How the Hijab Objectifies: Part One of the Hijab Series

This is the first in a three-part discussion about the hijab, suppression, and objectification. In this 1st post, I discuss the hijab as a defense against sexual objectification.

In the 2nd post, I will discuss when, where, how, and whether women freely choose the hijab in the most radically agential of ways.

In the 3rd post, I will discuss objectification as attitude and as material consequence.

I know dozens if not hundreds of women who wear hijab. These include my mother, my sister, my aunts, my grandmothers, my cousins, my friends, former students and former colleagues. Most of them have or are in the process of getting higher degrees, and many of them work in the public sphere.

I know and know of hijabis who speak publicly, who engineer, who doctor, who teach, who slam poems, who report, who sing, who do standup comedy, who play sportsball, and who lead in their workplaces and communities.

I myself wore the hijab for 14 years, from the age of 9 to the age of 23. I wore it unwillingly, and I will get to this point later. I wore it through grade school, high school, through college, through graduate school, through various jobs I held: editorial positions at literary journals and newspapers, through my negotiations and interactions with the various companies I freelanced for, through the undergrad classes I taught.

The only times the actual cloth on my head impeded  my career choices and options were when I was discriminated against for it. But even those were mere hiccups; I have been phenomenally successful in my educational and employment endeavors. I wore a piece of cloth on my head and wore long, loose, flowing clothes throughout. And I am not a particularly opportunistic or forward person; I have let many opportunities slip through my fingers because I have not been proactive enough about pursuing them.

My point is this: It should be obvious that there is nothing *inherent* in a piece of cloth, long pants, and long sleeves that will prevent women from engaging assertively and intellectually in public domains.

I say nothing *inherent* because on its own modest and covering clothing is not a sufficient condition for either the suppression or oppression of women.

Unfortunately, it is almost never a thing on its own. And by this I am NOT referring to the common (yet compelling) argument that the hijab is never discrete from the ideology it is tied to.  I instead mean that the hijab is not defined by modest clothing, but is defined by a full spectrum of behaviors, of which covering your body is only a one.

Caveat here: Islam is a religion of many denominations and is not a monolith either in interpretation or practice, and many people find personal ideological fulfillment and peace with a version of the hijab that does not subscribe to the following definition. With that disclaimer out of the way, it is true that this general definition, or one consistent with it, of the hijab is most commonly endorsed by the largest sects and scholars of Islam. In addition to wearing loose, flowing, non-revealing clothing covering all skin except face and hands, to be a hijabi you must guard your modesty in not only your dress, but in your actions, your words, your looks, and your thoughts:

  • You must lower your gaze from the bodies and faces of men.
  • You must not bend, lift, carry and otherwise move in manners and places where men will see the outlines of your body through your clothes.
  • You must not be alone with a non-mahram man at any time in private.
  • You must not go out for meals even in public alone with men, be friends with them, or otherwise place yourself in a situation where indecent thoughts and desires may develop.
  • You must not hug, hold hands with, or otherwise touch men.
  • You must not project your voice in a manner that might be arousing to men.

Why do women choose this?

Proponents of hijab say it humanizes by fighting sexual objectification. If a woman is modest in her actions, appearance, and interactions, she will be able to resist being unnecessarily sexualized, and will be treated as a human, on merit of her mind, her actions, her words, and NOT her body. Proponents of the hijab commonly contrast themselves to overly sexualized women in mainstream Western media, who need to use their bodies in order to gain status and recognition, who have their appearance constantly appraised and their self-worth tied to shallow aesthetics, and who become consumable objects for the pleasure of men.

The hijab, the argument holds, prevents all of this from happening to you. By covering your body and refusing to casually mix with men, you limit their opportunities to sexualize you. You retain your dignity.

I am here to ask if this can actually work.  Not whether it does, because it is possible that when it fails, this is due to external factors that have nothing to do with conceptual soundness of the hijab. To compensate for that possible point of contention, my question is whether the hijab conceptually CAN prevent objectification. And here is my argument:

Engaging in the practices of hijab in order to avoid sexual objectification is, I believe, necessarily a conundrum.

