Is the Hijab a Symbol of Diversity or a Symbol of Oppression?

Coca cola hijabCoca-Cola’s America the Beautiful ad on Super Bowl Sunday aimed to be a celebration of diversity, showcasing the many ethnicities that make up our modern social fabric. Right wing pundits jumped on the ad as a symbol that White Christian America is under assault. Not surprisingly, the Left reacted by praising and sharing the ad all the more because Right wingers hated it.

To criticize the ad from the Left, then, is like rooting for the wrong team in the Super Bowl itself. But according to some liberal and secular Muslims, Coca-Cola did women no favor by choosing the hijab as one of their symbols of diversity.

Americans value diversity in part because it is a proxy for another cherished value: freedom. Different styles of clothing and hair, skin colors, and family configurations are symbolic reminders that here in America we are free to pursue our quirks and interests, to become the best we can be, to love whom we love, and to worship (or not) as we see fit.

But for many secular Muslims and former Muslims, the hijab is not a symbol of freedom. It is a symbol of the fact that women in Islam are second class citizens and that this status is encoded in both sacred text and tradition, enforced by culture and law. The hijab lies at one end of a continuum with the burka, a portable fabric wall that prevents subject women from engaging fully with the world, and vice versa. It is a reminder that for millennia women have been chattel–literally property of men–and that this is the case in all of the Abrahamic sacred texts including the Bible and the Koran. This is why, in the Bible a rapist can be forced to buy and keep the damaged property. It is why, just last month in Dubai, a raped Austrian woman was told to marry her rapist.

For tens of millions of women around the world, Islamic head covering and isolation are not a matter of choice. In India, the practice of Purdah—keeping women shut away in walled compounds—has been a part of the culture since the time of the Mughal conquest. In Iran, Afghanistan, and some parts of Saudi Arabia women face fines, beatings, and worse for daring to show their hair. Before the U.S. deposed Saddam Hussein, Iraq had one of the highest rates in the Middle East of women in Ph.D. programs. Today, a woman with her head uncovered in some parts of Baghdad may be a target.

Many women claim that they wear the hijab voluntarily, and surely some do. But for others, such statements simply mask the overweening power of internalized ideology and of men. Faisal Saeed Al Mutar is a Washington D.C. based writer and the founder of Global Secular Humanist Movement who emigrated from Iraq. His life experience makes him skeptical about the hijab as a symbol of religious freedom:

Many women who wear the Hijab even in Western countries are forced to wear it due to a pressure from society or their families. I personally know of cases in which women have been beaten up or rejected by their families for refusing to wear the Hijab. My Egyptian friend Reem Abdul Razak was disowned by her father for taking the veil away. An Iraqi friend was kicked out from the house for refusing to wear the hijab any longer even though her reasons were not primarily anti-religious but rather because of the extreme summer heat in Iraq.

More insidious, perhaps, is the kind of psychological pressure that leads a woman to submit without question to practices that she otherwise would reject. Vyckie Garrison is a former member of the Christian Quiverfull movement, in which women are expected to birth as many babies as God deigns to give them. For years, as Garrison dutifully bore seven children at repeated risk to her life, she perceived that she participated in the movement willingly, even joyfully. Now founder of the blog No Longer Quivering, she looks back on those years through a different pair of eyes. Specifically, Garrison rues her inability to see how her own desires had been manipulated.

Quiverfull leaders such as Nancy Campbell are masters at SPIN. Playing on a woman’s sincere desire to serve the Lord wholeheartedly … they use the scriptures to convince a woman that she WANTS nothing more than to stay home, have lots of babies and serve her husband – even if these choices might cost her everything.

Garrison has written a series of articles on the question whether women like her who “choose” such roles, for example Michelle Duggar, are actually doing so freely.

In the same way that the fundamentalist Christian God allows people to exercise their free will by choosing between worshipping and serving Him or else burning in Hell forever – the Quiverfull woman must make the decision to trust God and perhaps die physically, or trust in the Pill and her own common sense – and die spiritually for all eternity. That’s not a choice – it’s an ultimatum.

