By Farzana Hassan (Originally published April 15, 2016 on the Toronto SUN. Re-printed with permission)
News clips about “Hijabi Ice Princess” Zahra Lari have been making the rounds on social media, with captions saying she is “breaking barriers” and “melting the hearts” of television viewers.
Lari is a young woman from the United Arab Emirates making history as the first woman to compete in international figure skating while wearing a costume that, according to her, preserves Islamic modesty.
“I skate with the hijab. My costume is in line with Islamic tradition,” she says.
Actually it isn’t. One could even argue she is in stark violation of strict, Orthodox, Islamic requirements, despite her mother’s assertion Lari “hasn’t done anything anti-Islamic.”
Orthodoxy prescribes not only that Muslim women must show no skin; it also stipulates that clothes must not reveal the shape of a woman’s body, or draw attention to her in any way.
Lari’s tights and showy tops do not comply.
Of course none of this should matter and not just in professional sports.
But what it means is that if Lari is breaking barriers, it is not by wearing the hijab but rather by flouting the spirit of orthodox Islam’s strict regulations.
The simple and unpalatable truth for the Islamist lobby, who view her as a public relations gold mine, is that she would not be able to compete if she complied with the Islamist requirement to wear loose and drab clothing in public.
So what exactly is the hijab doing in all this?
Islamism — a political strain of Islam — wishes to establish its symbols and institutions in Canada and globally. The hijab is central to this.
Muslim women can supposedly do anything in a hijab, even figure skate competitively.
Women’s groups in Ottawa recently celebrated world hijab day, and many supportive non-Muslim Canadian women wore them.
Such solidarity is touching, but the way the hijab is promoted and glamorized promotes the kind of patriarchy Canadian women should abhor.
The hijab is a garment born of the most virulent strain of systematic misogyny, derived from cultures that consider women dependent on men for their livelihood and liberty.
This world view insists on falsely portraying women as temptresses who ought to be removed from public gaze, ostensibly because they risk being sexually assaulted.
Are we to conclude from Lari’s so-called breaking of barriers that all is fine for women in the Islamic world? That the centuries of discrimination – the oppressive sharia laws, the honour killings, the forced marriages, the polygamy, the genital mutilation – have disappeared?
Does Lari’s decision to participate in a figure skating competition mean most Muslim women have broken social barriers and acquired the power to make choices for themselves?
In fact, all the horrifying barriers to women remain in much of the Islamic world, where both the legal framework and social norms combine to make life miserable for millions of Muslim women.
Of course, Lari is entitled to aspire to skating success. But she is, inadvertently, sending the wrong message about the plight of Muslim women and has become a poster girl for the Islamist hijabi lobby.
Unfortunately, this has convinced even some liberal and moderate Muslims that her example is somehow a victory for Muslim women. The continuing oppression of women in much of the Muslim world shows this is clearly not the case.
Lari would have done better to disown the hijab as a symbol of patriarchy and insist on wearing what other skaters do.
That would have been courageous.
Farzana Hassan is a Pakistani-Canadian author, speaker, and human rights activist. She is a former President of the Muslim Canadian Congress.