Hijabs do not represent freedom

The Rio Olympics, much like everything else these days, seem to be needlessly distracted by identity politics. Despite mediocre Olympic performances, two female athletes have received disproportionate praise and attention from the international media.

American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammed and Egyptian beach volleyball player Doaa El Ghobashy each broke away from their country’s standard uniforms to wear a hijab while competing.

Hijabs are worn by a minority of Muslim women in western countries, and a majority in much of the Middle East, North Africa and Asia.

Defenders of the hijab say it represents religious freedom, modesty and a commitment to the Muslim faith.

That may be true for some, but the hijab is also a symbol of oppression, and it has deep ties to fundamental Islamism.

To quote liberal Muslim feminists Asra Q. Nomani and Hala Arafa, “the hijab is a symbol of an interpretation of Islam we reject.”

Writing in the Washington Post, Nomani and Arafa argued the word hijab “is never used in the Qur’an to mean headscarf,” but instead, its literal Arabic translation is “curtain” and means to hide, obscure or isolate something or someone.

Government laws enforcing the head-covering are relatively new in Islamic societies, and the hijab’s rise in popularity has come hand in hand with other problematic elements of radicalization.

Government edicts to wear a hijab only date back to the 1980s, following the Islamic revolution in Iran, as well as the rise of well-funded fundamentalist clerics in Saudi Arabia.

Of course, the overwhelming majority of Muslim women who wear the hijab, including these two Olympians, are peaceful people, not radical jihadists.

There is no doubt that many Western Muslim women choose for themselves to wear the veil.

But many don’t have a choice, and we shouldn’t pretend the hijab is a symbol of liberation and freedom.

Look at the places that enforce the head covering.

The hijab is mandatory in only the most regressive, illiberal places: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Taliban Afghanistan and areas controlled by ISIS.

In other countries — Pakistan, Somalia and the Palestinian territories, for instance — immense social pressure and physical threats often make wearing the hijab de facto law.

Women who do not conform are routinely beaten or have acid thrown in their faces.

Even in the West, many Muslim women are forced to wear a veil.

A 2003 study in France found 77% of women who wear a hijab say they do so out of fear.

In liberal, democratic France, Islamists threaten and harass Muslim women who choose not to wear the veil.

That is not free choice. The hijab, very often, is coercion disguised as freedom.

While many religions struggle to reconcile ancient beliefs with modern norms, the hijab is uniquely problematic.

Unlike religious symbols such as the Christian cross, Sikh turban or Jewish kippah, the hijab has one purpose.

In its loosest form, it makes women less visible in society. In its most extreme form, the niqab, it erases them entirely.

That is why many liberal Muslim feminists encourage women to remove the veil that physically separates Muslim women from the rest of society.

The Olympics are supposed to be a time to promote global peace and understanding.

Rather than heralding practices that cause immense pain, suffering and exclusion around the world, we should stand with Muslim feminists and call the hijab what it is: A sexist practice that excludes and degrades women.

This column appeared in Sun papers on Aug 11, 2016