Illustration by Alyazia Alremeithi

Islamophobia and the “Oppressive” Hijab

The hijab is not oppressive, its misrepresentation in Western media is.

Nov 10, 2018

Seven seconds. That is how long it takes to form an impression. Bar Refaeli had twenty seconds, almost three times as long, which she used to establish a negative and oppressive impression of Islam and Muslim women. That is twenty seconds that are now embedded in the minds of more than 240,000 viewers. She did this by ripping off a niqab, a form of hijab – or veil – as a portrayal of freedom, for a Hoodies advertisement. The advertisement reads “Freedom is Basic,” thereby directly associating the hijab with oppression and a restriction of freedom, rather than a decision made by women.
The permanence of the advertisement’s impression and its antagonistic and demeaning outlook on Islam is significant as Refaeli, an Israeli citizen, is idolized by many for being a strong female figure, with a prominent social media presence as a model and successful businesswoman. As a Muslim who wears the hijab, I remain in utter shock at the blatant Islamophobia of the advertisement, which promotes the idea that freedom and the hijab cannot coexist. The inaccuracy of this assumption highlights the fact that both Refaeli and Hoodies, have a limited understanding of the implications of wearing the hijab.
For many, including myself, the hijab is a source of comfort. It allows me to preserve my faith and is a reminder of my beliefs, principles and morals. The spiritual relationship between myself and my religion is strengthened by the daily commitment I make to the hijab.
“I wear [my hijab] because it allows me to feel more comfortable and confident within myself and my community,” said Tasnim Al Gergawi, Class of 2018.
The conscious yet careless choice made by the advertisement delivers a false message about Muslim women and ultimately belittles their agency and freedom of choice.
It is crucial, however, to acknowledge the cases in which women are forced to wear the hijab, as seen in various countries where the hijab is enforced by the government and used as a form of restriction. Additionally, it is often easy to forget that societal pressure to wear the hijab is derived from culture norms rather than religious mandate. Cultural norms in certain places prescribe that it is disrespectful and even disgraceful for females to be uncovered. Having grown up in the Middle East and raised as an Arab Muslim, I recognize that there is a taboo surrounding a woman removing her hijab. There is indeed an unspoken social obligation for women to wear the hijab. This is due to the way modesty is associated with honor and with a family’s reputation – a woman wearing the hijab is a symbol of an honorable family.
Oppression, however, occurs at the hands of humans, not the hijab. The hijab does not oppress, people do. As I watched the advertisement, an Arab idiom that has resonated with me since childhood ran through my mind,
تنتهي حريتك عندما تبدأ حرية الآخرين.
Your freedom ends when the freedom of another begins.
Refaeli’s freedom of expression stopped at the moment in which she imposed herself on the free will of Muslim women. The irony lies in the fact that while the advertisement was implying that women who wear the hijab lack freedom of choice, it stripped them from their right to decide if they were oppressed or express the supposed oppression themselves.
The advertisement fuels Islamophobia; the hatred and fear of people practicing Islam, which has shown statistical growth in recent years, particularly in the form of religious hate crimes. Reported incidents of Islamophobia have risen by 200 percent in the UK and 78 percent in the U.S. and continue to increase.
The misrepresentation of Islam that is often portrayed in the West is one filled with oppression, suffering and injustice that contrasts to what it is at the religion’s core: a religion of peace, love and freedom. The advertisement represents Muslim women as the other – it alienates an entire population due to their religious beliefs. The way that mass media disseminates hateful content and enables the marginalization of groups of people is appalling. This hateful rhetoric toward Muslims gives people permission to discriminate against them.
The representation of Muslims as an other gives people a sense of superiority and the permission to express hatred toward them. These effects are present in our everyday lives on a microcosmic level, whether or not they occur within our awareness. The hijab is not oppressive, its misrepresentation in the media and the Western imposition of judgement on the hijab is what is truly oppressive.
Stop oppressing Muslim women, stop using the hijab to diminish them, stop stripping them of their freedom.
Sara Afaneh is a staff writer. Email her at
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