When a Christian woman realizes that such a role is not for her, she often needs help and support from others who have found a way out. Dr. Marlene Winell is a California psychologist who works full time with “reclaimers” – people who are leaving conservative Christianity and rebuilding their lives. Among other things, she helps to connect clients with likeminded communities because, like Al Mutar’s friends who refused the hijab, many are rejected or shunned by Christian relatives. This can leave them alone, depressed, and destitute. When a situation crosses over into abuse, Winell works with them to get appropriate assistance and protection.

Al Mutar would like to see similar assistance and protections put in place in the U.S. so that women who are subject to Islamic edicts such as hijab against their will would have options.

I suggest creating a help line or a foundation to help those who are forced, giving them safe houses to escape to. A similar foundation was set up to prevent female genital mutilation by Ayan Hirsi Ali, and the AHA Foundation gets calls and emails on daily basis from desperate women.

Both England and France have higher rates of Muslim immigration that the U.S. and more open debate about hijab and other traditions that keep Muslim women covered or isolated from men. A French short movie that went viral recently explored sexism by having men play the parts of women. In one scene the protagonist arrives at his daycare to find that his provider (another man) is now wearing hijab at his wife’s request. The awkward scene is oddly poignant.

Maryam Namazie is a former Muslim who runs the “One Law For All” Campaign in England. Despite receiving death threats, Namazie is outspoken about equal rights for women, including the right for women to leave Islam and for Islamic women to dress as they choose. In recent months, when conservative Muslims in London won the right to gender segregated seating in university halls, Namazie organized secular Muslims and fought back.

Al Mutar sees the American Left as oddly naïve about the religion of his birthplace, not only about hijab and the freedom of women, but about freedom in and from Islam more broadly. He draws an analogy between the Islam of the 21st Century and the Christianity of the Dark Ages, pointing to the thirteen Muslim dominated countries in which atheists are subject by law to the death penalty. He points to the nonexistence of gay rights and even the religiously sanctioned murder of gays in places like Saudi Arabia and Iran. He points to Morocco, which drops criminal penalties for rape as long as the rapist marries his victim. He points to how religious minorities are treated in places like Pakistan. He finds it painful that so often Western liberals—in reaction to the militarism and xenophobia on the Right—side against Middle Eastern liberals who share their quest for freedom and equality.

I understand the liberal impulse to respect multiculturalism, but aren’t human rights more important than cultures? Humans have rights, cultures don’t, cultures evolve and reform. Liberal friends and allies ask churches and pastors to accept gay rights and women’s rights. It is disrespectful and even racist to ask any less of mosques and Muslim leaders.


Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of Subscribe to her articles at

Related at AwayPoint:
15 Bible Texts Reveal Why “God’s Own Party” is at War with Women
Was the Risen Jesus Originally Female?
What the Bible Says About Rape and Rape Babies

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About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt and Deas and Other Imaginings. Founder -
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37 Responses to Is the Hijab a Symbol of Diversity or a Symbol of Oppression?

  1. “I understand the liberal impulse to respect multiculturalism, but aren’t human rights more important than cultures?”

    Valerie, your post made me weep. This is a question I have asked for so long — aren’t human rights more important than cultures? YES they are! The video was excellent as well. It captured the essence of dehumanization so common in cultures and accepted as normal. When our country allies with countries that oppress at least half its citizens, the strong message it sends is that culture and resources are more important than human rights. It sends the message that America is not much different. And sadly, it’s not.

    • mriana says:

      Yes, I have thought the same. I consider myself a liberal, but when it comes to the hijab (some are pretty) and esp the berka, I often think about the psychological effects it has on women and how dehumanizing it is. I think one can fight for human rights and still be a liberal. Not all cultural practices are humane to humans or other animals (halal foods for example) and I think those are the practices that need to change, but that doesn’t mean one can’t be a liberal just because they fight for humane treatment of others. I think true liberals have historically fought for human rights (ie Abolitionists), despite outcries concerning “culture”. Slavery was once a cultural practice, still is in some places on earth, yet it was liberals/human rights activists that fought against it, esp in the U.S. and I also suspect in the U.K., which abolished slavery long before the U.S. did.

