In Depth

World Hijab Day 2018: women across the world don Islamic headscarf

Muslims and non-Muslims encouraged to join initiative to reduce negative stigma

Today is World Hijab Day, a worldwide initiative to fight negativity and discrimination against women who wear the Islamic head covering.

Women from 190 countries are expected to participate in the event, which encourages Muslims and non-Muslims alike to experience life as a hijabi (a woman who wears the hijab).

World Hijab Day is the brainchild of Nazma Khan, a US citizens who moved from Bangladesh to New York City with her family at the age of 11.

Khan told Al Jazeera that the prejudice and hostility she encountered as a hijab-wearing woman ramped up following the 9/11 attacks.

“I was chased, spit on, surrounded by men, called a terrorist, Osama bin Laden,” she said.

After discussions with other Muslim women who had undergone similar experiences, in 2013, Khan launched the first World Hijab Day.

The annual event expresses solidarity with Muslim women who wear the hijab, which has become a flashpoint for tensions between secular societies and religious Muslim communities within them.

In addition to a spate of “burka bans” targeting the full-face veil, several countries, including France, Egypt, Syria and Turkey, have seen social and legal debates about the place of the hijab in public life.

A report last year by the Council on American-Islamic Relations found that out of more than 350 Islamophobic hate crimes in the US in the first half of 2017, “15% described a Muslim woman’s headscarf as a trigger”, Mic reports.

Women of other faiths or none are also encouraged to don a headscarf for the day to gain insight and empathy for women who wear the hijab.

"By walking in my shoes for one day on February 1, women would see that I am no different from them,” Khan said.

Supporters of the initiative say it is does not push a certain interpretation of Islam or pressure Muslim women to cover their heads, but simply provides visible support and positivity to counter the stigma which surrounds the hijab in non-Muslim societies.

However, the event has been criticised within the Muslim community as giving succour to hardliners who see head coverings a mandatory element of Islam.

In 2016, Maajid Nawaz, founder of counter-extremist thinktank Quilliam, wrote in The Daily Beast that World Hijab Day ignored the complexities surrounding Islamic modesty codes which are enforced on millions of women, whether through legal or social pressure.

Nawaz added that progressive non-Muslim women were inadvertently playing into this agenda, urging them to remember that “their counterparts in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and under Taliban or Isis rule also require our solidarity in taking their hijabs off”. 

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