All lengths are taken to prevent women from being viewed as sexual objects, yes. But in the process, women are turned into objects in many other ways, making their interactions, their voices, their physical presence, and often their very faces invisible and robbing them of choices of self-determination if and when those choices involve interacting in the public sphere in any way that may be deemed immodest. And given the publicity of the work and education spheres, this has become almost routinely unavoidable.

That is the problem. In focusing on sexual objectification, the Muslimah forgets that you can be objectified in many other ways. The most radical of these is to be invisible.

Even when voluntarily done.

If you voluntarily hide yourself away and keep your literal voice from being heard so it does not arouse men, you are still closeting an essential part of your humanity. What is a human subject if not a thinker, a mover, a manipulator of space and object, a chooser of ends and achievement and knowledge and purpose? But if the goal of the hijab is to avoid objectification, doesn’t its method absolutely counter humanizing as subject? Setting aside the fact that sexual objectification is in fact not deterred by the hijab, in attempts to stave it off women end up being objectified in many other  arguably more dehumanizing ways.

What is objectification? To be treated or viewed as an object. An object is a thing handled, used, and manipulated rather than a thing that does those things. If the main concern, as the proponents of the hijab offer, is to preserve woman’s humanity as subject, then whether the objectified use of a woman is sexual or not should not be the main focus.

But for some reason objectification is largely spoken of in a sexual context as if it is more important or different in kind, or else as  if that were the only or main way in which women are objectified.

This is instead of recognizing the futility in attempting to completely control what is essentially an attitude or perspective in those who interact with women by hiding women from interaction. And to say that this is futile is not at all tantamount to saying that sexual objectification should not be fought and railed against; it is rather recognizing that it is impossible to completely eradicate it except by complete and utter seclusion, and it is perhaps not worth demonizing to such an incredible extent that you end up limiting YOURSELF in order to avoid it.

Because the sexual objectification argument does not fly, and I would broach that it is a new interpretation, perhaps even an ad hoc one, created after the fact, when modern discourse began to necessitate the discussion of humans as subjects versus as mere objects. Historically and even today Islamic mandates for modesty and the hijab have been oriented towards the benefit of men against their own corruption and sin. The sexual objectification justification is a new one.

And this is GOOD! It is progress! Progressive reinterpretations of discourse are only to be welcomed, and hopefully, hopefully amended. From moving to thinking that a woman must behave and dress modestly in order to not tempt men and to keep men from sin, and to have mercy upon them and not victimize them by causing discord–from moving from thinking THAT to thinking about the hijab in terms of humanizing women (!!!): this is progress.

But it is not enough.

It is not enough, and many Muslim women themselves KNOW it is not enough, because they cannot both be self-fulfilled and follow the strict archaic mandates of the hijabi dress code; they recognize what a contradiction and conundrum this is. That is why they slam poetry though letting their voices and passions trill out may be viewed as immodest, that is why they speak publicly, that is why they perform surgeries and put their hands on men to heal them, that is why they teach, putting their bodies and voices and minds in front of classes of stationary people who will look at and consider them for extended amounts of time, that is why they work alongside men tirelessly, are friends with men, that is why they wear this piece of cloth on their heads, which is on its own as a piece of cloth not holding them back from their self-realization.

They retain their desire to not have their bodies on display for consumption ALONGSIDE their desires to be human subjects acting, feeling, thinking, leading.

Because women are not functionalities and responsibilities, and are not objects of discord that must be hidden away. And though many Muslim women have made the leap in practice, they have not made the requisite adjustments to their ideological justifications in line with their actions. And many more of them have not even gotten so far as to let themselves outside their homes and interact with a society full of men. There is much progress to be made.

There is progress to be made because ideology informs and feeds practice. The larger question here is whether it is anybody’s right to comment on or interfere with a Muslimah’s chosen interpretation of her faith, or to challenge the precepts of the hijab she chooses to don. While it is almost a semantic paradox to say that someone can be forced to humanize themselves, it is unfortunately the case that in most Muslim-majority countries the ideology of the hijab is mandated and enforced by OTHER PEOPLE upon women, and while the ultimate hope and wish is for this to cease to happen–for any ideology at all for any unwilling participant–perhaps the first step is to encourage more and kinder progressive interpretations, to move forward, to help women who choose otherwise to become less dehumanized.

