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The Hijabi Feminist: Am I A Walking Contradiction?

The Hijabi Feminist: Am I A Walking Contradiction?

thegblogteam 4 comments

by Mai Mokhsein 

There is this limbo that exists for a liberally-educated person who believes in religion.

You grow up learning the undeniably benevolent core values of religion until they become an unshakeable part of who you are; but you also grow up learning the unquestionable ideals of human rights – that the thought of siding with oppression in any way, is outlandish and unacceptable. At some point in your adult life, you start to realize that these two versions of you cannot co-exist without contradicting each other time and time again. And the moment you attempt to reconcile these two beliefs, you also realise that you exist on the fringes of both of the communities you wish to embrace. You are just a tad too progressive for the religious community you grew up in, yet a tad too conservative for the secular society you aspire to belong to.

As a progressive Muslim, I believe unequivocally in gender equality. This means I challenge religious decrees that allow for husbands to physically punish their wives for the sake of “discipline”; I despise polygamy and marital rape with a passion; and I cringe at the thought of a woman’s autonomy being held at the behest of her husband, so that she has to ask for permission before leaving her home! When voicing out these views, I have been accused of apostasy and heresy, of being a Shiite Muslim or a Zionist – and the list goes on and on.

For the longest time, I believed that despite this level of persecution from religious conservatives, at least I have found my place in the welcoming arms of a secular society that is rooted in the tolerance and acceptance of people with diverse values. Just last month, however, for believing and defending the practise of wearing a hijab, I was accused by my liberal brothers-in-arms of being “brainwashed” and “oppressed”. They accused me of being complicit in the discrimination of women by imposing standards on the way that women should behave and for forcing women to fulfill the expectation of men. They derided that a person who supports the hijab couldn’t possibly be fighting for gender equality. Hijabi feminists do not exist. Despite my continued presence in these arguments, they say that I do not exist.

The picture posted on Facebook that incited a heated exchange of words between myself and a number of liberal friends (whom I respect):

2016-08-02 11.27.46 AM

Am I damned if I do, damned if I don’t? My religious community believes me to be “lost” to Western propaganda. My secular community believes me to be “forced” by the higher powers I put my faith in. To those who demean the personal conflict of a progressive believer of faith, this is my ode:

  1. The only thing I am “lost” to are values of human rights, not Western imperialism. I believe in not wilfully harming others and not suppressing their ability to live meaningfully. To me, there is no loss but only triumph in that belief.
  2. The only thing I am “forced” by is the power of my own agency. I don’t practise what I do for fear of the fiery pits of hell but out of personal belief in the virtue of those practices. To me, the only meaningful choice is the one that represents me.

The problem isn’t that I have allowed Western values to infiltrate my mind. The problem is in overzealous religious communities which insist on micromanaging every aspect of religious practice, to the point that it contradicts with broader, core values of the religion. The primary descriptor of Allah in the Quran is One who is Merciful and Compassionate. The Forgiver and The Forgiving; yet, the community that carries His faith is particularly unforgiving, and especially so towards those who are trying to carry good deeds in His name. It’s not enough that you are attempting to pray; apparently, there are a million wrong ways to pray which will nullify all of your good intentions and efforts. It’s not enough that you are trying to uphold the value of modesty in your clothing; there are simply a million wrong ways to wear your clothes that make you a horrible Muslim. This is what leads to the intense stigmatisation of those who opt out of wearing the hijab. This is what allows fundamentalists to create interpretations of religion that are oppressive by mandating every micro-aspect of religion to be practiced in a particular way in order for one to qualify as a “good” Muslim.

But whether or not you are a “good” Muslim can never be definitively decided by any specific practice. Religion provides a guideline for spiritual fulfilment that can be satisfied in a multitude of ways, and none of us are in an apt position to quantify the deeds of others through their visible practices. I believe a woman wearing the hijab who does not practice modesty in other aspects of her life, could be a greater “sinner” and in greater violation of the Islamic belief in modesty, than a woman who doesn’t wear a hijab but is far more modest in her lifestyle choices. A singular practice is never representative of the level of faith a believer carries. Those who do not wear the hijab are not promiscuous by default. They are not “waiting for enlightenment”. They are not worse Muslims. Those who do choose to wear it are not pious by default. They haven’t “seen the light”. They are not better Muslims.

And that is what it comes down to — a choice. Being the progressive that I am, I do not support interpretations of the Quran that claim the hijab is mandatory for all women. [1][2] Yet, I still wear the hijab. Because for me, it is a choice that represents my identity. As I’ve been told, have I been so brainwashed to believe in the hijab that I cannot even realise my own oppression? Do I not understand why I made this choice and have subconsciously been motivated by fearful obedience? Far from it. I am not blind to the flaws of my religion. Growing up with a liberal education meant that I myself was highly critical of those very flaws. I understood that in many circumstances, the powers-that-be impose the wearing of the hijab unto women and I balk at the thought of women being forced to do something against their will. I choose to fight against religious forces that induce choice by campaigning with fear.

Knowing my own personality, I would probably resist against wearing the hijab if I was ever pressured into it! But I wasn’t pressured into it, I chose it. I went to an urban, Chinese-majority school in Petaling Jaya with no such dominant social pressure to appear as a “good” Muslim. My older sister (who was 19 at the time) was not wearing the hijab when I first put it on at the age of 15. My mother didn’t wear one well into her 40s and never pressured me to wear one, either. The religious teachers at school never made a comment against girls who didn’t wear the hijab. I never went to a religious school and I didn’t have any “conservative” friends to warrant any kind of social conditioning to push me into wearing one. I am very privileged to have never suffered under the stigmatisation of non-hijabis, but knowing so, is my choice still tainted with oppression?

