Hijabs and the Feminist Movement: Can They Get Along?

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Hala Abdulkarim

Educator, social justice advocate, pro tweeter.

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Earlier this year, I was dismayed to read reports of a gunman who shot and killed three Muslim college students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in a very apparent hate crime. In the aftermath, family members of the slain Deah Barakat gathered to address the press. More specifically, Deah Barakat’s sister, Dr. Suzanne Barakat, delivered an emotional statement with her grief-stricken family solemnly in tow. I get that most people would consider this pretty standard, but as an Arab from a Muslim family, this was pretty monumental for me. I realized I couldn’t remember the last time I’ve seen a Muslim family on a major network granted an opportunity to vocalize any part of their narrative. When that long anticipated moment arrived, it arrived in the form of a courageous, accomplished woman. For a brief and fleeting moment in time, a Muslim woman became a prominent spokesperson for Islam, albeit due to tragic circumstances. In the following days, I watched video after video of Dr. Barakat, still reeling from the death of her family members, eviscerate every misconception and double standard associated with Islam and the trope of the submissive Muslim woman. She addressed pundits with fluidity, persistence, and poise. Significantly, she did all this wearing the often misunderstood, often disdained hijab. That week, Dr. Barakat inadvertently became a paragon for the powerful Muslim female.

I have heard many people argue that hijabs are inherently anti-feminist and oppressive. On the contrary, for many Muslim women, the hijab can empower and embolden. Dr. Barakat perfectly defies this typecast with everything she embodies; she is accomplished and driven in her career as a doctor, outspoken (in stark contrast with the demure Muslim woman often depicted in the media), and a brave representative of her family and her religion. Her hijab has not restricted or silenced her. While it is part of her identity, it does not define her capabilities, as opponents insist it does. Being immersed in rich Muslim culture, I can confidently say that Dr. Barakat is in no way an anomaly. Watching her speak filled me with hope and pride for future generations of powerful Muslim women.

Months later, I attended a local feminist meeting with the expectation of recapturing those feelings of hope and pride. The speaker was charismatic, engaging, and expertly articulated the predicament many women face in daily interactions with men, some subtle, some not so subtle. I was overjoyed that someone could explain the frustrations of women in such a truthful and humorous way. The conversation took an abrupt turn, however, when the speaker transitioned to the topic of “veils” in Middle Eastern culture. To paraphrase, the speaker insisted that whatever one’s view on veils happens to be, they undeniably “literally make women disappear.” After an initial pang of shame and guilt, I considered that maybe this view stemmed from ignorance. I remembered Dr. Barakat and the many Muslim women I know who wear hijabs and haven’t “literally disappeared.” Dr. Barakat’s commendably emoted her family’s story and their grief. She gave a voice to American Muslims where there was none. My mind leapt to Dr. Barakat’s sister-in-law, Yusor Abu-Salha, who had been attending dental school and shared stories on Facebook of her trips to war-ravaged Syria to promote dental health. Her efforts were certainly a light in the darkness– the very opposite of a disappearing act. I thought of my friends whose hijab is part of their multi-faceted and beautiful identities. They all have colorful, individual personalities and they are very present in their own ambitions.

My suggestion to that speaker is to listen to women who value their hijabs and seek to understand rather than denounce. As many women have explained to me, hijabs help connect them with their religion and their God. The hijab is a symbol of pride, and while it might be an integral part of a woman’s identity– it is just that. A part. Further, condemning the cultural and individual significance of the hijab only serves to shame women whose values are different but nevertheless important. I believe feminism should always be intersectional and inclusive; women should never feel ostracized from the feminist movement. The solution to this dissonance is to engage more people like Dr. Suzanne Barakat in the dialogue of Islam and the dialogue of the feminist movement– and not just in times of tragedy. Choosing to wear a hijab and supporting equal rights are not mutually exclusive feats. While many Muslim women are already a part of the feminist conversation, we must extend the platform and embrace all women and their respective beliefs if we want to move forward.