      • “…but that doesn’t mean one can’t be a liberal just because they fight for humane treatment of others.”

        I concur. For clarification purposes, my comment wasn’t focused on liberals. It was focused on society’s propensity to allow culture to trump human rights.

      • mriana says:

        Ah, yes. Various cultures do have the propensity to trump human rights, esp when religious views are involved. Even when the Abolitionists were fighting against slavery and the Civil War occurred, border states fought brother against brother (some in my ancestry) concerning slavery/State’s rights and Southern State screamed “State’s Rights” and some even shouted it was cultural and even religious views they pulled out of the Bible concerning slavery. I see this as no different, except we are talking about women’s rights and not just human rights. All too often, when there are human rights abuses, the abusers often scream about culture and religion and those who don’t wish to trample on cultures, seem to fall prey to the cultural argument. It is good that the liberals prior to 1866 didn’t fall prey to the “cultural” argument or we might still have slavery in this country. I think the “cultural” argument is one of fallacy, just as the “don’t insult my religion” is a fallacy. Fallacy arguments/statements often fail and I suspect this one concerning the berka and hijab will one day fail too.

      • I think cultural tradition and religious authority are pretty standard claims when people are trying to go up against our deepening understanding of human rights (and rights for other species.)

  2. hqas says:

    Thanks for your wonderful post. Indeed in today’s times, Islam has become a symbol of dehumanization and degradation of humanity. But, the WESTERN foreign policies of “saving the native women from the cruel, barbaric native Muslim men” by invading sovereign countries likes Afghanistan, Iraq and sadly my home country like Pakistan through its drone programs is hypocritical and counterproductive at its best. Malala a good native is feted because she was saved by the WEST from Talibans, but Pakistani drone activist Nabila was snubbed royally because she was not a good native and spoke against the American evil strategy that ensured grandma died in drone attack. The western media’s portrayal of evil Muslim men is hilarious and this mentality of saving us from hijab and our men is a justification of going to war for western interests.Europe has totally gone berserk, take a look at
    Frankly, I do not need naked bobs to save me, because I know its possible to practice Islam and champion women’s rights at the same time.

    • mriana says:

      That website you linked to concerning Europe, that’s another form of extremism. There is, IMO, such as one extreme to the other and they are, IMO, two sides of the same coin. War is also extremism, esp when it is not used as the last resort, when differences cannot be solved, but going into a country and killing people (in the name of war) in order to fight again inhumane treatment of others, is IMO not the answer. I think there are better ways, and one of the many different non-violent ways to fight for human rights, is what Valerie is doing- writing. Harriet Beecher Stowe, for example, did the same and her book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” has often been included in the history of Abolition. Government sanctions and refusing to trade with a country until they stop inhumane practices is another means.

  3. Ms. Tarico seems genuine in her concern for women’s rights. However, her framing of Muslim women’s clothing as a symbol of oppression is misguided. The oppression of women within an immigrant minority can be real. But what of the oppression of this entire minority by the majority? And why attack the oppression of women within an immigrant community by calling for yet more restrictions on these same women?

    And while it is true that religious minorities are terribly oppressed in Pakistan, how is banning an article of clothing in the USA going to improve their situation? Regarding the treatment of women in Iraq, does the writer not understand the reasons Iraq changed from a nation with considerable freedom for women, to one where women are afraid to venture outside without a complete veil — reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with religion? In sum, I find this focus on decrying Muslim women’s clothing choices to be misguided.

    • Greetings – Your reaction puzzles me. I made no suggestion that hijab should be banned in the U.S., nor did the article address only immigrant women. I have no problem with choices–the whole point of the article is questioning the extent to which women who are shrouded in one form or another have the freedom to choose.

      • Yes ma’am. In a nutshell, it seems to me that a humanism which isn’t at least somewhat multicultural is untenable. Such a humanism also seems likely to be hijacked by other other agendas, in my opinion.

  4. mriana says:

    The video is no longer available because the YouTube account has been removed. (Gee, I wonder why? Too many complaints about it?) However, I found it, posted by Coca-cola, here: (I happened to like viewing it and enjoyed the different languages.)

