives disturbs me.

Source: badassmuslimahs.tumblr.com

There has been a lot of attention paid to Muslim women’s clothing in recent days. Ranging from Turkish Muslim women’s fashion struggles to Saudi women’s participation in the upcoming Olympic Games, the hijab continues to be occupy a central position in the news when it comes to “covering” Muslim issues (no pun intended). What I find problematic is that so much of the attention in the Western and Spanish-speaking media which I read goes towards the clothing that Muslim women are and will be wearing, rather than their personal and professional merits and abilities. With titles such as How will Muslim sportswomen dress for the Olympics?, Muslim women show flair for their fashion  and The Hijab is not benign the spotlight is still focused solely on hijabs, clothing and the politics of what we decide or not to wear.

Nevertheless, it cannot be said that the focus on hijab is one-sided. Many Muslim women who wear hijab describe why they choose do so in the media, or write about reconciling hijab with a Western sense of fashion or generally try to explain the hijab in particular contexts. The need to show that hijab does not prevent Muslim women from being successful, fashionable and free tends to be well-received by many segments of the media in the West, providing an easy story in a sense, which unfortunately is also often a superficial one.

Talking about hijab and clothing is obviously necessary in some contexts (i.e. when discussing government policies regarding dress codes), however, the majority of contexts where hijab has been discussed lately takes away from what many hijabi Muslim women are doing these days and transforms them into women whose headscarves are more worthy of attention than themselves.

At some point I hope this trend of talking about the hijab instead of the woman that wears it will be overcome. I want to know about the Muslim women in the Olympics rather than the hijabs and long sleeves that they are wearing or not wearing. I want to read about Muslim women’s ground-breaking fashion achievements, not about whether hijab enables or prevent them from being successful or even pious. And I would like to hear from the new Egyptian First Lady about her role within the new government instead of her hijab and “fashion” style.

At this point in time where there is so much attention around Muslim women, and when many of them are contributing so much, it is about time that we  look at what these women have to say, what they do, what they achieve, instead of how they choose to dress.


  • Miremme

    Eren, it’s very simple. A person who truly chooses to wear hijab makes it a focus. So no sense being up-in-arms if others focus on it. Want the focus to be on you as a person, don’t distract everyone with such a prominent religious symbol, which has as its religiously grounded purpose that which is repugnant to progressive women. True, many wear it as a statement in the politics of identity but, again, if this is how you choose to be identified, that’s how you’ll be identified.

    • MJ

      no-what it shows is how obsessed our culture is with womens appearence and what she is wearing. it would be irrelevant what a woman wears.

      • Miremme

        Well, actually, it seems all cultures are to some degree obsessed with what women wear. I’m betting that there’s something hard-wired about this. Nevertheless, I submit to you that societies in which the majority of women wear hijab/niqab/burqa are the most obsessed with women’s appearance. Certainly, wearing a hijab only feeds into this obsession in our society.

        The reasonable response would be to put little meaning/value/time in your appearance. Put it into your character instead. It seems this message would be lost on hijabis, as their identity is wrapped up in the hijab–literally and metaphorically (funny how those things work). And this I find troubling, divisive, counterproductive, and a whole host of other negative things.

        Oh well, I’m pretty sure this trend will die out, as it appears to be more of a resentment-driven act of rebellion.

  • Eren Arruna Cervantes

    Thanks for your comment Miremme, it is nice to hear from readers. What you say may be true, but this is not only a generalization, but also a somehow problematic matter. A woman who wears hijab may or may not make it a focus and may or may not wear it for the sake of identity, politics or religion. A woman’s achievemnts should not be shoved untherneath her scarve. Aren’t her achievements more important? On the flip side, I would ask, why don’t we focus on what other women wear? Or perhaps we do, and this has also been highly problematized. A number of movements, including earlier feminist movements as well as more recently the movement known as Slut Walk criticizes the focus on women’s clothing as source of harassment, denigration, labeling, etc. A woman is not what she wears, or even more, what society or the media think she wears. Yes, hijab is a visible garnment and for some a highly symbolic one, but is that a reason to deny Muslim women access to the public sphere or to deny them the right to be known for the things they do rather that what they wear?

    • Miremme

      Eren, I completely agree that there is far too much focus on what women wear. This has been the case in North America during my entire lifetime and I’ve always found it undermining–and infuriating at times–as much as I like clothing and all aesthetic aspects of life. (I’m a graphic designer.)

      Rather than helping, however, I find that this added dimension of hijab–a relatively new phenomenon here–further deepens, rather than helps solve the problem. Certainly, I’m not suggesting denying any woman access to the public sphere nor the right to be judged by the content of her character, to use an excellent phrase. And I agree that what a woman wears should never, ever be used as an excuse to justify harassment, abuse, or anything of the kind. But we need to be reasonable and deal with what is–not what should be.

      Everyone, men included, is judged by what they choose to wear. If you see a man in a suit, you get a different impression of him than you would of a man in a baggy t-shirt and track pants. Likewise, if you see a woman in a low-cut top and micro-mini skirt, you’ll get a different impression than from a woman in a mid-calf A-line skirt and turtleneck. Absolutely, without question, what the former is wearing can never be accepted as justification of bad treatment of any kind, but it’s entirely reasonable that she wouldn’t be extended a huge amount of respect.

      I believe it’s incumbent on everyone to accept that what they wear makes a statement that people respond to, and if the response is not what’s desired, the statement needs re-evaluating.

      I’m telling you that I–and it seems most North Americans–find the hijab a barrier to seeing the individual and her achievements. Indeed, it IS a barrier. Frankly, I resent being asked to contend with voluntarily erected barriers. I, rather, ask that the barriers not be erected.

      A woman who wears hijab may or may not make it a focus and may wear it for various reasons, since a minority of women in the West wear it, it does take centre stage, whether the wearer wants it to or not. It stands out like a sore thumb. It’s always what I see first. I’d prefer to see the person first, second and last.

      Have you read Sana’s column on this site? I found it refreshing. Here’s the link:

  • samiah

    As a PROUD hijab wearing muslim woman, i find the topic quite interesting!!!! Oh by all means, feel free to judge me by my appearance. I would e delusional not to expect people not to! Wearing the hijab does not stop me from being a medical doctor, a successful entrepreneur, wife and mum and i welcome whole heartedly all the stares and questions about it because i feel like an ambassador of my religion.

    What would be unfair is expecting me to be one and the same with ALL hijab wearing women!!! We are all as individual in our accomplishments as all women wearing blue jeans!!!!

  • Olla

    seriously I am sick of Muslims only talking about Hijabis and how the west sees Hijabis????
    I am a non Hijabi egyptian girl and I am struggling everyday because of that “women are fitna , women’s clothes are the reason of men sexually molesting and raping women ” “good muslim men are weak and women should cover from head to toe so these poor good muslim men don’t get infatuated by them “