By Tamim Mobayed
At the end of September of this year it was announced that the next Women’s World Chess Championships would be held in Iran. As Iran is one of a few countries within which women must wear the hijab when in public, reactions to this announcement were immediate. Shortly thereafter, current U.S. women’s chess champion, Georgian born Nazi Paikidze, announced that she was boycotting the tournament in protest. Writing on Instagram she said, “I think it’s unacceptable to host a women’s World Championship in a place where women do not have basic fundamental rights and are treated as second class citizens”. Whether or not women are treated as second-class citizens is contested by some, however, organisations such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) strongly support that claim. HRW points to the ban on Iranian women from attending sports stadiums as spectators as being “emblematic of the repression of women across the country”, arguing that women are also discriminated against on fundamental issues such as marriage, divorce and child custody.
The Issue at Hand
As a Muslim who has enjoyed the fruits of living within a largely secular environment, that has guaranteed my personal freedoms to practice my religion as I like, I feel uncomfortable in the face of such incidents. On one hand, I cheer on as the would-be burkini ban is overturned in France, citing the importance of allowing people to dress, act, live and think as their personal beliefs guide them to. On the other, I remain largely silent in the face of stories emanating from places such as the Middle East, time and again highlighting the reality that many countries enforce laws that are explicitly discriminatory against women. Why is it I lose my sense of the importance of personal freedom when the shoe is on the other foot? Isn’t this a little hypocritical?
Exceptions Among “Muslim” Countries
While it might seem like most “Muslim countries” and societies demand that women wear the hijab, this is simply not true. Women in the vast majority of Muslim societies do not face an issue with wearing the hijab; Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Malaysia, Algeria, Qatar, Oman, the U.A.E., Palestine, Bahrain, Algeria, Indonesia, Senegal, Pakistan, Mali and Bosnia are some of the Muslim majority countries whose laws borrow from Islamic law to varying degrees, where women are not forced to wear the hijab. While some of these countries have written or unwritten laws on dressing modestly, none of them demand that women wear the hijab. Saudi Arabia and Iran are the main exceptions amongst Muslim societies. What might be surprising to the casual observer is the reality that it is often in Muslim countries that women have found difficulty in wearing the Hijab. Kosovo and Azerbaijan are two Muslim countries where wearing the hijab in public schools, universities and government buildings is banned, while Turkey and Tunisia had bans in place until these were lifted in 2013 and 2011 respectively.
Saudi Arabia and Iran
The fact remains that there are a few Muslim countries in which women are obligated to cover most of their bodies. Should this be acceptable? On a personal level, I find that I prefer to dress in a way that is deemed socially acceptable within the country that I am in. This goes beyond adhering to laws; it is about knowing the culture and dressing in a way that is sensitive to that. This is not about assimilation; rather, it’s about respect and cultural awareness.
But the reality is that many do not see this issue as being a matter of social etiquette or culture. The hijab remains to be arguably the most emotive item of clothing in our age and to many, it is either a political symbol or a symbol of the oppression of women. If the hijab is being worn in the context of an equal society, where access to education, political representation and the workforce was not determined by gender, I imagine the voices of opposition would be less numerous. It is an unfortunate reality that imposition of the hijab can be symptomatic of great inequality towards women. I believe the hijab was designed in part to allow women more equal access to society, providing them a protection against being reduced or exploited because of their gender. In practice, in a minority of Muslim countries, it is but one barrier put in place to deny them access to society as a whole.
The issue gets tricky when we consider the complex situation at hand. It can feel like we are living in an age in which one set of values is considered to be enlightened, while anything that strays outside of this is deemed archaic and backwards. While there are certainly areas in which it can seem that things are black and white, when it comes to values, culture, attitudes and right or wrong, we are really usually dealing with shades of grey and a lot of subjectivity. It is important not to opt to adopt the culture of another, wholesale, due to feelings of cultural inferiority.
Incidents such as this should be a call to sober reflection on where we are and where we are going. Are we ready to listen to the voices that believe that not all women should be forced to wear the hijab? If we are told in our holy book that “there is no compulsion in religion”, why does there seem to be a compulsion within some societies in regards to the hijab? Even if we accept the “mainstream” Muslim opinion that the hijab is compulsory for women, that is different to forcing all women to wear it. Scholars such as Tariq Ramadan highlight the distinction between these two ideas. Like all religious acts, it should be motivated out of personal piety, personal conviction and personal choice, not the choice of the state.
You cannot but help connect the misogyny that is rampant within some of our societies, with the way in which Islam is imposed at times. Further to that, why is it some societies seem so concerned with imposing Islamic laws on dress while completely disregarding Islam’s potent positions (and commandments) on social justice? God’s words may be holy, but the way in which we chose to focus on some of them, while ignoring others, can prove to be an unholy affair.