    A woman from another country and raped in an Islamic country should not be forced to marry her rapist and I do hope she refused by getting the hell out of dodge and back to her own country or at least managed to get to her embassy. If she couldn’t then death would be preferable than being forced to marry her rapist, only to be raped again and again, causing her more mental and physical trauma. That’s not even talking about the force religion imposed upon her to submit to whether she wants to or not, because in that case, religion would be forcefully imposed, subjugating her to a second class citizen, if not less. Again, death would be preferable than that, if she could not escape and return to her country. Sort of reminds me of “Give me liberty or give me death” and in such cases, that statement would very much be a reality.

  5. I think one of the reasons that liberals aren’t speaking up is the pervasiveness of patriarchal thought. The issue doesn’t affect straight men. This attitude pervades the social sciences, and supports the idea of culture being more important than human rights.

  6. Stephen Voss says:

    The original and still basic reason for women to cover themselves is the abysmal attitudes of the men who see them. I dream of a religion that goes to the root and requires men to blindfold themselves while allowing women to wear what they want. For just this reason among others, a great majority of women who cover themselves choose to do so. However benighted you may think them, most Muslim women freely choose to be Muslim, and any progressive person will respect this. If it is wrong for their father or husband to compel them to be covered, it is equally wrong for the French parliament (e.g.) to compel them not to be: just one more case of rich powerful males telling impoverished women of color how to live their lives. Both sides of this story need to be heard!

  7. eslkevin says:

    Reblogged this on Eslkevin's Blog and commented:
    I think the question at the end of the piece is relevant but I come to a different answer than the author.–kas

    • hqas says:

      Finally very valid points that make great sense, but I also dislike this bigotry within white feminism that ignores Muslim feminists that don’t wear hijabs as opposed to all the hype about the ex-hijabi, the ex muslim etc etc.
      I wonder what’s behind this?

  8. Allan and Merry Avery says:

    Valerie, Absolutely the BEST! You are the most knowledgable and committed person I have ever encountered. I can only dream of how you do it. After your broken bone situation- (I hope sure hope I’m not violating confidence here!) you have recovered your form unfathomably. Myself, I’m overstressing w/my current, somewhat sharp, mobility and strength decline (at a mere and unacceptable 77 yo). For the moment have set aside narrow pursuit of my “Mantra” quest: What’s a perhaps new, effective “action path” to mutual listening, hearing, understanding, negotiation and peaceful acceptance anf life together in our global diversity? To preserve my sanity meanwhile, I bookmarked “MeetUp” to look for compatible “freethinker, science-disposed, at least “Tentative Atheist” groups down my way here east of Tacoma. Just to find more accessible like minded friends. Our neighbors and volunteer mates are fine, and very good folks; but like-minded, not so much. (Any such people or groups you know of? All but a couple of our former such friends are up Seattle way, from before we moved south to “down cost.”)

    • Hi Alan –

      I know that the folks who do the “Ask an Atheist” radio show are based in Tacoma. You might poke around on their site and see if there is any on the ground community related with the show: .

      • Allan Avery says:

        Valeire, Thanks; and I will. BTW I meant, and forgot, to include in my “post” a bit more about your “Honorary Comic Strip,” or Comic “Book.” I was thinking on “paper.” But it could of course (also) be digital. You’d be, perhaps, “Wonder Real World Woman,” with all the Wonder Woman powers, and more; but with a more dignified costume. Your likeness would be imaged, and it would be in your “voice” on the (selected and much abbreviated) AwayPoint content. Now, I’m thinking even YOU may not have the energy molecules to do both that and WayPoint personally. But surely there is someone among your acolytes (we your readers) or your “staff” :-)
        someone with cartoon drawing capability who could apprentice with you to learn the “voice.” (Eventually, even, you would not have to narrate a digital version.) (It’s Not me, I have neither the talent nor the brain cells left.) One of your added “powers” would be: “Able to penetrate and instantly vaporise any person’s ideological “shell,” no? Maybe She would not go so far as insert superior, substitute viewpoints. On step at a time, rather.
        OK, I’ll stop. But only half in jest.

