It’s not what women wear, it’s how we treat them: Revisiting the hijab

By — October 15, 2012

In September, I wrote a piece for WMC’s Women Under Siege about the hijab, or headscarf, and sexual assault against women in conservative Muslim societies. I chronicled the experiences of my sister Neelo, who experienced sharp harassment as a young girl while wearing a hijab in Pakistan. The premise of the piece was simple enough:

  • Sexual harassment and assault against women has nothing to do with what women wear. 
  • There is a dangerous myth supported by prominent Muslim scholars that if a Muslim woman wears the hijab, she is somehow safe from sexual harassment and assault.
  • The assertion of increased safety is hazardous because it means Muslim women in many Islamic societies don’t receive adequate protection through laws against sexualized violence and enforcement of those laws. 

I clearly stated in the story that I support a woman's right to wear the hijab. This didn't stop it from attracting controversy. Detractors accused me and WMC’s Women Under Siege of having an anti-hijab agenda that we masked with concern for Muslim women.

Sexual harassment exists in conservative Islamic societies as it does in secular societies. No article of clothing is going to prevent it, the author asserts.

Here are a few of the dozens of comments I received (grammar uncorrected):

Heavily slanted article. Her harassment was not because the hijab couldn't serve its purpose. Her harassment was due to the sickness in the hearts of the men to fear their lord and abide by the commandments set! In order for any society to function everyone must do their part to abide by the laws.

That one just confounded me. It seems to echo my argument that the hijab doesn’t “protect” women from sexual harassment, but it also says that the hijab serves “its purpose.” Moving on.

I have visited many western countries and im resident in the middle east for the moment i can swear to God that muslims treat their women betteR than you [in the West] do, im from Morocco i m well placed to judge the europeen and this culture im not telling lies you have to come he and to see how the women are living like queens believe me

Sexual harassment exists in conservative Islamic societies as it does in secular societies. This isn’t about an article of clothing, headscarf or otherwise. (See: arguments that state women shouldn’t wear short skirts. You know, that they’re “asking for it.”)

And here’s my favorite comment, from someone who sets out to prove that my story is a “forgery”:

"Hijab would to some extent prevent" [quotes not from the original story] prevent [sic] sexual assault of women from men is nothing but a mere advantage told to people to encourage it and for people to be content with their religion.

In other words, this commenter totally believes the point of the article that hijab doesn't protect women from sexual harassment and assault, but he endorses the perpetuation of this myth only because it will somehow keep women veiled.

While no one actually convincingly argued against the blog post (in my opinion), there were many responses in support from men and women, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Many sent me private messages on social media to tell me about their own horrible experiences in countries from Egypt to Pakistan, Iran to Turkey. The most heartbreaking, however, was this one on the site about harassment in Saudi Arabia:

I'm sure it is a very strong statement to wear a hijab in the West in today's day and age but in a place where it is considered a *rule* the men do not think twice about their behaviour with these women. The most astounding experience I have ever had was in the Holy city of Mecca while praying to Allah around the Holy Ka'ba. I was sexually harassed in the one place where both men and women can worship together which is while walking in Tawa'af around the Ka'ba. If a man resorts to perverse thoughts in such a dignified and Holy place which is said to be the Home of Allah Almighty, then why would he refrain from doing so in his day to day life—regardless of whether the women are wearing hijab or not.

And certainly, women in Saudi Arabia aren’t alone. Even in the West, the hijab is no defense against criminals out to victimize women. At Altmuslimah, a website that focuses on gender issues within the Muslim community, Altaf Saadi —a medical student at Harvard who wears the hijab—wrote about the subject a day after my story was published. Here's an anecdote from her post, which I encourage everyone to read:

For me, such stories are a sordid reminder of my friend Noor. She is the exemplar Muslim woman: opinionated, ambitious, happy-go-lucky and incredibly intelligent. One day, while we were undergraduates she confessed to me, amid tears and trepidation, that she had been sexually assaulted and harassed by a professor. Noor's story isn't unique—the statistics show a horrific reality in the United States, where someone is sexually assaulted every two minutes every two minutes and where 1 in 4 college women have either been raped or suffered attempted rape—but what made her story stand apart for me was that Noor wore the hijab.

She added:

Noor blamed herself for what had happened. After all, she wore the headscarf—the alleged protector against men's inflamed desires—and thus must have done something, or acted in some way, to have "made" the professor behave the way he did—right?

Experiences like Noor’s are precisely why I wrote my story, which called for education and real laws against sexual harassment and assault on women in conservative Muslim societies, as well as the enforcement of those laws.

On the one hand, women who don't wear the hijab are painted as shameless sluts who deserve to be sexually harassed so perverts feel justified in targeting them. On the other, women like Neelo and Noor who wear the hijab are forced into silence about abuse and attacks that are motivated by perversion—if they speak out about their horrible experiences, they risk being told, “Are you sure it wasn't because you were immodest?”

After getting such a huge response to my piece, I went to visit Neelo. We reminisced about our childhood. She told me how she felt safer in California than she ever did in Afghanistan or Pakistan even though, according to some of the comments I received and the Muslim clerics pushing this myth, men here are much more perverted than men where the hijab is worn to protect women against perversion. None of that has changed Neelo’s mind, however. She still thinks she was victimized and that she wishes there was more protection available for her and for women living in those societies. 

By the way, did I mention that my wonderful sister still wears the hijab?