Debate on headwear highlights cultural double standard


Elisabeth Siegel

In the cartoon above, two women exchange conversation about certain forms of traditional women's headwear. All women have the right to their bodies and the choice to wear what they please, traditional or not.

by Elisabeth Siegel, Winged Post Co-Editor-In-Chief

Model Mariah Idrissi caused a stir last month when she appeared in an H&M ad campaign wearing a hijab, causing a controversy over the use of hijab in fashion and the acceptability of hijab in western society.

Wear what you want — a statement that most people take to heart as part of freedom of expression. This mindset embodies the principle of bodily autonomy, in that people have a right to their own bodies.

Feminists especially point to arguments of bodily autonomy to ground feminist thought in philosophy. They argue: What I wear should have no bearing on how others see me as a person, except for the qualities I have consciously chosen to share and express.

So when it comes to religious garments — niqab, hijab, chador or burqa — why do these concepts of choice and autonomy suddenly become unthinkable?

Several western legislators and many white feminists accuse these headscarves of being “oppressive to women.” In France as well as Belgium, a 2011 law fines women that leave the house wearing niqab. Spain has banned face-veils in certain municipal areas, and Russia has banned wearing hijab since 2013.  Yet there is thick irony in these white individuals, these male legislators, declaring what is and what is not oppressive for women of color.

This exemplifies neocolonialism in its most basic form, establishing “western” values as superior ones and advocating for access to autonomy as far as is acceptable within these western values.

Many of us westerners — even youth —  remain ignorant, too, toward the significance of these face-coverings, writing them off as barbaric or backward ways of keeping women subservient to men. Rather, the headscarves are rooted in the concepts of modesty and ensuring that a woman can control when and how, if ever, her looks play a role in physical interaction.

As a feminist, I do believe that many religions of the world should indeed vie for feminist ideals and challenge vestiges of patriarchy that may remain. I also believe, though, that any changes in gender relations of other cultures must come from within those societies, and cannot be dictated or forced by western influences.

The concept of autonomy should therefore apply to all, not just the dominant majority. Legislators and other westerners should not get to determine for other people whether or not these garments are oppressive. What is empowering about hijab or niqab is having the choice to wear it — exercising one’s own agency and autonomy in choosing what to wear.


This piece was originally published in the pages of the Winged Post on November 20, 2015.


Elisabeth Siegel (12) is the Co-Editor-In-Chief of the Winged Post. This is her fourth year in Journalism, and she especially loves production nights and bonding with the rest of her staff. In previous years, she was Winged Post news editor, copy editor and reporter.