Remember when I said that my hijab did not impede my success in my career? I also said that I wore it unwillingly. For me, it really was only a piece of cloth on my head because it had to be-. In action, I was not a hijabi. I interacted with my coworkers, my students, my graduate program, my friends with warmth, intimacy, trust, and closeness. There was nothing about my assertive voice, my un-quelled laughter, the hugs I gave and received, the unabashed way I discussed sexuality and gender politics in my ethics classroom, the bonds of love and trust and commitment and frankness that I formed–none of that was modest in the traditionally Islamic sense.

But here’s the catch: I did it in secret, because I had to, so my own blood would not drench my hijab. The mere cloth on my head was NOT THE THING. It was a symptom of the thing– of something bigger and more pervasive that I could not fight even by choosing to interact with my colleagues and friends and professors the way I did. Because I had to be careful, anxious, worried, afraid, full of a sense of loss and confusion and ineptitude and fear about it. Because I hid everything, even my lesson plans. Because I was not allowed to be at work or with friends outside daylight hours, because I was not allowed to take public transportation and had to have my parents or women friends they trusted drive me to work, to school, because I was not allowed unasked or unmonitored access to the internet at home…

Why? And what if I had chosen the hijab? And is this common, uncommon, bad, good, is this a family matter or a national matter or a Muslim matter?

That is the topic of Part 2: When, where, how, and whether women freely choose the hijab, coming soon.


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  • Amazing to read as always–I really enjoy hearing your voice and your experiences, Marwa!

  • Fascinating view into a world with which I’m unfamiliar. Thank you for your honesty and your careful approach.

  • Shruthi


    Once again blown away. I’ve read many a post by hijab-wearing Indian Muslim girls who talk about how it is their choice and how it is a good choice and so on. I also know a Muslim girl who let go of the hijab, like you, and is in advertising. When she was wearing a burkha she used to rap, make pro-Islam t-shirts and was an advocate of the burkha. I don’t know what compelled her to let go of everything and move cities and search for her own voice, but she’s doing it and she’s having a blast.

    I will never understand why patriarchy is so keen on policing women’s bodies. Whether it’s the abortion debate in America, or the hijab debate in Muslim countries and the West, or India’s village leaders who are banning jeans and ‘Western’ clothes in order to protect women from being raped. The idea that women should be told how to dress and behave in order to be invisible, as you put it, and to be non-sexual, is just bizarre. Women dressed in saris and traditional clothes in India’s villages are as susceptible to sexual violence as I am with my jeans wearing and cellphone brandishing.

    I am looking forward to reading your next post.

    – Shruthi

  • Reblogged this on The Syed Atheist.

  • What cruel society of men decided that all women had to dress and act as nuns. If a woman wants to be a nun, she is free to do this; but the constricts of “culture” should not bind all, against their knowing or unknowing will!

  • Very interesting. “(…) the hijab as a defense against sexual objectification” – I would like to point out also that wearing hijab doesn’t protect a woman from being sexually objectified by a man who is authorized to do so – her husband. It is even largely welcome by Coran. In this sense I think the argument of defence against sexual objectification is openly fallacious.

  • I do not think Hijab (clothing and behaviour) -can- work to prevent sexual objectification. There are several independent reasons for this.

    The human mind is a wonderful organ, it can create the most elaborate fantasies out of thin air. Even if you’ve never seen something with your own eyes, this does not, in practice, prevent your mind from creating fantasies.

    The second reason is that bisexual and homosexual people exist. Thus even if you where to split the world in two parts, and ensure that no man ever lay eye on any woman again, you would *still* have people fantasizing about others in a sexual way.

    Even people who do not wish to ever experience intimacy outside of a marriage, should support the right of everyone to enjoy intimacy with whichever consenting adult partner they can find. They should do so even for purely selfish reasons.

