The hijab still makes Western societies squirm. Passing someone wearing the Islamic headscarf is too often seen as proof that Muslim women are “docile, oppressed, silenced,” notes Hend Amry, a practicing Muslim and activist who writes about why she wears a hijab.
But, for better or worse, things are changing.
Entire new lines of products are now being touted for Muslim women who want to cover their hair in public — and live a modern, active life: You’ve got H&M with model Mariah Idrissi wearing a hijab in a major campaign; Nike launching a line of hijabs for working out; and even Pepsi’s infamous failure of a video ad featuring a woman wearing a hijab.
Though these new products were met with great fanfare, not everyone was impressed (and not just because Pepsi’s ad was so bad). To some degree, it’s a question of perspective — and geography. Activists from predominantly Muslim countries who have made it a political act not to wear one, don’t appreciate the new marketing push.
“I think the media in the West want to normalize the hijab issue,” Iranian activist Masih Alinejad told the BBC. “They want to talk about minority Muslims in the West, but they totally forget there are millions of women in Muslim countries that are forced to wear the hijab.”
A recent advertisement from Malaysian hair care company Neutri-C showed a woman shampooing her hair ... while still wearing a hijab. Beyond being mocked on social media, the video raised the real issue of how to advertise to women in Malaysia, where roughly 70% of the adult female population covers their hair.
Clearly the question for women’s rights inside and outside the Muslim world goes well beyond headscarves. And change may indeed be afoot. In Abu Dhabi, for example, women — like one who shared her story with Munich-based Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper — get divorced at the same rate as Germany, countering the “the clichéd image many still have of an Arab woman, of someone forced into marriage, oppressed and wearing a full hijab.”
Ultimately, the fate of Muslim women is linked to their sisters everywhere, and the solution won’t be found on Madison Avenue. One 16-year-old boxer from Minnesota named Amaiya Zafar, who fought for her right to don a hijab in the ring, said it best: “All girls should have a chance.”