I just read a couple of really interesting articles from a May edition of the Economist about women, head scarves and coverings of various kinds in the international Muslim community. The first article I read discusses the fact that there are many different connotations to a head scarf or other types of coverings, such as the burqa or niqab. In addition, within the Muslim world, there is controversy over the different forms of headgear. For example, according to the article, the late senior Muslim cleric of Egypt, Sayed Tantawi, told an 11-year-old girl to remove her niqab because it was un-Islamic. According to some, these types of coverings for women are simply cultural and have nothing to do with Islam.
Another interesting point mentioned in the article is that for many women wearing a headscarf can be a liberating experience. In some places and traditional communities, such as in rural Turkey, wearing a headscarf can actually make it easier for women to be active in public.
In still other situations and places, wearing a headscarf is so commonplace that it doesn’t have much meaning, and has become little more than a fashion accessory.
My point in writing this is not to defend the headscarf or any other type of headgear for women. I just think that as outsiders looking in at this issue, it seems a black-and-white case of women being oppressed by men and a religion that makes them wear overly restrictive clothes. But I think its important to keep in mind that 1. there are many reasons why women are covering themselves, 2. not all women wearing head scarves, etc. are doing so against their will; there are those (possibly many) who are actively making the choice to wear head coverings, and 3. there are many cultures, education levels, socio-economic classes, and countries involved in this issue, as well as many different sects and denominations within the Islamic community, some religious, political, or a mix of the two. Therefore, it’s complicated.
To me, as a casual observer and armchair theorist on the issue, it seems that there are greater things to worry about than what some women are wearing. I think the more pressing matter is making sure that women have economic freedom, can work and keep their own earnings, and that they have access to education and protection under the law. These are the things that are important for all women around the world, not just in Islamic countries. These are the real things that are needed for women to be empowered. Then they can decide to wear whatever they want, I imagine.