#NoHijabDay Campaign Fights Women’s Subjugation and Indoctrination
The first time that my friend Nour appeared in public without her scarf, a neighbor commanded her to put it on. When she refused, he grew enraged. “Then you are no longer Muslim!” he called out as she continued down the street.
The year was 2008. The place was New York’s ultra-hip East Village.
But when Canadian human rights activist Yasmine Mohammed removed her hijab during a 2004 visit with her mother in Vancouver, Canada, the fury was even greater. “That was the day,” she recalled recently, “when my mother threatened to kill me.”
Now, with worldwide demonstrations planned on Friday to celebrate Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab, Mohammed is leading a protest in support of those who don’t.
“My aim isn’t for women to leave Islam or become atheist,” she explains, though she herself left Islam several years ago. “My aim is for women to just free themselves.”
She is not alone. Mohammed’s video last year showing herself burning a hijab in response to that year’s World Hijab Day events attracted three million viewers. Now, many of those people are joining her efforts, some publicly, others in private.
Many even got a head start, promoting their actions on social media, using the hashtags #FreeFromHijab and #NoHijabDay. Other posts celebrated Iranian activist Masih Alinejad, author of The Wind In My Hair and the mind behind such Muslim feminist movements as “My Stealthy Freedom” and “White Wednesdays” — both of which call for an end to compulsory headscarf laws for women.
Vocal activists worldwide have also joined the call, such as writer Asra Nomani, who on NoHijabDay will join a livestream at bit.ly/NoHijabDayLive, and Ensaf Haidar, the wife of jailed secular Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, who is now living in Canada.
This is no small act. Many of these women, even those living in the West, have received death threats in response to their posts. Women in Iran and other countries where the hijab is mandatory know they risk arrest. But for them, the action is worth it — as evidenced in so many videos of unveiled women dancing.
Not all the activists agree about the reason for the hijab: some, like Mohammed, insist that it is part of Islam, while others like Nomani are equally insistent that it is not. Writing in The Washington Post in 2015, Nomani noted that “the mandate that women cover their hair relies on misinterpretations of Koranic verses.” Moreover, head coverings are discouraged and even banned in many Muslim countries, including Tunisia and Morocco.
What they do agree on, however, is the need for women to be allowed to choose, and an end to the threats that face so many Muslim women who prefer to follow their religion freely, and in their own way.
With World Hijab Day and NoHijabDay both around the corner, the Investigative Project on Terrorism spoke with Mohammed to get her thoughts on the movement, and the passion that inspired it.
Abigail R. Esman (ARE): Explain to me how this all came about.
Yasmine Mohammed (YM): NoHijab started as a counter-protest to World Hijab Day, which is supported by 180 countries. To be honest, when I got onto social media I didn’t know what this day was — it shocked me. I was floored to see all of these women all over the Western world putting hijabs on, and I was so frustrated and enraged, so angered at what seemed like the indoctrination of the entire Western hemisphere.
So the next year, it was creeping up and I thought, I’m going to fight back this time. And so just a few days before World Hijab Day I announced that I was going to be burning a hijab and I wanted people to join me in protest of this idea that hijab is this completely innocuous piece of cloth. I wanted to stand in solidarity with the women who can be harassed and abused and imprisoned and even killed for not wearing it. Because that’s what we should talk about.
ARE: What do you say to those who say “it’s just a scarf”?
YM: A lot of people say it’s just a cloth, why are you worrying about a piece of cloth? Obviously we are not fighting about a piece of fabric. We are fighting about the mindset behind people wearing a piece of fabric. If it is just a piece of fabric, why are people being killed for not wearing it? Because it’s a tool of modesty culture, it’s a tool of subjugation, it dehumanizes [the woman], it turns her into just another Muslim-looking thing where you can’t have an individual thought or individual action.
ARE: Do Westerners understand it this way?
YM: If you try … specifically highlighting the fact that hijab comes from Islam, people shy away. They’d rather criticize the misogyny [behind it], but they don’t want to criticize the root of it, which is Islam. And we have to do that. We have to hone in on the specific problem. If we talk just about misogyny, that’s a huge story. Hijab is one piece.
