Is It Anti-feminist to Wear Hijab?

Modesty or a counterreaction? In recent years, more and more women who wear a hijab are revealing their inner struggle to define their identity and the boundaries of freedom of choice within the framework forced upon them

Sheren Falah Saab
Sheren Falah Saab
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Nemah Hasan aka Nemahsis in her "Dollar Signs" video clip.
Nemah Hasan aka Nemahsis in her "Dollar Signs" video clip.Credit: Director Of Photography: Konsta
Sheren Falah Saab
Sheren Falah Saab

A hijab is the most typical target of Islamophobia in the West. Despite all the rules of political correctness customary nowadays, Muslim women who wear a hijab in non-Arab countries encounter discrimination and prejudice. The Palestinian-Canadian singer Nemah Hasan, who is better known by the name Nemahsis, has released a new song called “Dollar Signs,” in which she describes the oppressive attitude of Western society to those women. With half a million followers on TikTok and thousands of views on YouTube, she hopes to use it to expose the world of young Muslim women living in Canada. And on the way she doesn’t spare criticism of the West.

The video clip of the song in which she describes her personal experience, provokes discomfort. She is described in it as an object, as a young woman who knows she will never be considered an equal among equals. She describes what is expected of her: to be neutral, not to express an opinion, and mainly to remain silent. As in her previous clips, for her being different is a source of strength upon which she negotiates her social status.

In effect, Hasan’s battle with the hijab is what led to her breakout. About a year ago a multimillion-dollar cosmetics corporation asked her to appear in their ads. “They didn’t offer me any recompense,” she said. “Their reason was ‘it’s more of an opportunity for the people of your community.’” She did the photo shoot, but felt afterward she had been exploited. Although she told them not to use her image, she says the corporation ignored her and used it anyway.

“I felt like such an idiot,” she told the publication Complex. “I was supposed to be strong and independent. I was too proud to admit what had happened. But I will not be anybody’s victim.”

She decided to leave her comfort zone and wrote the song “What if I Took it Off for You,” which became her biggest hit.

A demonstration in Montreal against a bill on secularism in Quebec, 2019.Credit: David Himbert / Hans Lucas / AFP

Hasan is battling a complicated series of identifies. On her Instagram post, she wrote, “... for everyone that doesn’t fit the mould and has felt the need to compromise their individuality in order to be accepted – my wish is to echo your voices.”

In her songs, she attacks the political correctness that forces her to blend in, and repeatedly asks that people stop seeing in her only “the Muslim woman with the hijab.” This pigeonholing, she says, only caused her to hate herself. “I wasted two decades longing for a lighter skin and hair color,” she wrote in the introduction to “Paper Thin.” “I spent most of my life hating the features that I like most about myself at the moment. They won’t like you until you learn to like yourself.”

Not only an item of clothing

Women who wear a hijab are called motahajiba (veiled women). In a book published in 2018, “Burkini, Confessions of a Veiled Woman,” Lebanese journalist and author Maya el-Hajj described the world of a hijab-wearing woman in a secular Arab community, and the opposition and difficulties she encounters. There is a great deal of similarity between the singer from Canada and the writer from Beirut, but not just between them. In recent years, more and more women who wear a hijab are revealing their inner struggle to define their identity and the boundaries of freedom of choice within the framework forced upon them.

Nahed Ashkar Sharary, a doctoral student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, stresses in a conversation with Haaretz that the hijab constitutes part of the identity of Muslim women. Sharary, who lectures in a program for gender studies and is a member of the staff at the Mandel Center for Leadership in the Negev, says they are fighting to make a place for it even in the Western countries where they live – whlle also refusing to accept the Muslim patriarchy that oppresses women. She explains that the 1970s saw the development of the Islamic feminist stream, which promotes religious and political criticism.

The West’s preoccupation with the hijab is Orientalism. Dr. Nuzha Allassad-Alhuzail, a senior lecturer in the School of Social Work at Sapir Academic College, tells Haaretz that Muslim women, mainly young ones, wear the hijab as a reaction to the Western oppression that customarily reviles their culture. “It’s like asking a Jew why he wears a kippa or asking a Christian why he wears a cross, says Allassad-Alhuzail, author of the book “When the Shadow is Big it’s a Sign that the Sun is Going Down,” about the lives of three generations of Bedouin women. She says it’s a reaction by Muslim women who are trying to become part of a society that presumes to accept them but sees them as others.

“Who said that you have to remove the hijab to be free?” she asks. “One way that women adopt their native culture is by wearing a hijab, and they choose to adopt traditional behaviors. In doing so, they make their identity present, their ‘self’ as they see themselves.”

Ashkar Sharary explains, based on her research, how independent Muslim women living in Western society solve their inner conflict about wearing the hijab. “It’s done by distancing themselves from the patriarchal religious laws, while meticulously observing religious laws and relying on the principal of ‘preserving a person’s soul,’ which encourages strengthening and preserving the self,” she says. She gives an example of Muslim women in Israel who are nurturing a critical-religious identity that is trying to strengthen their selfhood, based on religious interpretation that empowers them and enables them to oppose patriarchal norms.

A shopkeeper standing in her hijab shop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in 2020.Credit: Lim Huey Teng/Reuters

“The phenomenon of women who use Islamic law and sharia regulations to take ownership of their voice, their desires and their rights, without questioning the basic rules of Islam, is steadily increasing,” she notes.

Yearning for God

Dr. Ibtisam Barakat, a lecturer at Bar Ilan University and at Safed Academic College, says that sociologically, the hijab preserves the collective identity of immigrant Muslim women. These items of clothing and symbols are things that characterize minorities worldwide who want to preserve their identity as a minority – particularly in Western countries, and especially women.

Palestinian-Canadian singer Nemah Hasan, aka Nemahsis, in her video "What if I took it off for You?" Credit: YouTube screenshot

Barakat stresses that many women consciously and of their own free will wear a hijab. She cites the late post-colonial scholar Saba Mahmood, who claimed that wearing a hijab is a practice that symbolizes piety and belief in God. “Pious Muslim women autonomically choose to wear the hijab as part of their daily practices of modesty, perseverance and humility. And that is based on their inner faith and their yearning for a connection with God,” she says.

So is wearing a hijab a personal choice, or a counterreaction to the West? Singer Nemah Hasan proves that Muslim women who wear a hijab are making a statement that is being heard and that influences the younger generation in the West. Hasan is one example, and she will be followed by additional women who keep the hijab. Allassad Alhuzeil sums up by saying: “The women who wear a hijab don’t want to be enslaved to the Western idea, and at the same time they don’t want to surrender to the dictates of the patriarchal society from which they come. Each one uses the hijab in a way that serves her objective.”

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