We are nearly a quarter into the 21st century. And one would imagine that nations must have progressed, whether they are developed superpowers or third-world countries struggling to make ends meet. It is a world faced with unprecedented times. While the ecosphere is fraught with the struggle to meet bare necessities, food security, climate change, energy crises, health and sanitation, child abuse, sexual abuse, unemployment, and inflation, it seems that ‘to wear or not to wear’ has emerged as a most significant debate amongst the West and the East.
Why are we fixated on these issues? Is it even a genuine national concern? The debate itself has put women on both sides of the equilibrium.
I would not target any community, but everyone has the basic right to choose – what to wear, what to eat, and how to live. Putting a ban on ‘wearing it’ or ‘not wearing it’ is to violate religious freedom and an attempt to stigmatize and marginalize people.
These debates have been a result of centuries of historical processes that are characterised by patriarchy, where men dominantly and organically deny women any authority. The social position and physical structures pave way for the exploitation of women, which in turn results in women being deprived of any cultural, economic, and social activity, and doesn’t leave any room for choice. Or freedom.
Case in point: the imbalance of gender in the governments of Iran and Saudi Arabia violates women’s rights, simply by mandating women to cover their heads. We also witness India and Russia on the other side of the extreme which has put women in another challenging position. And then there are countries like Turkey and Morocco, where there is no law or legislation to suggest that women are forced against their will to cover or uncover their heads.
So, yes, speaking as a female Muslim, I wouldn’t want my daughter to be able to not cover her hair and not have to concern herself with being judged by the peers as somehow less religious or “chaste.” But this doesn’t change the fact that just as women should be at liberty and enabled to choose not to wear hijab, they must also be free and empowered to wear it, if that’s what they want.
However, this does not in any way mean that people who do cover their heads are invalid, absurd, or backward. And it definitely isn’t a representation of ‘purity’, ‘honour’, or ‘viriginity’, that our Pakistani society is obsessed with. Having said that, casting away choices of others is invalid. Why are we not comfortable debating sensitive issues? And circling back to the point I made earlier, why can’t we agree to disagree? Why aren’t we creating noise over more impactful and important issues?
As much as conservatives claim that those considering hijab as ‘not obligatory’ is basically criminal and worthy of scorn, we must also be careful about doing the contrary. Simply put, all of those covering their heads are not necessarily exploring Islam, but the idea of politically-charged Islam, led by clerics and members of the clergy.
As a final point, I have a whole other issue about the way the entire debate is compartmentalised – something we must contemplate doing away with. It will make all our lives easier. The fact that covering the head is considered backward, while leaving it uncovered is considered modern, suggests that those who choose the former are somehow less modern. What, I would ask, is “modern” about not covering one’s head?
And now, it is not a national issue, pertaining to a single country. The deliberately orchestrated problem has bubbled out of proportion, forcing it to become a potentially grave danger with visible manifestation and physical assault. It is a global reality now, as it stands not just a women’s issue or freedom of expression, but a downright violation of human rights.
What we need right now is to remember how much the availability of the right to choose has contributed to women’s social, economic, and political advancement in the last quarter of a century. It is a time to celebrate and glorify those moments of progress. The enabling environment conducive to progress has empowered and facilitated women to partake equally in the economic and social life of the nation. And this in turn was facilitated by their ability to control what they choose to do or not do in their lives. These decisions are made by women responsibly within the structure of their own religious principles, conscience, and morals.
This is a time to reinstate and reinforce the significance of choice to women. And reconfigure and rededicate ourselves to defending and expanding those rights, rather than regress and backslide in the framework. It is time to remember what it means to not possess the right to choose – anything.