by Lizzie Schofield
What is International Women’s Day all about? To celebrate women and to bring to the world’s attention wherever they are oppressed or treated unequally because of their gender, surely? What is the hijab all about? It’s an outward reminder of female oppression by a religion that subjugates women in almost every area of life. So why did Nike – named after the Greek goddess of strength and victory – choose to launch its first sports hijab on International Women’s Day? And why are feminists celebrating it?
There are two narratives around the hijab. The first is that of the Western muslimah, which says “I like wearing the veil. It’s my way of expressing my faith. No-one forces me to do it, it’s my choice.” And because running and swimming is awkward with a hijab, when companies produce Muslim-friendly sportswear making it easier for these women to exercise, this improves their choices. This is a good thing.
Then there is the other narrative, or rather the uncomfortable reality that wearing the hijab for most Muslim women around the world is not a meaningful choice, either because it is illegal or due to prohibitive social pressure. How often do Saudi or Afghan or Somali women wander the streets of their countries without a hijab? Even if they say to themselves “I don’t feel like wearing it today,” they cannot act on their feeling without consequences. Malik Al Sheri did exactly that in Riyadh in December 2016 and was arrested for it – now she faces lashes as punishment. In Canada – Canada– in 2007 Aqsa Parvez’ father strangled her for refusing to wear a hijab.
Wearing the hijab is a legal requirement for women in Iran; if you don’t you can be arrested and fined. On IWD while Nike was encouraging women to cover up, 100,000 brave Iranian women protested– on Twitter, because they’re not allowed to protest on the street -against having to do so. Women are banned from cycling too. (Like the Facebook group My Stealthy Freedom to support them.)
Are Christians being hypocritical here? Occasionally at Speaker’s Corner I get admonished for not wearing a head covering by Muslims. They quote 1 Corinthians 11:4-6:
Every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head, 5 but every wife[a] who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven. 6 For if a wife will not cover her head, then she should cut her hair short. But since it is disgraceful for a wife to cut off her hair or shave her head, let her cover her head.
If, for the sake of argument, we take the most conservative interpretation of these verses and assume that married Christian women today are to cover their heads, there are two things to note here. 1. It is a symbolic gesture of submission to her husband, a husband who is instructed to love her “like Christ loves the church, who gave himself up for her “(Ephesians 5:25). 2. It is subject to constraints, i.e. for wives at a church gathering and only when she prays or prophesies. She is not being told to cover her head as she goes about her daily life.
Compare this with Sura 33:59:
O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their outer garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful. (Sahih International)
This kind of covering is more than symbolic; it is for protection. Essentially the Qur’an tells all Muslim women they need to cover up to avoid sexual harassment – an argument used by Zakir Naik in defence of the hijab. I have heard many Muslim women put a positive spin on this, telling me the hijab is a form of empowerment; it makes them feel safe. But what’s the subtext here? If you don’t cover up, you’re asking for it. Nor does it seem very effective anyway – in Egypt where roughly 90% of women wear the hijab, 99% of women experience sexual harassment every day.
Back to the libertarian point: shouldn’t women be free to wear whatever the heck they like? Yes. Banning the hijab is as problematic as enforcing it; women in France should not be forced to remove their burkinis any more than Iranian women should be forced to cover up. The point is freedom of choice. So has Nike done anything wrong? Hardly. Nike is a business, not human rights charity, and modesty sportswear is an expanding market. Choosing a product that’s both controversial and politically relevant is also very good marketing. And yet there is something distasteful about sticking a swoosh on a hijab and making it cool. I sort of wish they’d decided to swoosh bicycles or chess boards instead.
I’ll give the last word to Masih Alinejad, founder of My Stealthy Freedom, who invites women to send in photos of themselves without their hijabs:
“Some of the pictures come from young girls saying that they just want to feel the wind in their hair. It’s a simple demand.”