For Sameeha Ahmad, the decision to put on the hijab came in psychology class at the University of Maryland. She hadn’t worn one for five years. Her mom did, as did her sister. But like many young Muslim women across the U.S., the very independence that drove her to cast off the traditional head covering has since drawn her to don one.
Since the election of President Donald Trump, the debate around Islamic dress has taken a new turn: The hijab has emerged as a symbol of resistance to Islamophobia amid policies from the Trump administration targeting Muslim immigrants.
Scores of non-Muslims have donned hijabs to express solidarity with Muslim women, too, though some criticized the move, arguing that the garment represents oppression of women.
Young Muslims like Sameeha disagree.
“I do believe hijab support feminism,” she said outside the Muslim prayer center at her school’s College Park campus. “The way you look at it from a religious perspective, it empowers you by strengthening your relationship with God. It’s a step you are taking to further yourself within your own religion.”
“No one forced me to dress this way,” she added.
Dalia Mogahed, director of research at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, a non-profit organization working to empower American Muslims, says while some countries do require a hijab, “the ‘hijab oppresses women’ narrative is not only racist, it is also sexist.” To assume a woman’s hijab was forced without asking her is to presume she views Western styles as ideal, Mogahed said.
Citing Gallup surveys of 90% of the global Muslim population, Mogahed said that “hijab is a choice by the vast majority of women who wear it, especially in the U.S. where there is great societal pressure to not wear it, rather than the reverse.”
“Oppression means the taking away of someone’s power, their agency. Yet a woman in a hijab is only covering her body and hair, not her voice or intellect,” said Mogahed, who wears a hijab. “And a man dressed in a full robe and head cover, like many do in the Middle East, is not said to be oppressed. To say that hijab oppresses women is to say that the source of a woman’s power, but not a man’s, is her body, not her mind.”
When Nike introduced the Pro Hijab earlier this month, Zahra Lari, the United Arab Emirates’ first international figure skater, shared an Instagram post of herself wearing one with the hashtag #girlpower. She and her fellow athletes are “confident women,” she told Vogue Arabia.
Anam Khatib, a neurology major at the University of Maryland, believes wearing a hijab is the most feminist statement that a woman can make in a society where consumerism and capitalism constantly tell women “what to wear and how to look like and what body we should have.”
In Islam, hijab is not “compulsion,” she said. “If it’s compulsion it’s not Islam. It’s completely my choice and no one has ever forced me.”
Fatima Khan, a 20-year-old studying social sciences, has worn a hijab for the last nine years and feels the practice has helped her focus beyond her appearance. She finds it empowering.
“By covering my body, I am able to limit how much someone can objectify me and instead have the power to only be judged for my intellect, abilities and personality rather than simply my appearance.”
All the students said that women being required to wear the hijab, as they are in Iran or Saudi Arabia, is as objectionable as efforts to forcibly ban the garment in other societies.
On the other hand, Sharifa Kalakola, a Muslim science journalist who is currently in the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship does not normally wear hijab despite considering herself a good Muslim. “I am comfortable with or without hijab. The only thing that I care about most is modesty in my general look and that I carry myself in public in a respectable manner.”
“Everyone deserves to choose their self identity,” she said. “If it is OK in the society for women to show their skin then it should also be OK for them to cover up.”