  9. deminthon says:

    Hmm … I see a lot of “liberals this” and “liberals that” from various quarters, but all the liberals and leftists I know are deeply opposed to oppression and don’t accept “culture” as a justification for it. This cuts both ways — neither should women be coerced (by force or propaganda) to wear hijabs nor should the wearing of hijabs be outlawed.That’s not a case of Western liberals siding against Middle Eastern liberals and I’m let wondering what is — let alone “so often”.

    • Allan Avery says:

      Deminthon: Though my elderly brain doesn’t have room for another Blog besides my One-and-only: AwayPoint, I guessing “You’re Good.” And likely also among us who personally groan over the willfully-abused lables “Liberal” and “Conservative.” I’d fall into the “Hard Core Liberal” class. (My beloved, Christian son says “Naw Dad, you’re a Progressive.” As he himself is. OK I’m that too.) Except, I honestly Believe- (but “Tentatively,” like I try to remember about all my “fundamental” Belief; I’m a heavily “real science leaning” guy)- that I am also Capital C Conservative. That is, in accord with the original and “essential” meanings of Conservative: “Attempt to judge what seems to work ‘best’ for the most fundamental of Human goals; keep that, and expand on it. I.e: Currently No 1: Human Specie’s literal survival. Defend and repair the ecosphere. Second and concurrently: Build a peaceful, egalitarian (sp?), tolerant, Worldwide Community for us all to survive in. With reasonable “Top” common “value” and “cultural” standards, in our (probably necessarily) great diversity. Oh Yeah! That one: barely fathomable. (And acknowledging that unlimited personal and communal separatism is obviously problematic.) But that’s what the Goal is. So then, Conservative does not mean preference for keeping things the way they are, nor fear of Change, and personal loss; (which is big on the “Right”). And here I am; a tentatively hopeful conservative liberal. Like all the rest of us realists.

      Actually my first inclination to comment here was one of my “shorter,” flipant, (sp? again- where’s auto correct when I need it), smart-alec comments, to wit: “Among the things I ‘tentatively Hate:’ All Advertising! In any/all media!” Especially In this context because it is such a powerful, the Opposite-of-Constructive, cultural force. In a million ways. Now then, I take back “Hate.” Of course I really meant “Disapprove of, and personally, intentionally try to avoid or ignore.” Easy to have strong opinions about most everything. And forget to think before acting on them. WOW. If y’all have read all this you’re Super Patient. Something I need; also to learn to write short.

      • deminthon says:

        I read it all but it doesn’t seem to have much, if anything, to do with what I wrote, which was directed at the OP … but she doesn’t seem interested in expanding on her innuendo about western liberals siding against middle eastern liberals.

  10. Allan Avery says:

    Mr or Ms Deminthon, So sorry for missing your point. Y’all are absolutely Right. The Hajib must not be outlawed. And, however, you’re dead wrong if you actually believe that it, and various other Religious attire standards, are not in fact widely Opressive. Most especially girls and women, in a very substantial proportion of adherents to those numerous, respective Religions. Actually, my rather long piece has “everything to do” with what apparently may be your thesis: “Nothing must be prohibited if it is a requirement of my, or any, Religion.” Pehaps your aren’t interested in the more fundamental of “realities,” and the fundamental Human Action” Project” they pose to us. In the “longer run” goal of a peaceful and surviving Global Human community, (supposing we repair the “ecoshpere” in time to give ourselves the chance), you may be assured that there Will be considerable compromise among all our current “Tribes” sharply differing wishes concerning “Highest Common Standards.” Without that, for so long as we and our fellow species can migrate to higher ground to survive, we’ll otherwise go on murdering one another in vast numbers. Count on it. No doubt your views are way more varied and complex than my “retort” here may imply. Mine are mine too. I think I now “get” your first point; now for you to get mine. To survive we MUST learn to actually hear one another, vastly better. (Me included.) In order for us to fully understand what’s at stake, and to comprehend the “Type” and the extant of Compromise it will require. That “Type” of compromise must ultimately be founded on “Reality.” The actual Nature- and “Physics,” and all the Sciences of the Universal Reality. Hardest of all for “true believers.” We all must be prepared to be “Tentative” Believers, while Science goes on investigating, to identify “Real” additional “higher” Forces, if any. The “Extent” of the necessary Compromise will follow from that Reality. Even to me (not a Scientist), and I suspect must of our “ilk.” We might well “Tentatively Thank Our Lucky Stars” for that. Cheers.

