Reading Amina Lone’s letter in The Times this Sunday calling for a ban on hijabs in primary schools took me back to the Book of Genesis wherein lies the first recorded instance of veiling for women, when Rebecca first sees Isaac and veils herself. This in turn took me to Mary, who having had an entire chapter devoted to her name in the Quran and having been described as exemplary for both men and women therein, has never been depicted in the Christian world without her head covered. In fact, as Alice Morse writes in, “Two Centuries of Costume in America,” that through the 20th century, Christian women abided by the biblical law that bade them to cover their head.
Yet, notwithstanding the existence of this diverse range of head coverings across different faiths, the question of the Islamic headscarf has always remained highly contentious. With it are tied the notions of oppression and subjugation of women, due in large part to the misplaced practices in certain Muslim-majority countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. These countries mandate the wearing of the hijab prescriptively, entirely in contradiction with the Quran, which although ordains women to be modest and cover themselves, prescribes no punishment for failing to do so. In no manner does it sanction the state or any other individual to take the charge of coercing women to wear the hijab, the verses in question in fact address men first and command them to “restrain their looks.”
The Quran does not require pre-pubescent girls to wear the hijab and yes primary school girls should not need to wear it as part of their uniform. Arguing this much is reasonable. However, Ms. Lone has unfortunately conflated the very specific question of primary school girls wearing the hijab to the wider issue of women covering themselves. She speaks of, “regressive practices” and “gender inequality” perpetuated by the existence of the headscarf. By brandishing every headscarf-wearing woman as oppressed and “unequal” to men in some manner, she paradoxically feeds into the same societal stereotypes she claims to be fighting. The larger question of the covering of women is far more complex and takes on many forms. To suggest that every hijab-wearing woman is oppressed is simply untrue. I have never felt my hijab an impediment, neither in the suburb of Pakistan where I was raised nor on the campus of Harvard Law School where I was educated.
What campaigners like Amina Lone must appreciate is that there cannot be a monopoly on freedom. Freedom ought to be defined by the innate desires and motivations of humankind. If women freely choose to wear something that defines them and gives them their identity, why must society feel compelled to be their guardians and strip this off them in the name of “liberating” them? The irony is profound when such individuals are in fact the oppressors seeking to fashion their own version of freedom onto all women. Paradoxically, this is tantamount to freedom by coercion and equally subjugates women by laying a claim on their identity and their definition of liberty.
Ms. Lone speaks of undermining the secular values of this country. One of the hallmarks of secular democracies is respecting other peoples’ choices even where one is in disagreement with them. I respect Ms. Lone’s choice not to wear the hijab. The same Quran that ordains me to cover myself also instructs me to respect human choices and freewill. If hijab-wearing women respect other women’s choices not to don the headscarf, then our respect should be returned in kind. I implore Amina Lone not to join the bandwagon of liberal fundamentalists who often cannot appreciate that there are varying hues of liberty. The beauty of freedom is when we let the head, whose heart it springs from, do the defining rather than devising a universal one-size-fits-all version devoid of this diversity. As a hijab-wearing woman I condemn the regimes that force a singular, virulent version of Islam onto their populations. However, progressive regimes also run the risk of being equally regressive in enforcing a monolithic form of liberalism across demographics. Arguments in favour of liberty such as those advanced by Ms. Lone must weigh these in the balance lest these arguments are turned on their heads.