The myth of how the hijab protects women against sexual assault

By — September 6, 2012

I was only 6 years old when my family was forced to flee the civil war in Afghanistan for Pakistan in the late 1980s. My sister, Neelo, who is five years older than me, was enrolled in a Saudi-funded Muslim Brotherhood-inspired public school for Afghan refugees. She, like many Muslim women, wore a simple headscarf.

I remember Neelo picking up her tiny bag, wrapping her scarf around her hair, and going to her first day of school. I also sadly remember her coming back from school that day and telling our parents: “The guards told me, ‘Either you are going to wear the full hijab or wear a chador [an Afghan burqa], or you can't come to school.’” Her tiny headscarf was no longer enough.

The school she was going to was run by archconservatives.

The myth that there's a correlation between the hijab and a low incidence of sexual harassment and violence against women actually systematically victimizes them.

Neelo was forced to wear the most restrictive form of the hijab—almost exactly like the woman in this image. Things were fine until the next year, when I started school myself. My mother sat me down and told me that from then on I would have to walk my sister to school every day.

I grew to hate it. Every school day, for years, as the two of us walked toward Neelo’s school, men would stare at her, sizing up her body behind the dark clothes, whispering to each other, making signs with their hands, making catcalls, taunting her, and saying things like how pretty she was—even though the only thing you could see on my sister's body were her eyes.

The men who passed us on sidewalks would say demeaning things—things sexual in nature that I was too young to understand. My mom and dad wanted me to walk her to school because if I wasn’t with her, who knew what these men would do? I grew up hearing stories about women being groped, punched, even abducted—all while wearing hijabs. The perpetrators were from all ethnic groups and were both Pakistanis and, like us, refugees.

The experience left me angry, helpless, and traumatized. We never talked about it. What she didn’t know was that I knew she was emotionally and psychologically hurt. I didn't need her to tell me she was not being protected by her hijab. The tears behind her veil were enough.

Those memories came back to haunt me on Tuesday, World Hijab Day. The day celebrates a Muslim woman's right to choose what she wants to wear. The headscarf and more restrictive forms of face and body coverings are widely known as the hijab; over the centuries, it has become a symbol of conservative Islam and, to some, even a defining characteristic of modest and pious Muslim women. While the practice isn't uniform in all countries, wearing the “conservative” hijab means completely covering all of a woman's hair and, in many places, even her face, with a veil, a pardah (a long, thin shawl covering the head and upper body, mostly worn in South Asia), a burqa (a sort of shawl, with a hood and built-in veil, worn in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India), or several other national variations thereof. No parts of a woman’s body except her face, hands, feet below the ankles, and, sometimes, neck are allowed to be seen, in conservative interpretations.

Great strides in women's rights over the past two centuries have allowed religious women to take some liberties in how they want to dress. Yet the dominant response to this by the mainstream conservative religious movement has been to separate the practice from its religious nature and to find reasons to justify not just its observance for piety's sake, but for supposed practical benefits.

I'll let an excerpt of an article by a writer named Sehmina Jaffer Chopra on the popular Muslim issues website Islam101.com explain what’s going on:

Another benefit of adorning the veil is that it is a protection for women. Muslims believe that when women display their beauty to everybody, they degrade themselves by becoming objects of sexual desire and become vulnerable to men, who look at them as “gratification for the sexual urge” (Nadvi, 8).

The Hijab makes them out as women belonging to the class of modest chaste women, so that transgressors and sensual men may recognize them as such and dare not tease them out of mischief (Nadvi, 20).

Hijab solves the problem of sexual harassment and unwanted sexual advances, which is so demeaning for women, when men get mixed signals and believe that women want their advances by the way they reveal their bodies. [Emphasis mine.]

That the hijab somehow protects women against sexual harassment and/or violence is by no means a minority view. Eminent Islamic clerics like Egypt’s Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi—widely considered a spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and much of Sunni Islamic thought—and Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei—the supreme religious and political authority in Iran and one of Shia Islam’s main sources of jurisprudence—have endorsed this view.  

This is not just a false assertion that has no basis in fact; it is also a dangerous one. I know that for a fact because I saw Neelo's hijab fail to protect her for years.  

I know this because I've seen, heard, or read multiple first-person accounts by victims of sexual harassment and sexualized violence who were wearing the hijab when they were attacked. The hijab cannot and will not stop men from assaulting women. Even if the only part of a woman's body that shows is her shadow, deviants will sexualize and fetishize it. Take the example of Egypt, where sexual harassment against women has become almost a pandemic—whether they wear the hijab or not.  

This billboard in Tehran says: “Hijab Is Security.” (Omid 20)

The myth that there's a correlation between the hijab and a low incidence of sexual harassment and violence against women actually systematically victimizes them. Men are doing women a disservice in that they are placing blame on women who don’t cover themselves, as well as insinuating that a woman who is attacked while wearing a headscarf somehow did something to deserve it. As with all victim-blaming, this prevents women from speaking up about sexual assault. Many mainstream conservative Muslim clerics and pseudo-social scientists—like Zakir Naik, in this video, which is a must-see for anyone wanting to learn about this issue—openly imply or proclaim that women who don't wear the hijab are calling for sexual harassment and sexual violence. They go so far as correlating a woman's right to wear what she wants in the West with a high incidence of sexualized violence against women there.  

They conveniently ignore all of the reports on how sexualized violence is underreported in many conservative Islamic societies because of its taboo nature and the stigma associated with it; they ignore the fact that sexualized violence leads to the honor killings of many of the women victims each year.  

Perverts are perverts. They will sexually harass and commit sexual violence against women who wear the hijab or a miniskirt because they are perverts—not because women have exercised their right to wear what they want.  

Continuing to perpetuate the myth of the magical hijab only makes the problem grow. It doesn't actually solve anything. For that, we need to be able to openly talk about this problem, raise awareness, educate people, draft laws against it, and have law enforcement agencies that actually act upon criminal complaints against men who carry out these crimes. If that had been in place in the 1980s, maybe Neelo—or the millions of other victims like her—wouldn't have had to endure the pain she lived with for years.  

To wear or not to wear the hijab is a personal choice that must be protected. Many women who wear it choose to do so and take joy in their gesture of modesty and piety. This, however, is not about the hijab or women's choice. It's about pseudo-science and misogyny.  

It's about the fact that women who wear the hijab are not any safer than women who don’t. It’s about the fact that there needs to be real protection for women in Islamic societies, at home, on the streets, and in the workplace—not just miracle garments.