If ever there was doubt that women's clothing can be political, it was put to rest at recent women's marches, with participants donning pink protest hats as symbols of their defiance. Supporters and allies delighted in this obvious, somewhat vulgar, and in-your-face gesture.
But when we move out of the realm of these protest hats and into conversations about another kind of headwear—the hijab (headscarf)—our delight in clothing as a political act, is replaced by confusion and often, downright pity.
In fact, in France the hijab is now banned in schools and the burqa (full body covering) and niqab (face covering) are banned in all public spaces. Many other western countries have been debating about possibly banning or limiting these items of clothing, as well. Underlying these bans is a belief that these items are inherently oppressive and women who "veil" are not free.
But what makes us so sure of their oppression? Many people believe that the hijab is forced onto women and that it reflects a fundamentalist, conservative, and orthodox view of Islam. That may be true in limited cases where the state imposes a dress code on women requiring them to cover their heads, such as in Iran. But that does not cover the vast majority of women who adopt the headscarf as a personal, meaningful choice, especially when we consider women living in non-Muslim majority countries who do so.
The history of this practise, too, teaches us otherwise. Historically, Muslim women have adopted or rejected the hijab for various reasons—sometimes in defiance of a colonial power or a government that would not allow them to veil and sometimes in defiance of their own governments that have forced them to veil.
The hijab has operated in some places like Egypt as a marker of status and wealth, while in other places like Pakistan, the burqa was mostly adopted by working class women as a sort of "portable seclusion" as scholars have termed it. This "portable seclusion" allowed women to enter the public sphere in greater numbers: use public transportation, and go to work. For many women using the burqa in this manner, it was quite liberating to have boundaries of personal space set up around them by the burqa.
More recently, we have witnessed a rise in the popularity of the hijab, especially in Western countries. This is often seen as evidence of the increasing radicalisation of Muslims and a turn to traditional and non-modern ways of thinking.
The hijab is, or can be, political. Just not in the way that people imagine. That is, contrary to the popular perception that the hijab signals radicalisation and fundamentalism, the hijab is actually more popular with the younger, more educated generations of immigrant families in Western countries.
It is not uncommon for younger women to adopt it even when their parents are not supportive of the practise. Rather than a sign of religious extremism or backwardness, these young women often deploy critical democratic principles in asserting their right to their bodies, to their religion, and to present themselves to the world how they want to present themselves. It is not uncommon for them to use feminist language of not wanting to objectify their bodies.
Still other women take on the hijab in the context of Western countries where Muslims are marginalised and discriminated against. Thus the hijab becomes a proud symbol of one's identity, not unlike the hoodie for some African Americans after Trayvon Martin's death. This is not to say that women don't have religious reasons for adopting the hijab. But even that turn to religion must be understood partly as a politics of resistance, and an assertion of their identity in response to societies that mark them as inferior.
Consider this example: when Jack Straw, England's then-foreign secretary, proposed banning the niqab in 2006, the sale of niqabs actually went up. What we generally assume to be a sign of "tradition" or "backwardness", turns out to be a thoroughly modern global phenomenon: one that is very much embedded in ideals of democracy and rights of citizens, and the modern-day realities of marginalisation and discrimination.
Asking whether the hijab oppresses or empowers women are the wrong questions to ask. Instead, we need to ask: how is oppression or empowerment a product of specific histories, and political, social, global, and economic conditions?
Reducing the sources of oppression or empowerment simply to an item of clothing and assuming that it reveals something about women's experiences is a mistake. Without knowing the context in which a woman chooses to wear the headscarf, it's nothing more than a piece of clothing. Just as protest hats would be nothing more than pink hats with pointy ears if we didn't place them in the current political context.