ARE: Have you had people contact you and say they want to, but they don’t dare?
YM: Oh, yes. Some will post, “Oh, you’re so lucky, I can’t wait to feel that freedom you’re talking about,” and then someone will respond and say “why don’t you?” And she’ll say, “because my father will kill me,” and Muslims will answer and say well, you deserve to die. So they can’t theoretically daydream about freedom without having people heartlessly attacking them.
It’s really shocking to be the recipient of that. You’re still the same person, you just don’t want to wear this thing on your head anymore. And suddenly you go from being their daughter whom they love and adore to being someone they want to kill.
ARE: Hijabs have become very politicized now. I know many women who wear it not for religious reasons, but to assert themselves as Muslims. Has that changed the environment at all?
YM: Yes. And it has been exacerbated by the fact that Western society feeds into that, because how do they show a Muslim woman? Wrapped in hijab. So they are supporting that stereotype that Muslim girls wear hijabs. Girls these days are getting that message both from home and media — they’re seeing girls on the runway, in GAP ads, in fashion magazines, all in hijabs — and they’re seeing it as something to be proud of, something to define them and make them stand out.
Whereas there is nothing a man has to do to constantly put himself front and center as just a symbol of this, and nothing else. When a Muslim woman puts on a hijab, she is nothing else. She’s just a Muslim. That’s why I say it’s dehumanizing,
ARE: Many people will defend the wearing of a hijab as a religious expression. How do you get across that wearing a hijab is not like wearing a cross?
YM: I’m not a fan of banning it, because I know there will be a backlash that will only encourage people to wear it even more. I think it’s more important to educate the women themselves, to see that they are indoctrinated. We will be on the sidelines cheering them on, but we can’t be on the sidelines forcing them to take it off. It has to be a decision they make because they have come to that conclusion. That said, it’s easy to convince a woman of all this. The hard part is getting her to pay the price of making that decision.
ARE: Can we help make non-Muslim women understand what you’re trying to make Muslim women understand, so they support them rather than enable them?
YM: I would love that. Whenever I talk about this, the only thing that stops Westerners from completely agreeing with me is that there is religion involved. But if they are able to look at it objectively with all the things they understand about women’s equality, then they understand why the hijab is a dangerous tool of misogyny. In the Muslim community I find that harder, because in Arabic, the word “feminism” doesn’t even exist. These are topics that have not even been broached before. So it’s a much bigger battle on that side, because they have from birth accepted this indoctrination that they are lesser-than.
ARE: There seems to be more and more interest in, even support for, the whole “modesty” thing among Westerners. You see it, as you mentioned, in fashion, but also other areas.
YM: I think Western people getting on the train with modesty culture is a very new phenomenon and I think it can be swatted away effectively if Muslim women start to show them what they’re saying is not true. Mine is just one voice — but I want them to see and hear voices from all over the world, saying this in unison. And if you are a human being, then this is not difficult to understand. If you are a human being, then you know, someone telling you, whether it is your god, your government, your father or brother or husband, someone telling you what you’re going to wear every day, is not something any human being desires or appreciates or wants.
ARE: I’m not entirely sure. Many women, especially converts, have talked about how much they prefer having these rules, these guidelines. They make them paradoxically feel even more free.
YM: But we have to fight that. Because I feel like that human need for freedom is in there. It might have been completely stifled out, but I feel like the pilot light is still burning, that the basic humanity that we all have, that basic need to be an individual, to be free, is in there.
Having said all that, I’m sure there are some people that really would make the choice to cover themselves head to toe. There are people who will kill themselves and their families for the sake of a cult. But we should not be celebrating that. So who are the women I will support and celebrate? The women who are fighting back and aligning with enlightenment values and these basic ideas of personal autonomy and freedom.
And even these women who spit back poison at me, I still know you’re spitting back poison because you’re trying to convince yourself and you’re trying to convince your god, but I know that deep down, the spark of humanity is still in there.
Abigail R. Esman, the author of Radical State: How Jihad Is Winning Over Democracy in the West (Praeger, 2010), is a freelance writer based in New York and the Netherlands. Her next book, on domestic abuse and terrorism, will be published by Potomac Books. Follow her @radicalstates.