    • Thanks Allan –

      To me it seems obvious that it is impossible for civil society to exist if demands of religions trump civil or criminal law simply because some religion demands them.

      • Allan Avery says:

        Valerie, I’m taking up way more of your time than my share. “If only some large, sufficiently “actionable,” proportion of all folks thought the same as you and I.”
        My personal belief- (still “Tentative” but now only by, say,10 percent such)- is that we Humans had better “Go All In, worldwide, in collective self-responsibility with no expectation of a ‘higher power. Unless and until Science finds some evidence that there is or could be significantly new “entity,” in thus far known “fundamental natural reality,” and has a chance to further investigate that. Since that is likely to take a way looong time, (if ever), We’d better repair and save our ecosphere pronto! (One could easily find this kind of talk depressing, but that doesn’t help. Gott’a be positive and keep on thinking. BTW, I’m not sure I’m still getting all new Away Points by email. Maybe Ill “re-subscribe” to be sure. And don’t let me take up much of your time! :-)

      • deminthon says:

        “To me it seems obvious that it is impossible for civil society to exist if demands of religions trump civil or criminal law simply because some religion demands them.”

        Of course … but this overlooks civil and criminal law that exist just to oppress people, whether they be gays, hajib wearers, whatever. It is oppression by religion AND by government AND by corporations AND by “cultural tradition” and by any other source than genuine liberals / progressives oppose.

    • deminthon says:

      “you’re dead wrong if you actually believe that it, and various other Religious attire standards, are not in fact widely Opressive”

      Um, what part of “neither should women be coerced (by force or propaganda) to wear hijabs” don’t you understand?

      Meanwhile, Ms. Tarico has yet to support her smear of liberals.

      • mriana says:

        Where did she smear liberals? Define liberals? Liberal doesn’t mean that one needs to be a doormat. One can be a human rights and animal welfare person without going to the opposite extreme of the Right and still be a liberal. I’m very liberal, but I do see violations in women/human rights when something is forced on a person. To accept such things as one wearing a berka as a culture thing is like accepting slavery is a culture thing. Might I remind you that Abolitionists were liberals, but they did not accept “cultural” as something to not fight against slavery.

      • deminthon says:

        “Where did she smear liberals?”

        You could simply search for the word.

      • mriana says:

        Deminthon, what/which word? I’m a liberal and don’t feel as thought Valerie smeared liberals at all. I have no clue what you are getting at when you say she smeared liberals. See, not all liberals support women wearing garbage bags, but that doesn’t mean we don’t support the women in the bags and hope to one day see them liberated from the bags and religious dogma. Thus, I have no clue what you’re getting at when you say she smeared liberals. I think you maybe referring to the brainless doormats as liberals who think women should be free (when they really are not) to wear the bags if they want. I don’t consider that being liberal, but rather a mindless doormat, who could easily be swayed by religious views, thinking of it as “culture”, when it is not. They can have their non-thinking ways, but I wouldn’t call them liberals. If that’s what you mean by liberals, then maybe Valerie did, but if you mean liberals as I defined in my previous post, then no she did not smear liberals.

      • deminthon says:

        “Deminthon, what/which word? ”

        Are you an imbecile? The word is “liberal”, and I addressed this months ago at

      • Greetings – This is to let you know that I will be deleting this and subsequent comments (not just yours) that consist in whole or part of ad hominims or insults.

  11. Pingback: Unveiled: Three Former Muslim Women Look Back on the Hijab | Nosmerca

  12. Pingback: On Discussing the Hijab and Including Ex-Muslims | The Eternal Bookshelf

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