If you remove the oppressive forces that strip women of their agency to choose the hijab, there isn’t anything inherently demeaning in the practise itself. Some wear it to embody the values of modesty in everyday life; others, as a proud emblem of their religious identity; and I, to signify my journey as a Muslim on the road to self-improvement. My hijab serves as a reminder for me to make better choices and to act with conscience. The hijab means different things to different people – but if I am critically aware of why this choice means something to me, how can my agency be anything but empowering? Empowerment is something that is self-defined. Some people feel empowered by wearing less clothes and some people feel empowered by covering up. Who are we to tell others how they should feel empowered? Which choices bring meaning to their lives is something only the individual can define for themselves.

I am aware that many conservative Muslims utilise the hijab to define the worth of a woman. If I had one ringgit for every time someone compared a non-hijabi to an unwrapped and tainted lollipop, I wouldn’t have to write this piece at 3 a.m. because I had to slave away at my job during the day. I am also aware that many practise victim-blaming towards rape victims by assessing the way they dress. But none of these methods of gender discrimination have ever been endorsed by religion. The Quran explicitly elevates the status of women in society and engenders equality. [3][4][5][6] Religion asks men to treat women with kindness, justice and responsibility at all turns. It heavily condemns rape and provides no such “excuses” for the temptations of men. If anything, men are expected to continuously restrain themselves in the eyes of temptation. When a woman is raped, the woman did not fail any test on her faith; the man did.

What is clear to me is that religion doesn’t discriminate, but Muslim men seek to justify their discrimination of women under the guise of Islam. What a progressive Muslim is able to delineate is whether the oppression that women suffer from is inherent to the religious beliefs, or exclusive to the oppressive actors that enact it. We choose to interpret our Merciful God as a merciful, compassionate actor who did not create women for the sake of lifelong oppression, and we reconcile religion with the values of human rights.

Perhaps I am a walking contradiction, to the extent that the broader frameworks of progressive values and organised religion oppose each other. But these differences are not irreconcilable and I am not alone in this journey of personal conflict. We have a burgeoning group of moderate Muslims and liberal Muslims who utilise the tools of ijtihad (critical thinking) to solidify interpretations of religion that empower the core values of mercy, compassion and tolerance without compromising the message of the Quran. Every day, they try to create a space where progressive believers of faith can find a community that they belong to. In this place, there isn’t a right or wrong choice when it comes to the hijab. A person using their agency to wear the hijab and a person using their agency to refuse the hijab are both individuals who critically understand the reasoning behind their choices. We are both empowered and, thus, we are both right. Perhaps the only wrong is in vilifying the agency of these women by claiming we are either oppressed or promiscuous, in which case perhaps the only person who is wrong is the vilifier.

References

[1] http://www.irfi.org/articles/articles_351_400/quran_does_not_mandate_hijab.htm

[2] http://islamic-myths.com/2008/01/06/hijab-is-not-a-compulsion-of-islam/

[3] “Their Lord responded to them: “I never fail to reward any worker among you for any work you do, be you male or female — you are equal to one another.” Surah Ali ‘Imran 3:195. http://quran.com/3/195

[4] “As for those who lead a righteous life, male or female, while believing, they enter Paradise; without the slightest injustice.” Surah An-Nisa 4:124. http://quran.com/4/124

[5] “O people, we created you from the same male and female, and rendered you distinct peoples and tribes, that you may recognize one another.” Surah Al-Hujurat 49:13. http://quran.com/49/13

[6] https://themuslimtimes.info/2013/06/29/gender-equality-in-the-holy-quran-in-the-beginning-man-and-woman-were-equal-2/


Mai Mokhsein doesn’t write to explain. She writes to understand. She knows there is a difference between constructive criticism and destructive attacks; she does what she can to encourage the former and shut down the latter.

 

4 Comments

Nimrah Fatima Ahmed

August 2, 2016 at 3:34 pm

Reblogged this on Nimrah Fatima Ahmed.

Ibn M. Abdullah

August 3, 2016 at 5:00 am

You know, reading this article does make me wonder: keeping in mind that most Muslims have their own interpretation of Islam, are you being a good Muslim by being progressive?

I sometimes challenge Islamic beliefs when they contradict with my views, which to some may be deemed liberal, though I don’t necessarily call myself liberal or progressive.

Ultimately, are we doing Islam a favour by challenging it or are we simply stirring the pot by antagonising Muslims with our views and confusing non-Muslims with our progressive practices?

What does the Qur’an actually promote regarding interpretation of its texts? Is that a form of “Islamic” study?

The thing is that religion is a social phenomenon, it requires people to conform to one and only rule.
Progressive mindedness is, dare I say, ego driven and the kind of individual thinking that inherently goes against religion of any kind.

What resonates with me in the article is that we’re constantly questioning our ethics and actions against the religious beliefs handed down to us: If I feel like I’m doing the right thing, am I really doing the right thing? Or is this a manifestation of perversion, etc etc?

I refuse to put a label on Muslims, though, I feel it’s wrong. Progressive/Conservative. The minute you do that, you create division within the religion. And while I agree that there will always be some form of division or difference – e.g. the different Mazhabs – ultimately, isn’t division itself anathema to the whole concept of Islam?

The Hijabi Feminist: Am I A Walking Contradiction? | Alba's Timeline

August 3, 2016 at 9:37 pm

[…] Source: The Hijabi Feminist: Am I A Walking Contradiction? […]

Kate

August 15, 2016 at 2:40 pm

This is such a great piece. So many people want to project their own ideas of what wearing the hijab means onto the people that choose to wear it. It’s insulting to assume that an educated woman would choose to wear something that supposedly symbolizes the oppression of women, without knowing better. I believe you are a fabulous role model to other Hijabi feminists who may have been led to believe that their choice of clothing and support of progressive values can’t coexist. Keep up the good work!

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