Imagine that you are a young woman, walking through your neighborhood, the place you have lived for all of your life. Perhaps you’ve had moments when you haven’t felt completely safe, all women go through that now and then especially at night, but nothing you have experienced thus far prepared you for the man that suddenly walks up to you, slams your head into a nearby car and yells racial slurs at you, telling you that you don’t belong here.
This thing happened to a young woman in a suburb to Stockholm, Sweden this past Friday. What was her only crime?
She wore an Islamic headscarf, or hijab.
This cruel assault created a lot of outrage in both her neighborhood and among her neighbors, but also online, the act made even worse by the fact that the woman was seven months pregnant. It seemed that not even her delicate condition saved her from the uneducated opinions of a racist living in her own part of town.
Even when you don’t take her pregnancy into account it is terrible thing that someone should fear assault in broad daylight so close to their home simply because of some piece of clothing she is wearing. In an attempt to take a garment that many automatically associate with fundamentalism and reduce it to what it really is, a garment like any other, there was a small uproar online, encouraging all Swedes, male or female to don a hijab on Monday to show support and put the problem of the racism that exists in our society into the spotlight. Using the hashtag #hijabupproret, people posted photos of themselves wearing a hijab or some other support for the cause.
This event also made it abundantly clear that there are a lot of wrongful opinions and misconceptions on the hijab, as evidenced by the attempts in France to control and ban the use of it and the ongoing racism that women in other countries face, for simply wearing something that covers their hair. Many believe that any woman who wears a hijab is oppressed or enslaved by some brutish male relative, but the truth is that for many women it is their choice to wear it. True, there are some who come from fundamentalist countries, like Iran, who still have vivid memories of being forced to wear it and thus chose to discard it once they moved to a more free country. A woman from Iran told the reporter from the evening news, reporting on the assault and the response to it, that while she had used her free choice to not wear a hijab she had full respect for those that chose to wear it out of their own free will. “Because this is a free country”.
And that’s really it, isn’t it?
No matter what the hijab means or what rules exist or don’t exist about it in Islamic faith, it all boils down to the woman’s own choice to wear it. Much like how a Jew can choose to eat kosher or a Christian can choose to do communion in church. Those of us who were fortunate enough to be born in a western country like to speak about how free we are here, we talk a lot about our free speech and our rights to expression, yet when certain topics are raised, when certain behavior is concerned, we’re suddenly not so free after all.
What is the difference between a young Muslim girl who decides to wear her hijab one day and the Christian girl who steals from her parent’s liquor cabinet and sneaks out to share the spoils with her friends? Both of them do what they do to feel more grown up and to feel more inclusive in the group of people they hang out with. Is either of them at all oppressed?
We can all have our opinions on what we think about certain kinds of behavior exhibited by other people, but there are some limits to how we can voice this opinion. If we judge a woman simply because she is wearing a certain garment we are merely showing off how uneducated we are about the thoughts and motivations of this stranger. Assuming that all Muslim women are backwards, primitive and oppressed just because they wear a hijab is just prejudice in action and telling a woman this, openly on the street is racism. Doing what that man did to that poor, pregnant woman is a hate crime.
And when you really think about it, it’s not just a hijab that seems to encourage the worst kind of people to voice their backwards opinions and even act on them. If a girl wears too short shorts or a skirt that is not seen to be a decent length, she is deemed a slut and if this poor girl is raped, it can even be seen in a court of law that is was her fault for provoking her abuser with her choice of clothing. How many rapists have not been allowed go free because of this?
It all boils down to the same problem, the same thing that plagues most western societies, something we surely should have grown out of my now: That women are judged more harshly and to a more strict code than men are. We have not moved far beyond the time when women should be timid and quiet, without any choice in how to live their lives, residing in their homes and not show themselves out of doors too much, unless they were loose and bad women.
Though we might live in a free western society on paper, we still have a long way to go before we can truly say that we enjoy complete and utter freedom.
A freedom that includes everyone, no matter their gender, the color of their skin, or religious expression.