Can the headscarf be feminist?
In this weekly comment, our analyst Han Chang will dive into the subject of headscarves and feminism. If feminism is about emancipation and self-determination of women, does it make sense for (Muslim) feminists to wear the headscarf?
Self-determination, independent women, and feminism are unlikely to be what we envision when we think of the headscarf. The headscarf is typically seen as a symbol of the Islamic faith and tradition, and more recently as a political symbol, or even more commonly, as a symbol of the oppression of Muslim women. However, what has been observed is that through the (non-)use of the headscarf, Muslim women are negotiating with not just their respective interpretations and concepts of Islam, but modernity as well.
History of the headscarf
Various passages in the Quran, the Muslim holy book, and the hadiths, oral traditions relating to the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad, refer to veiling by the prophet’s wives. But the veil had been a part of women’s clothing in many regions of the Arabian Peninsula before the Quran was revealed in the 7th century. It was regarded as a sign of a woman’s modesty and respectability to hide the hair and sometimes the whole body from the male gaze. Moreover, women veiled themselves to ward off potential male assaults.
Whether these statements concerning coverings apply only to the prophet’s wives or to all Muslim women, and whether these should be understood as a commandment or a recommendation in certain (historical) contexts, have been the matters of Islamic theological discussions for decades. Nevertheless, secular laws were enacted based on the aforementioned statements. Veiling regulated female clothing and restricted women’s freedom of movement in public spaces severely. 
Today, in countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia, women are forced to wear head coverings, for fear of facing enormous consequences. For example, according to the Islamic Penal Code of Iran, women who appear in public without a proper hijab may be punished with 74 lashes, imprisonment, or fines.
Headscarf and self-determination
The question then is: can this be justified by the Quran? The Quran leaves a lot of space for interpretation. It includes statements that can be used to support women’s subjugation as well as gender equality. Some Islamic theologians argue that it is possible to interpret the Quran from a feminist perspective. Hamideh Mohagheghi, an Iranian Islamic theologian at the University of Paderborn, takes the view that it cannot be read clearly in the holy book that the headscarf is an Islamic duty. Hence, women need to decide for themselves whether or not it is mandatory. Dr Dina El Omari, a German expert on Quranic exegesis (the interpretation of the Quran), also calls for a historical contextualisation and a critical understanding of the Quran. In this way, more choice and space for women to reflect upon can be created.
Outside of the world of academia, many strongly religious Muslim women do not subscribe to the headscarf. For example, 50% of strongly religious Muslim women in Germany do not wear it at all. This number is 15% in the US. The headscarf includes a variety of historical, as well as living, dynamic traditions that have changed and evolved. Women who choose to wear the hijab also gave a variety of reasons for doing so, including complying with the hijab commandment based on their religious conviction. Some also want their habitus to be understood as a sign to the outside world that a hijab wearer can be emancipated and independent. What is worth pointing out here is that the hijab is often understood to mean a head covering that covers the hair, neck and chest, but not the face. However, there are different types of hijab and it refers to more than head coverings.
Claiming the meaning of headscarf: ‘the oppressed Muslim women’
It cannot be denied that there are women who are forced to wear the headscarf or feel pressured to wear it. However, some Muslim women choose to wear headscarves because of their own (religious) conviction. As a survey conducted by the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees shows, these women often reveal self-motivation for wearing the headscarf. Social pressure or coercion from the family play a minor role. Hence, the one-dimensional construct of ‘the oppressed Muslim women’ should be fundamentally questioned, especially in a post-migrant society.
The comparison of ‘Western’ freedom and ‘Islamic’ oppression leads to an oversimplified polarisation of the world: the Western self-image is all about emancipation and self-determination, while the potential of transformation of the Islamic world is denied. The distorted portrayal of ‘the oppressed Muslim women’ reinforces the perceived victim status of the protagonists in public discourse. And it makes different voices of Muslim women harder to hear. Moreover, Muslim women may be kept away from attractive social positions in the name of emancipation, if they decide to wear the hijab. The mainstream understanding of emancipation in the West, therefore, can be repressive as well. This can be seen in views of the famous German feminist activist Alice Schwarzer, who sees the hijab simply as “a flag of Islamism.” In her view, the headscarf as a political symbol needs to be prohibited in schools and public services. Another prominent activist against the headscarf is Necla Kelek, who identifies hijab wearers with supporters of an Islamist party.
The headscarf has never served one ‘true’ purpose
The idea that there is ‘the’ Muslim voice on the issue of hijab is as dubious as the idea that there is ‘the’ Islam. The difference between a variety of positions does not only depend on different degrees of religiosity, but also different political attitudes, ethnic contexts, countries of origin, and personal convictions. And this manifoldness and complicity, sometimes even controversy, need to be taken note of by both non-Muslim and Muslim communities.
The hijab has never had a single purpose for its wearers, whether it is faithful women carrying out their duties in front of God, women protecting themselves from punishment in a totalitarian religime or sexual harassment in a highly patriarchal society, devotees expressing sexual unavailability and resistance against the overconsumption of the female body, women in pursuit of self-determination and self-empowerment in a patriarchal structure, a symbol of centuries of oppression, a symbol of resistance against Western dominance or secularism, or people with an immigration background wanting to maintain their proximity to their Islamic tradition and culture in a post-migrant society. In other words, there has never been a uniform understanding of the headscarf, but it has always been packaged in a variety of ways that best fit the one putting forward the argument. This is the problem with the question of whether or not the headscarf is compatible with feminism. There has never been one ‘true’ way to understand the hijab.
This article was written by Han Chang and reflects her personal analysis and opinion, rather than those of EARS.
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 Susanne Enderwitz: Der Schleier im Islam. In: Feministische Studien. Heft 2, 1983, P. 96.
 Hilke Jabbarian: Der Schleier in der Religions- und Kulturgeschichte. Eine Untersuchung von seinem Ursprung bis zu den Anfängen der Islamischen Republik, Berlin, 2009. P. 63.
 Arabic word for “curtain”, it means the coverings for women. Whereas the term “headscarf” is mostly used by the non-Muslims in the respective debate, Muslim women in Germany themselves usually speak of covering or hijab.
 Susanne Enderwitz: Der Schleier im Islam. In: Feministische Studien. Heft 2, 1983, P. 107.
 Zur Kulturgeschichte des Kopftuches Ausarbeitung; Hilke Jabbarian: Der Schleier in der Religions- und Kulturgeschichte. Eine Untersuchung von seinem Ursprung bis zu den Anfängen der Islamischen Republik, Berlin, 2009, P.90ff.