Imagine a Muslim woman and you’ll most likely picture a hijab, the head covering worn by some Muslim women across the globe.
The hijab is not the most important part of being a Muslim woman, but it is certainly the most visible. In a time when Islamophobia only seems to be on the rise in the West, a practice that is so personal and diverse has become a warped and misunderstood part of a flat and monolithic picture of Muslim women.
As Islam becomes more and more wrapped up in public debates about foreign policy, integration and immigration, the hijab has quickly become shorthand for a set of stereotypes that neither represent nor capture the experience of being a Muslim woman today.
And those lazy stereotypes — of Muslim women having a uniform experience in hijab — help box headscarf-wearing Muslim women in boxes that remain rampant and unchecked. Despite countless Muslim women sharing their diverse experiences in public spaces and platforms — it’s a religious tradition that remains largely misunderstood.
The following are seven lies about headscarf wearing Muslim women, sometimes known as hijabis, that we need to stop telling:
1. All hijab-wearing women are religiously conservative.
It’s a common misconception: You’re wearing a headscarf, so you must must be religiously conservative. The stereotype extends to the reactions some strangers are inclined to blurt out upon seeing hijab-wearing women in places they obviously “shouldn’t” be, like politically conservative gatherings. More than simply being erroneous, however, the belief that one can pinpoint the degree of religiosity a Muslim woman possesses by looking at what is upon her head is degrading, invasive and pretentious.
Besides, when it comes to statistics, there is no legitimate way of pinpointing the exact belief system a hijabi attaches to. Ultimately, the only facts to be gathered from a woman’s headscarf is how well it matches to her outfit of the day. A woman’s headscarf — the size of the fabric, the way it’ styled — is so culturally unique and attuned to personal beliefs that its presence (or lack thereof) is in no way predictive of religious attachment.
2. All hijab-wearing women are quiet and traditional.
These women all have one thing in common — they wear hijabs, and they aren’t afraid to challenge what popular media stereotypes say about how they should act. Acting contrary to such stereotypes should not be the exception, and it begs the question: Why do we keep on enforcing such rules with false portrayals of how we think hijab-wearing Muslim women are?
Of course some Muslim women wear the headscarf are also quiet and shy — but they are not shy because of the covering, there is no causal link here.
3. The choice to wear a hijab is the man’s decision.
While the hijab has been popularly construed in media as a tool of religious oppression, the choice to wear (or not to wear) such a covering is religiously rooted in the hands of the woman in question. Although there is a prevalent mantra among many Muslim communities that “Hijab is beautiful, hijab is what God wants, hijab is a Muslim woman’s duty,” as Fatemeh Fakhraie puts it, ultimately, it is a fundamental decision rooted in the beliefs and aspirations of the person.
In short, the decision to wear a hijab has never been and will never be a man’s decision, and the shaming and guilting both within and outside of the Muslim community serves only to lose sight of the true power of a woman’s choice. Regardless of your belief system, Muslim women have control of the decision to veil.
4. The hijab prevents Muslim women from participating in sports.
Muslim women who cover — as well as those who don’t — have been participating in sports for many years. However, their participation was hindered for some time by sports organization bans on the use of headscarves. Indeed, it wasn’t until 2012 that international soccer governing body FIFA decided to lift its ban on headscarves. The decision followed five years of ban enforcement, a period of time in which covered Muslim women boycotted their sports events or were forced to drop out. Another major sports organization, the International Olympic Committe officials, acquiesced to demands by headscarf-wearing competitors to be allowed to participate during the 2012 Olympics.
“This agreement shows that being a modest Muslim woman is no barrier to taking part in sport. It shows the inclusiveness of the Olympic spirit,” Razan Baker, spokeswoman for the Saudi Olympic Committee, said at the time.
Other hijabis were once prevented from opportunities to work out and stay fit at recreational clubs and fitness centers by a lack of women-only environments. In recent years, this has begun to shift, with many gyms beginning to listen to both headscarf-wearing patrons and those without, setting aside days and spaces in which a single-gender environment is possible.
5. Women who wear hijabs can’t be stylish.
It’s time this misconception vanishes like the last-season outfit it really is. The opposite of unstylish, the Muslim fashion industry is currently valued at $96 billion internationally, and mainstream fashion designers have even begun catering their style lines to the newly coined “hijab couture.” Milan Fashion Week was one of the first major events in the industry to wise up to the massive market potential within the hijabi fashion industry.
Hijab couture has also reached America, as evidenced by the flowing long skirts, palazzo pants and turbans in style this year. The trend has been magnified by a new crop of Instagram and YouTube hijabi fashion bloggers who erupted onto the blogger scene in 2007. Recognizable and fashion-forward thinking, they push the limits on the hijab couture and modest fashion industries.
Nowadays, these women are seen as global influencers, summoned by fashion companies to act as representatives, ambassadors and promoters for different brands.
6. Women who wear hijabs can’t be feminists.
It’s a popular misconception that women wearing hijab cannot possibly espouse beliefs of feminism. This misconception springs in part from the way media portrayals of hijab are interwoven so firmly with characteristics like oppression and domination.
But these stereotypes have been repeatedly repudiated by the statements of Muslim feminists themselves, who have repeatedly attempted to explain how choosing to cover does not silence their voices.
While misguided activists like FEMEN continue to try to “save” Muslim women who cover, their action serve mostly to anger millions of Muslim women around the world while squandering what could have been an opportunity to discuss the realities of the phenomenon. Along those same lines, some mainstream feminists have allegedly attempted to dissuade Muslim women who cover from associating with the movement. But while these types of sentiments make it harder for Muslim feminists to make their voices heard, hijabi feminists are here to stay.
7. Women who wear hijabs are voiceless.
This is likely my favorite stereotype. Hijabis hear it again and again: “Where are your voices? Why are you not speaking up? Stand up and say something, you seem oppressed.” Women who cover are one of the most visible of Muslim communities, and therefore some of the most commonly attacked during Islamophobic hate crimes.
Despite being only a slice of a religion with 1.7 billion followers, hijabis have nonetheless been fetishized and exoticized repeatedly by pop stars and musicians, while simultaenously being held up as a symbolic representation of the Islamic religion’s alleged oppression.
Hijabis remain, time and again, the topic of popular discussion, dissertation and thought, yet consistently are told to sit down and shut up when they attempt to enter conversations about them. While that might have worked before, it won’’t work much anymore: Muslim women who cover are not willing to remain silent any longer, entering mainstream media, culture, and production industries as individual forces to be reckoned with. Want an example? You just finished reading an article written by a hijabi. It’’s no longer possible to ignore voices that are speaking up in great numbers, and it’s time we start realizing this as a community and culture.
Laila Alawa is a Muslim feminist, writer and cultural critic who has been published at The Huffington Post, The Guardian, Patheos, The Islamic Monthly, and serves as the founder and editor of Coming of Faith. She’s previously worked at Princeton University conducting a study on Muslim American perceptions of belonging. The Wellesley College alumna loves “Mad Men,” traveling, bell hooks, making jewelry and a good chocolate chip meringue. She is based in Washington, DC.