15/04/2012 19:03 BST | Updated 15/06/2012 06:12 BST

The Islamic Hijab: Is it Really as Oppressive as We Think?

Over the last few decades, the steady immigration of Muslims from around the world to America and across Europe, has thrown the spotlight on the hijab. Many Americans and Europeans are surprised to find that contrary to what they believe, a large number of Muslim women do not wear the hijab out of compulsion but out of choice.

A Western society that's far more open in its approach to clothing and behaviour may find it hard to accept that a woman would consciously choose the hijab, but many Muslim women who wear the hijab will attest that they do make the choice. The many Muslim women who have risked their professional goals and personal dreams, like the weightlifting champion Kulsoom Abdullah, to make their point and reserve the right to wear the hijab, prove that they believe strongly in their decision.

The hijab is not just for women

Those who oppose the hijab because it is oppressive to women will probably benefit from knowing that in Islam, the rules of hijab apply to both men and women. Indeed, hijab is a set of rules, of decorum, dressing and behaviour, more than just an instruction asking women to cover their heads!

Before addressing women, this is what the Quran has to say, concerning hijab and men.

"Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: and Allah is well acquainted with all that they do."

The following verse, then addresses women, in slightly more detail. This is not surprising at all, considering that women have been more vulnerable, right from those ancient times. If read with an open mind, instead of a prejudiced eye, one begins to realise that the advice is more practical than oppressive; given with the intention to safeguard Muslim women than denigrate them.

"And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; that they should draw veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands' fathers, their sons..."

The fairness or the unfairness of the 2011 hijab ban in France

The main argument against the hijab in France, one of the first European countries to debate a ban, is that the second-generation Muslim immigrants who grew up in France, lacked the respect that their parents - most of them émigrés from France's colonies - had for the country they thought of as a home across the Mediterranean. The young Muslims had been distanced from the mainstream French and the risk of radicalisation was high.

The second reason of France's ban was the popular anti-hijab argument - that it is oppressive. When taken into account, the Quran verses mentioned above and the fact that many women choose to wear the hijab, France's reasoning is dissatisfactory.

If there is growing radicalisation in Muslim dominated sections of Paris and France, and young men were indeed forcing women to wear the hijab, then banning it is just a cosmetic solution.

It is a fact that when the Muslims from France's colonies arrived in France they were discriminated against, the young Muslims grew up in an environment of fear and prejudice. If the real problem was that women were being forced to wear the hijab, then France should have addressed the culture of discrimination and prejudice that was turning these men into radicals. France has secured freedom for the women who were being forced to wear the hijab, at the cost of the freedom of the women, who want to wear the hijab.

On the other hand, it is true that many Western women are required to wear the Hijab while visiting a few Islamic countries, offering them no choice in the matter.

The American Perspective

Fortunately, the American perspective, at least in law, is far less severe to the hijab, than that of a few Western European nations like France and Belgium. However, Muslim women who wear the hijab are often subjected to social prejudice.

The Civil Rights Law is one of the biggest victories of America in the last century. It was a victory for the country, just as much as it was for African Americans. It has helped create a just and equal society that has played a crucial part in making America one of the most powerful nations in the world. Incidentally, it is the Civil Rights Law that protects women who wear the hijab from discrimination at work and in society.

Some issues are extremely complex and understanding them completely is only possible with the passage of time and in hindsight. In the early 20th century, racism was so prevalent that imagining a society based on equality was impossible for the vast majority of Americans.

However, today, we realise that discrimination based on race has no logical, emotional or spiritual basis. Possibly, in the future, we may begin to feel, like many Muslims do, that Western women aren't as free as we believe them to be, and that the hijab is not as unjust. Meanwhile, if history has taught us anything, it is that discrimination never did a country or its people any good.