17/05/2012 18:29 BST | Updated 17/07/2012 06:12 BST

Is the 'Hijab' Discriminatory to Women?

There is a camp of feminists out there who would like us to believe that wearing the hijab is a discriminatory, male-biased, patriarchal practice, note the article by Adele-Wilde Blavatsky on the 'privileging' of race above gender, to a deluge of uproar from another camp of women who were totally shocked by her one-sided, un-nuanced views on the Islamic sartorial practices.

Well, I have got news for this camp of feminists because I came to the hijab very recently and after years of mulling over the decision, through research of the Quran and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), and reading of several exegetes of scholars, both male and female, I as a woman made the sole decision of wearing the headscarf. I am totally satisfied that all scholars from differing schools of Islamic thought come to the same decision that hijab is indeed a practice that God has commanded upon the Muslims, men and women. Note the distinction I make between hijab and headscarf. Hijab is effectively speaking about modesty of men and women and not indeed just a piece of cloth one places over one's head! If we scratch the surface Muslims understand hijab to be an overall modesty: modesty of the heart, modesty of the eyes, modesty of the ears etc. In other words it is guarding the heart from evil intentions, guarding the eyes and ears from evil intentions and so on.

Now coming back to the headscarf, I was also of the mind once that the Quran did not specifically mention this and therefore it is subject to interpretation. But if we analyse the Quranic scriptures with due diligence, it is categorically mentioned in chapter 24, verse 31 what the rulings on hijab are. Note that first and foremost it mentions the importance of hijab for men, i.e. lowering their gazes, guarding their private parts etc. and then it comes to women again mentioning the lowering of their gazes, guarding their private parts, drawing their headscarves over their bosoms and here lies the crux: the Quran mentions the 'khimar' specifically which is a form of head covering and it is asking women to draw the 'khimar' over their bosoms. This used to be a head covering equivalent to a form of long scarf, and some women used to just leave the head covering dangling on the sides and as a result this verse was revealed for further protection of women in the public space (I mean it is no secret that the size of our bosoms are indeed a part of our beauty and studies upon studies have shown that men are often attracted to that part of our body) and in front of marriageable men i.e. to prevent unnecessary sexual desires between the two parties. Now just to calm the extremist feminist minds here - this has indeed been revealed for our honour and protection in the public space. I mean let's not fool ourselves, we only have to open the news these days to see horrific articles about women being raped, date raped, molested and faced with a deluge of sexual abuses for their appearances (I mean we have to be a certain shape, size or else we lose our appeal to the opposite sex!). So on that note I find my hijab a very liberating experience.

Indeed what the female chooses to wear is her choice because there is no compulsion in religion (Quran Chapter 2, verse 256). As it was indeed my choice, I refrained from wearing the headscarf for many years but chose not to wear it to fit into a certain mould of ideological understanding of women in the West. I grew up in the West in an environment that presupposes a love for everything that is secular. That in itself was an imposition upon me. I basically feared not being accepted in a peer group, in a job, in society - the list goes on. In fact when I began wearing the hijab, stereotypically my husband said people are now going to think I told you to do so and my mother tells me that my brother was a little concerned as to whether I would be able to get a job easily!! In other words, my being was the being of someone else's imagination and idea of what I should be and I pandered to it for the last 38 years. Now that I have chosen to wear it after arriving at a decision through my own rational and critical understanding of my faith i.e. Islam, I find myself on the other side defending my hijab. My point is why should the debate be about defending oneself?

I chose this attire so why can't these feminist extremists accept that no man in my life or indeed woman has persuaded me nor indeed forced me to cover myself. It is my decision and I come from a liberal Muslim family background where my parents never once in their lives asked me to wear the headscarf. In fact, a Muslim friend of my father's once said to him and I was that day dressed in a 'salwar-kameez' (a three-piece South Asian suit which includes a long scarf): "Why not also cover the head?" but mind you in a very gentle and unassuming manner. My father responded in an equally unassuming manner by saying, "As long as she is dressed modestly", and the conversation ended there (and they remain good friends in case you are wondering).

Women such as Blavatsky in the aim to emancipate all of womankind seem to forget that many of us women who chose to wear the headscarf and cover ourselves to the degree that we indeed want to, is our choice. We do not do it because we are forced by other men in our lives, we do not do it to appease men's sexual gratification but we choose to do it after coming to a rational understanding of our faith. I have been underlining my rationality in this choice because I recently had a brief encounter with Ms Blavatsky on the Facebook wall of one of my friends and there I was dismissed by her as being 'emotional' for saying that I do not cover my head for other men or women in my life but I do it for my Creator. That in itself is apparently an 'emotional' response on my part and it is according to her based upon an irrationality. This camp of feminism with the aim of uprooting patriarchy, which I also vehemently oppose, are subjugating the voices of millions of other women who rationally choose to cover up. I agree with Blavatsky and others like her that the hijab and the hoodie are not the same and that there is a huge discrepancy in the way women are subjugated across the board, but I also do not want her to make such grand generalisations where feminists like her simply see the hijab as 'discriminatory'.

Whilst there may indeed be women who are forced into practicing the hijab without being given a choice, there are equally many women who practice hijab out of choice. In the name of feminism, I wonder whether this camp of feminists realise that by thwarting voices like mine, they are verging on being orientalist even if their original aim was not intended as such. This is why it is very important indeed to have these debates out into the open so that a whole section of us women are not huddled into one big group of oppressed women. Whilst raising the voices of those who are oppressed, they are oppressing the 'other' women who can and choose to make their own decisions about their sartorial practices! Even if it is unintentional it needs to be rectified.

I understand Ms Blavatsky had rather nasty comments made against her original article in The Feminist Wire, which I oppose too because it shows a lack of etiquette and respect for the other's viewpoint. It is best to discuss these issues in the open without disrespecting one another's views in the process. Whilst Ms Blavatsky has the right to make her own views known, in an era when Islamophobia is rife, it is also equally important to make comments that are context-specific and based upon ethnographic studies. In fact, my encounter with Ms Blavatsky on my friend's Facebook wall only reiterates this point. In the aim of making her views supreme to mine she chose words like 'emotional' and 'irrational' to quickly dismiss my viewpoint and in the process removing my agency to make an informed/rational/critical argument. If this is not an orientalist tactic I don't know what is. Whilst Ms Blavatsky may or may not believe in a God is not the issue here, although I do and I choose to wear a headscarf based upon the words of God i.e. what the Quran deliberates on this matter as well as the many exegetes on this. This in her mind seems to be conveying an irrationality on my part but now we are delving into a whole new realm of whether God exists or not and whether the Quran is the word of God, and for that there are many debacles being presented out there (and note that even the staunchest of atheists are now agreeing upon the existence of Intelligent Design). Just because my ideological thought processes do not fit into the mould of certain feminist narratives neatly does not then give these feminists the right to dismiss my voice and that of thousands if not millions of other women as 'emotional' and 'irrational' - after all isn't that what these feminists are and were fighting for in the first place to give women the voices and agency they so deserve!