To Veil or Not to Veil: The Hijab and Eurocentric Standards of Beauty

By Comrade Sloth

Throughout the world, the traditional hijab (the veil garment covering the hair and sometimes face) optionally worn by Muslim women has been the subject of heated controversy, perhaps because of misconceptions about the Islamic faith and the degree of choice involved for the women in question.

As society has evolved to become more culturally conscious, many victories have been won on the front lines of women's rights. Although we still have a long way to go, women are seeing better representation in the American workforce and enjoying more security and autonomy than ever before. However, this progress has had some unintended consequences, particularly when it comes to criticism and prejudice against certain cultural practices.

The hijab is an excellent example. According to historian Joan Scott, the hijab is seen by much of the Western world as a symbol of gender oppression and inequality; the veil seems to be a visible sign of female subservience. Particularly within the last few years, there has been a rise of public support for body positivity (for example, the Huffington Post has a links page devoted to articles on body positivity). This trend has led to a push-back against traditional gender expectations for women, particularly in terms of what should be considered appropriate dress. Rebellion against “hiding” various parts of the body has become an act of modern feminism; conformity to so-called modest standards of dress can even be viewed as anti-progressive and hostile to women’s advancement.

However, deciding the morality of the hijab under this western framework completely disregards the fact that this traditional veil garment holds deep religious significance for many women. Women who choose to wear a veil do so because of deeply held personal beliefs about their culture and role in society; one woman even explained her viewpoint that the veil helps to preserve what is precious - a woman's beauty - which is too valuable to be seen by strangers. Saba Ahmed said the hijab is an important part of her identity as an American. Hanna Yusuf argues that the choice to wear a hijab is liberatingOthers claim that they are taken more seriously when their interactions with others are based more strongly off the merit of their words and actions rather than appearances.

It seems like a pretty stark contradiction to American culture, where the Miss America pageant, one of the biggest scholarship providers for women, requires them to strut onstage in a bikini and be assigned a number rating. Money and access to education are deliberately withheld or rewarded to individuals based on their physical attributes. And yet Muslim women who cover their faces are the commonly accepted example of a female bending to male oppression.

Interestingly enough, this conflict of opinion seems to be more or less contained to the Eurocentric West. Among Muslim women, there is actually very little discord between those who choose to veil and those who do not (though Muslim feminists may disagree). Perhaps if we could all adopt this strategy of peaceable acceptance, we would see more effective and inclusive social progress.