The dangers of modesty-shaming

Islamophobia is at its peak. Recent terror attacks, mass shootings, combined with anti-Muslim rhetoric by some of our politicians have contributed greatly to fear and hatred against Muslims. Consequently, many Muslims, who have lived and worked in this country for decades, are anxious and fearful of things that were once daily routine: going to the grocery store, sending their children to school or Islamic school, or boarding a plane. While all Muslims face the threat of Islamophobia – as well as anybody who looks like a Muslim – women who wear the scarf are facing a particular struggle: to keep on keeping on, to replace the scarf with another covering such as a hat, or, to remove the scarf entirely.

The scarf, most commonly known as “the hijab” has been a topic of debate in many circles for centuries. Scholars, feminists, general community members, and others have debated its necessity, its purpose, its social implications, and its political implications. It has been both a tool of empowerment and a tool of oppression, depending on who you talk to.

What’s interesting is that the while term “hijab” has a multitude of connotations and has the ability to elicit feelings of pride, faith, shame, guilt, and resentment all at the same time, it has also become a social construct that is man-made. When most people refer to “hijab” they are actually referring to the khimar, or head scarf, that Muslim women wear and is mentioned in the Quran. “Hijab” has become a social institution that allows society – both Muslim and non – to focus on what is externally present, measure one’s religiosity and modesty by whether or not it is present, and to serve as a symbol of Islamic identity, regardless of whether or not the woman who is donning it chooses to identify it as such. In many cases, the hijab has become not only what identifies a Muslim woman, but defines a Muslim woman.

I write this as a woman who wears a head scarf, and so far, has not chosen to remove it. Yet, it is not my honor. It is not my protection from the male gaze. It is not my self-worth, nor is it my identity, any more than the pants that I wear are. My scarf is just that – my scarf, a piece of cloth that I believe God ordained me to wear. Nothing more, nothing less. So do I believe it is obligatory? Yes. Do I believe it is obligatory in all circumstances and for all women? Absolutely not, just like most things in Islam are not. As Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah taught me for many years, we have an obligation to protect our faith, but above that, we also have an obligation to protect our life and our sanity. So while the scarf may be obligatory, it remains a piece of cloth. It is not one’s cultural or religious identity, and every woman should take circumstances into account, and do what they need to in order to protect themselves – whether it is taking off the scarf, replacing it with a more ambiguous head covering, reciting your daily prayers and litanies, taking self defense classes, carrying Mace, or some combination of the above. Those circumstances are different for each individual – deciding to wear the scarf (or not) is an extremely personal decision and one that is solely between the individual and their Lord. Yet, the debate and decision has become one that is made as a collective – ignoring the reality that people have different struggles, different weaknesses, and different strengths, and consequently, denying women their personal agency.

Because many of our sisters are living in fear and struggling with what – if anything – they should do about their scarf, many scholars, community leaders, and community members – both male and female – have shared their thoughts on the topic. And while well-intentioned, and aiming to empower women to stay strong, I worry that many have chosen to defend why Muslim women should keep wearing the scarf, by using a shame-based approach, or pressuring and guilting those who are struggling to continue wearing it. Many have also attached notions of honor, identity, and self-worth to wearing the headscarf. This, in my experience, is actually quite disempowering, because these arguments remove one’s personal agency, and instead further denigrate and alienate those who are truly struggling with wearing the scarf. Moreover, when we reduce a woman’s identity and honor to a piece of fabric, we are, albeit in a different way than those who objectify women as sex objects, nonetheless still objectifying her.

As someone who works intimately with Muslim women and girls on issues of identity, self-esteem, and sexual and reproductive health, I find this approach problematic and dangerous. In the last five years, many women and girls have shared with me their stories of struggles as Muslim women in America, of reconciling their Muslim identity with their American one, and of finding a balance between their Muslim values and American ideals with respect to modesty, dress, relationships, love and sex. And while the struggles differ for each young woman, and cultural context and background also largely contribute to their narratives, a common theme across all stories – regardless of ethnic and racial background, level of religious conservatism and practice – is that women and girls inherently carry with them much shame and guilt throughout their lives. This is a function of both their inner critic and self-doubt as well as the daily scrutiny that they are subject to from all around them. Many women and girls are constantly in a conversation with themselves, negotiating with themselves and others around them what is modest, what is socially acceptable, what their identity and reputation is tied to, and what makes them a “worthy” person or Muslim. What’s most important to consider is that many of them have shared with me that they feel the most empowered when they are given the space to safely explore different choices, and the personal agency to determine what is best for them and their lives.

Shame-based approaches to promote certain values and ideals are dangerous because they often result in feelings of unworthiness and resentment. Additionally, such approaches are most often used by people who hold a lot of privilege – people who wear the scarf and don’t find it to be a daily and personal struggle like some others may. People who generally have strong community connections and social supports to turn to and retreat to. To some, wearing the scarf comes naturally. To others, it may be their biggest struggle. Some may come from a family that accepts their decision to wear the scarf, while others may receive much hateful push back. The fears I may feel with respect to my scarf, living in a diverse, liberal urban community may be very different than the fears my sister may feel in small town America.

The irony of this, is that although we are living during time where it may not be safe to be Muslim in America, in some ways, we may also be a threat to ourselves. Often times Muslim communities are themselves spaces that are culturally, physically, and socially unsafe, and that are disempowering and suffocating for our Muslim sisters. In our efforts to uphold certain values and practices – whether we are talking about the wearing the scarf, abstaining from sex until marriage, or even prayer – what we often deny others, particularly our sisters, is personal agency. The personal agency to develop a strong sense of self, understand their values, and make decisions that are not motivated by fear or shame, but rather a commitment to serve their Lord.

As such, it is dangerous to engage in modesty-shaming – shaming those who don’t fit our criteria of modest – we don’t know who we are alienating and we don’t know another person’s struggle, and we are inherently supporting that culture of shame and fear. Our sisters must feel the cultural, physical, and social safety to do what they think is right for themselves and their families. As my friend and colleague Hind Makki writes, “Take it off, keep it on, do what is right for you and your family, dear sisters. But please don’t be afraid.” And I would add to that, please don’t be ashamed. Hold your head up high regardless of your decision, and be confident that only YOU can own your story, and your relationship with your Lord is sacred.

Nadiah Mohajir is the co-founder and Executive Director for HEART Women & Girls. For the last five years, she has led the organization to provide health education programming to over 2000 Muslim women and girls in the Chicagoland area as well as cities across the country, breaking many cultural barriers and raising awareness about important issues such as sexual and reproductive health, sexual violence and media literacy. This piece was originally published at the Heartfelt blog at Patheos.

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