The first thing that anyone speaking about the hijab (Islamic headscarf) should know is it's optionality. Muslim women, by no religious terms, are obligated to wear the headscarf or cover themselves entirely with a burqa with the exception of prayer times. The Islamic faith encourages modesty of the human body, meaning to have the legs, shoulders and stomach covered. Muslim women are free to interrupt that as they wish. That being said, some women take the modesty to a higher degree by covering themselves entirely with a loose dress called a burqa and using a veil to cover everything besides their eyes. Other Muslim women do not necessarily go to that extreme. In Pakistan, for example, Muslim women wear Shalwar Kameez which is the cultural dress and it consists of straight pants and a long shirt. Still abiding the religion, the women are free to wear Shalwar Kameez of whatever style, color and material they choose. It's an enormous fashion industry with it's own set of designers, models and entertainment. Similarly, in America, Muslim women dress trendily in western clothes -- jeans, blouses and blazers still accessorizing with their headscarves and still remaining modest. The cultural difference is the belief covering one's body up is oppression versus covering one's body up for the sake of secrecy, to prove something sacred.
The belief of a headscarf driving oppression or restriction for Muslim women is taken from the misconception that Islam is a religion that promotes male dominance. Islam itself is a religion that provides equality to both genders. The Qur'an says: "O mankind! Be careful of your duty to your Lord Who created you from a single soul and from it created its mate and from them twain hath spread abroad a multitude of men and women. Be careful of your duty toward God in Whom ye claim (your rights) of one another, and toward the wombs (that bear you)" (Qur'an 4:1). Before Islam was introduced to the area of Makkah in Saudi Arabia, daughters born to a family were considered a disgrace and buried alive. After the arrival of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) things changed. The Prophet, in delivering his message of the religion, granted females the same rights as men. However, corruption lies in human mistake and not every Muslim follows the religion word for word. Struggles arise.
Truth be told, what culture or community does not have the power struggle between men and women? Westerners strongly believe that they are granting freedom to the women of Islam through creating awareness for the "trap" their male-pleasing religion has strangled them in but aren't Americans struggling with the same thing? That is the message I took away from the cartoon drawing in which a woman in a bathing suit and a woman in a burqa are eyeing one another and questioning who is more suitable for males. Wanting to please men should not even be a factor of a community, culture or society. The ideals of a group of people should never revolve around the need to please a certain gender, race, or ethnicity. The ideals and values should be centered around what would work best for humans, regarding everyone as equal and taken into consideration.
As "The Ambivalence of the Veil" discusses, wearing the hijab, or keeping oneself covered extends from a sole religious purpose into a cultural purpose. "Today, depending who are you are the veil symbolizes control or defiance, oppression or autonomy, patriarchy or non-western communal values" (Young 80). This introduces that a woman believes keeping herself covered is for her beauty to solely be seen by those of worth, and not just by anyone. Her freedom and expression lie in her personality, aside from her physical attractiveness. Therefore physicality is not a matter of enough significance to be displayed constantly for these women. I am a Muslim. I do not wear a hijab unless I am praying. This does not take away from the strength of my faith because my faith has provided the extent to which I cover myself as an optional task. Still, I refrain from revealing much of my body. I do not wear dresses without covering my legs or sleeveless clothing. Contrary to popular belief, my dressing choices do not limit my activities. I can still go to the beach, parties, functions, events- anywhere, and continue to have a good time without this getting in the way. It's different going to the beach and seeing everyone essentially naked and wearing either a wetsuit or body suit made out of water-wear material. But a good type of different because it's a choice I've made for myself. I don't feel trapped nor oppressed because I am not conforming to what the majority of the area I live in is doing. If a westerner were to go to a beach in a heavily Muslim-populated area, they would feel extremely ashamed of themselves to be as uncovered as they are in adherence to their norm.
Yet, just because the intention of the Islamic dressing is not to oppress does not indicate that dressing and covering oneself up cannot be used for reasons of oppression. Reflecting upon the comic strip, "The Veil," by Satrapi, the headscarf was instituted upon the girls by force- dismantling them from their will and constricting their choice. The key point of this, though, is that the thing or reason of oppression wasn't religion in this situation. Encasing the girls was authority, a government standpoint that instructed the dress code by force. Restriction here has been placed upon the citizens through an authoritative stance, not a spiritual one. The problem of limitation through law exists anywhere in civilization. However, is the American judicial system the only thing standing in the way of Americans and their choice to run naked through the streets? The answer is no because even if nudity was permitted, not every American citizen would want for everyone to be able to see them naked. This does not come from a want for oppression, but rather because nudity comes with a degree of intimacy that individuals wish to keep special, not shared with just anyone.
Though on a different scale, that is the same mindset of women dressing themselves with modesty. To prove their worth through something other than their appearance.