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Enveloped in power, hijabi women fight for their right to cover

For many Muslim women, the hijab is a symbol of the Islamic culture and ultimately, women’s bodily autonomy.

The hijab is powerful.

This is what Safa Manala-O, a hijabi marketing professor from Mindanao State University – Iligan Institute of Technology (MSU-IIT), feels when she wears it. “I believe that wearing [the hijab] is an order from God, so I cannot, in proper conscience, just ignore it,” she proudly declares. As of 2015, there are roughly six million Muslims residing in the Philippines, and among them are women who choose to wear the hijab. In this conscious choice to cover, Muslim women then reaffirm their religious beliefs and values by abiding by God’s wishes.

Despite this, the hijab is often misinterpreted as a symbol of oppression and that Islam pressures its members to be religious extremists, infringing on many human rights. After the 9/11 attacks that put many Muslims under intense distrust, flawed perceptions like these intensify discrimination and hinder Muslims around the world from thriving. From polarizing contemporary political discourse to uniting cultures, the hijab shapes the fabric of many societies. But the constant discrimination prevents Muslim women from freely expressing their religious freedom in a society that belittles them for wearing this headscarf.

Symbol of devotion

The hijab is no simple cloth nor accessory. “In Islam, it’s a symbol of submission and dedication to God, a symbol of purity, modesty, and chastity,” explains Manala-O. With this, wearing hijabs follows a set of rules. It must completely cover the head, hair, and chest; it must not be transparent; and it must not be tight. Additionally, she emphasizes that the attire a woman pairs with the hijab with must also be appropriate—not “attention seeking” nor “form-fitting”. But despite these guidelines, Muslim women are given the freedom to choose the style of their hijabs.

Manala-O shares that her meticulous process to properly wear the hijab takes her around two to five minutes to accomplish. She narrates, “I put it over my head, wrap it around my head once, and then adjust the rest of the fabric [for it] to drape over my chest.” The marketing professor further notes that she typically wears plain hijabs to fit her profession. “I like something that has no patterns or designs…so it can match any office attire,” she emphasizes. “I find this style the most comfortable and flexible.”

For Yasmira Moner, MSU-IIT assistant political science professor and acting director for the Institute for Peace and Development in Mindanao, the hijab reminds her to be “circumspect” of her actions, explaining that one should always be respectful as a hijabi. “As a Muslim, it’s not just [about you doing] the ritual of praying five times a day, but what you do in between those five times a day prayer is equally as important.” By wearing the hijab, she believes it channels Islamic pride, which is crucial in a society that shuns their voices.

The Muslim woman, however, should not be defined by the hijab. Both Manala-O and Moner note that, in the mainstream academic interpretation, the Qur’an does not imply an actual head covering for women to wear. “Many Muslim women are not really wearing it because for them, it’s not a religious commandment; rather, [it’s] a cultural commandment,” Moner clarifies.

This rings true for Bai Ambolodto (III, PSYC), a Muslim student who grew up studying in a Catholic school. She attributes this to her decision not to don a hijab regularly, as she found it odd given that people around her environment don’t wear the head covering. However, she is quick to explain that not wearing a hijab doesn’t hinder her from engaging in religious customs. She practices her devotion to God through the Five Pillars of Islam—the five religious acts considered obligatory to all Muslims. “We also have other things such as doing pilgrimage, which is called hajj, and doing our required devotions,” she expounds.

Falling through the cracks

Unfortunately, the discrimination Muslims face permeates through their everyday lives. Growing up, Ambolodto herself experienced teasing from Catholic schoolmates because of the damaging “Muslim terrorist” stereotype. Sadly, she worries, “I think it’s worse for those who wear hijabs.”

Whenever she goes to public places, Moner always receives suspicious looks from other people. “There’s that stare whenever you’re wearing a hijab. There’s a more meticulous way of inspecting your bag compared to others who aren’t wearing it,” she bemoans. And much like other forms of microaggressions, these have massive consequences.

Last month, an Indian school in Karnataka went under fire for banning preparatory students from wearing hijabs. This is eerily similar to a ban previously imposed by Zamboanga City’s Pilar College in 2012, which “[reopened] the wounds when Muslims felt like they [were] being treated as… second class citizens,” Moner notes. Thankfully, Pilar College lifted the ban after it received widespread backlash.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case. Various institutions have restricted the wearing of face veils for their employees. Moner recalls how her Muslim friends were requested to remove their hijabs for employment in call centers, while Manala-O shares that she was denied a position in a bank because of her hijab. The latter stresses, “When policies [prevent women from wearing hijabs], it basically gives [citizens] permission to ostracize and discriminate [against us] because [the hijab] is viewed as something illegal and against the norms.”

While the Commision on Human Rights released a directive in 2013 stating that Muslim women should be allowed to wear hijabs in schools and government institutions, its poor implementation only amplifies the community’s clamors for proper enforcement. “The existing legislations don’t do much to protect the rights of hijabis [in the private sector], but nevertheless it’s a start [in the right direction],” Manala-O remarks.

My body, my rules

The discrimination Muslim women face persists because it is constantly reinforced by societal microagressions. Manala-O and Moner acknowledge the false narratives surrounding the hijab, where the former aims to champion “a more proactive approach” by effectively discussing the importance of the hijab and of religious freedom for Muslim women. This way, people will understand the urgency to provide better legislation, to recognize their rights, and to establish spaces for everyone to safely practice their faith. “Understanding creates empathy, and empathy creates respect and room for coexistence,” she explains. “For me, it’s important that I’m free to wear the hijab because I live according to my faith.”

Fighting for hijab protection goes beyond Muslim rights—it’s a fight for empowerment and for the dismantling of ethnocentric mindsets. “When I see a Muslim woman wearing a hijab, I feel like I have family. [It gives me a] sense of belongingness…[in] this transnational movement of women fighting for the liberty of hijab,” Moner describes. Nevertheless, respect should be given to women regardless of whether they choose to wear a hijab or not. To this, Ambolodto attests, “If we give women that freedom, they will have confidence in themselves.”

Moner opines, “I wear a hijab and I am a Muslim. It’s not [that] I am a Muslim so I wear the hijab. [It] doesn’t solely define me but it’s part of my fundamental right to choose to cover [myself].” Wearing a hijab is a conscious decision made by millions of women despite the pressure of orthodox institutions. In line with this, she emphasizes that the narrative of Muslim women must not be erased; rather, it should inspire others to stand up for what they believe in.

The world will continue trying to dictate how women should look by misconstruing cultural or religious practices. While ignorance may be weaponized against the oppressed, our awareness must be the first step to the liberation of hijabi women from misogynistic norms. We must amplify marginalized voices and ensure that their demands are heard by the institutions who vow to protect them. Only through our actions may we rebuild a future that’s potent with freedom and power—for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

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