    As you say, in order to (try to) limit sexual thoughts and/or intimacy from taking place, modesty-culture places limits on behaviour that is in the overwhelming majority of cases, entirely nonsexual. Friendship is mostly nonsexual. Getting a hug is seldom about sex. Smiling at a friend is seldom about sex. When someone forbids all these things in order to quell sex, they are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. They are putting restrictions on and limits on a huge area of human behaviour, in order to limit a small part of human behaviour.

    To me, that’s perverse. To me, that seems sex-obsessed. Putting sex at the center of everything. Putting sex as a justification for *everything* means making it a bigger deal than it actually is. (though it -is- big it’s not *THAT* big)

    Friends of mine have been told they can’t bike to university — because sex. They can’t have their own mobile phone — because sex. They can’t go on vacation to Cypern — because sex. They can’t learn to swim — because sex. They can’t be friends with half of humanity — because sex.

    But biking, swimming and having friends isn’t something that people do for sex. We bike because it’s cheap, faster than walking, and fun. We learn to swim because it’s fun, it’s healthy, and it just may save our life some day.

    And this brings me to my last point: There’s a very noticeable effect, with *all* human beings really, but especially with they young, that if something is secret and forbidden and taboo, then it becomes all the more interesting and fascinating, not less. If I order you *NOT* to think about pink elephants for the next minute – do you comply, or does the order not to do something compel you to do the exact opposite ? A culture that places such huge importance on rules and limitations designed to make people NOT think about sex, risks that people do precicely the opposite.

    • nietzschesbreeches

      Yes. I’ll pull up this article when I get onto a PC about gay sex on all-girl school campuses in Saudi. And I went to a female only Islamic school in my early teens and though we were still.children there was a huge amount of touching and intimacy between friends that I view as homoerotic in retrospect because we had raging hormones and were never allowed to touch people. Even today, ten years later, I am obsessed with touching people. I prefer to go to bed with my partner curled around me like a snare. I have almost no need for personal space and I build my reward systems around receiving physical affection.

      I also agree with your points about the inability of the hijab to ward off sexual objectification and its illness of means/method in trying. But like all strong philosophical arguments, I wanted to present the anti position as strongly as I could (steel-manning your opponent) to show that even if we accept certain premises such as the hijab generally being able to lessen objectification, we still have an essentially unviable solution.

      • I understand, and agree. It makes sense to try to state an opposing argument in the strongest possible form, even if you don’t believe that that form applies, or agree with it.

        Perhaps this is also one of the reasons other sexual orientations than 100% straight are so difficult to accept for religious conservatives — if you admit that the population has homosexuals, then it makes a mockery of the claim that gender-segregation prevents sex (or sexual fantasies). Homosexuals would have to be all alone for that to work, or alternatively accompanied by a homosexual of the opposite gender. But any group larger than 2 always have people that are of the desired sex. Bisexuals are of course *entirely* out of luck as they can’t be trusted to be friends with *anyone*.

        Some conservatives in the middle east still claim that homosexuals do not exist in their country, but it’s clear that this claim becomes more ridicolous with every passing day. Of course there’s no (or extremely few) *openly* homosexual people, but that’s hardly a surprise if you have harsh penalties for it.

        As for intimacy, it’s hard to say. I guess it’s possible that having it restricted for many years can make a person “hungry” for it more than they would otherwise be – but it’s also true that no matter where and how a person grows up, most of us desire intimacy, and some desire a lot more of it than others. I grew up in very liberal surroundings with essentially zero restrictions on intimacy, and I never lacked it. (well, apart from the usual troubles of finding and attracting the right girl in some parts of my teenage years) Nevertheless the sentences you wrote about wanting seeking it out, could have been mine. I love to cuddle.

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  • madge hirsch

    Excellent -well argued and enlightening. Particularly the exposition of the all encompassing mental “clothing” of hijab. Years ago I worked in an inner city school in a city with a large immigrant population mostly originating from the Indian subcontinent. It was very noticeable that even at an early age (7-8 years old )the Muslim girls were much more self effacing than their Sikh or Hindu classmates. Some to the extent that one could only describe them as cowed. I wonder if this was due to the internalisation of these values at an early age -long before puberty and the donning of headscarves.
    I look forward to the next part of this discussion.

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