I cover my head, not my brain

By Leila Rakib Ortega

‘I cover my head, not my brain’, ‘Islam doesn’t silence me, it empowers me, can you hear me now?’ or ‘feminism without intersectionality is white supremacy’ were some of the slogans beneath which Muslim women united on the 8th of March in Spain’s first national feminist strike. These slogans reflect how these women perceive their situation as women of Muslim faith living in the country. They not only face sexism, but also deal with something else: Islamophobia.

Photo credit: hernanpba on VisualHunt.comCC BY-SA

Some days after the strike, the Spanish association Plataforma Ciudadana contra la Islamofobia presented the annual report on Islamophobia in Spain 2017 [1]. The report showed an increase in violent attacks on Muslim women, which accounted for 21% of the cases recorded in 2017.  These incidents are not only translated into particular cases of hate speech and violent offences, but also include any type of discrimination that Muslim women suffer in the academic, professional and social spheres, which especially affects those women wearing the hijab.

The slogans selected for International Women’s Day by Muslim demonstrators prove how often in Spain they are represented just by their religious identity. In many cases, even the hijab is portrayed as the most important aspect of their personality, ignoring that religion constitutes just one part of each individual’s identity and that the hijab is just one distinctive element of the Islamic religion. This simplistic view of the Muslim female is commonly based on prejudices and stereotypes which TV shows, films and especially the media continue to reinforce. These erroneous beliefs frequently describe the Muslim woman as submissive and oppressed, and suggest that the only circumstance under which a woman would embrace Islam would be that of (male) imposition.

Photo credit: Kashklick on Visualhunt /CC BY-NC

The people who propagate such misconceptions are ironically reinforcing these untruths. It is assumed that following Islam is not a personal choice for a woman, and in so doing the voice of Muslim women is automatically ignored and deemed inexistent. This becomes even more pronounced in the case of the hijab, as it is usually believed that its use is dictated only by another male figure. To assume that a Muslim woman covers her head for any reason other than that of it being  her own decision regarding her faith falls into the trap of sexism and ignorance. A feminist society should not worry about which religion a woman decides to follow, but rather if women are free to practice and show their religious identity without fear of being discriminated against. Otherwise, reduce and infantilize women’s voices.

It is true that no religious discourse has been free from sexism as they all have patriarchal roots. However, nothing implies that being a feminist is incompatible with being a Muslim. Claiming that one contradicts the other seems incongruent as Islamic texts are interpreted in many different ways and continue to be debated. Proof of this can be found in the various schools that have emerged throughout history, wherein each one has developed different approaches and applications of the Islamic texts [2]. In fact, feminist scholars have often criticized that male authorities have taken control over those religious scriptures [3]. Similar claims have taken place in other areas such as history or science, where male figures have taken the leading role and where feminist academics seek to bring to light the extensive list of women that have been silenced. If a discipline such as history can be reviewed through the lens of feminism, religion should all the more be deconstructed given its powerful influence throughout history.

portrait-3138562_1920.jpgAll feminists are fighting to end patriarchy in all their forms and discourses, but we cannot forget that Muslim women do not need paternalistic instructions on how to fight against it. In fact, the International Women’s day has shown the world that thousands of women who adhere to the Islamic religion have taken to the streets to protest against gender inequality and the sexist societies that prevail all around the world. Examples of those places can be found in countries of Muslim majority like Turkey or Pakistan [4].

In Spain, what many Muslim women did during the feminist strike was to highlight their position in the fight for gender equality, while emphasizing that they also have to simultaneously face discrimination and Islamophobia. More importantly, they reminded the feminist movement about the need to include the voices of diverse women and about the importance of listening to them. Now, maybe more than ever, wearing the hijab can be seen as a manifestation of the right to show your faith in public. Indeed, what better way to fight for feminism than to fight for the freedom of each woman’s identity?


[1] Plataforma Ciudadana contra la Islamofobia. Informe Anual 2017 http://pccislamofobia.org/

[2] Cherif Bassiouni, M. (2012) Schools of Thought in Islam. Middle East Institute http://www.mei.edu/content/schools-thought-islam

[3] Touray I. (2009) Women’s Rights and the Interpretation of Islamic Texts. In: de Fortman B.G., Martens K., Salih M.A.M. (eds) Hermeneutics, Scriptural Politics, and Human Rights. Palgrave Macmillan, New York

[4] The Guardian (2018, March) International Women’s Day 2018 – as it happened Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/live/2018/mar/08/international-womens-day-2018-live-protests-press-for-progress-live

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