One of the biggest mistakes people make when talking about Muslim women, rather than talking to Muslim women, is to assume that Muslim women are all the same, think the same, to ignore the diversity of thought, experience, opinion. Don’t condescend to the women, call them oppressed or slaves. Understand their mindset. So many of them are fiercely intelligent. One of my best students a young woman who covered her face. I struggled all semester but her intelligence still shone through. As for the idea that their voices are missing from public debate, this isn’t true either. They speak, but nobody listens to them. Search out their voices. They are there. Start here: http://sister-hood.com
I found this essay by the Pakistani writer Maniza Naqvi on the hijab very passionately argued and provocative. I’m reproducing it here as a guest post.
I invite you to tell me why I am wrong. I wrote similar post on Facebook and now want to engage you here in this debate. So tell me am I wrong and why.
The issue about the hijab, burka and now burkini is not simply about its presence on the beach or in public institutions and spaces including schools, or about the presence of Islam in public spaces in Europe or about freedom of choice there. The issue is about the hijab, burka and burkini becoming the symbol of Islam and all that there is about Islam. A garment now defines Islam. A cloth, has become Islam. The issue is that modesty and virtue have been reduced to the abundance or lack of abundance of a garment. And that indeed is a shame.
It isn’t that the space for hijabs and niqabs is threated to be reduced. It is Islam that is being reduced. Reduced to a piece of cloth. And who is responsible for this?
Those responsible for doing so are Muslim women who wear it. Indeed it is about misogyny and patriarchy. Those who promote it are women. And they are predominantly articulating themselves to the West. They are reducing themselves, reducing the air around them, the light, the conversation, and they are reducing the faith that they profess to belong to by this reductionist action.
They have reduced Islam to a piece of cloth. There were two American Muslim women who participated in the Olympics and won medals. NBC and the media only played up and focused on one. Yup, the one wearing the hijab. Regularly, those women invited to speak about Muslims or Islam or represent Muslims are wearing hijabs. Those appointed and recruited to police and surveil and provide security duties are in hijab. Why?
Modesty, virtue and religion now symbolized by hijabs, pre-Islamic tribal garb for men and women. So are the women who are Muslim who do not wear this garb, not Muslim? Not modest? Not virtuous?
Is the hijab, burka, niqab, abaya and now the burkini a symbol of Islam and of religion?
Or is it a prop for communicating modesty and religiosity. The women that I know who wear hijabs wear them because they think it’s conveys religion and modesty. All of them are new to wearing the hijab. Most of them have something to hide or to not deal with intellectually. They are hiding, their sense of ugliness, they are hiding aging, they think it’s a way to instantly communicate that they are not only Muslim but also good Muslims, it allows them an easy pass through their neighborhood streets that are controlled by thugs and bullies, they are transmitting a demand or a plea to be treated better or differently than everyone else, they are hiding past bad behavior and keeping that tendency under check. It hides the shame of old clothes and not being able to keep up with the Jones. It helps women emerge from deeply patriarchal and authoritarian relationships and families. Whatever. It hides. There are a myriad of reasons for wearing the hijab. And all of them are deeply lazy and narcissistic.
The niqab deceives. It deceives foremost its wearer. The hijab and the niqab do not relay modesty or humility, they relay the opposite. It is a deeply narcissistic act that screams look at me! Look how different I am. Look how virtuous! I don’t need to do anything else to prove how good and moral I am. It allows a woman to hide her own idol, herself, inside her cover.
So a good Muslim woman wears a hijab or a niqab? Ask these women and push comes to shove they’ll say yes. They will indeed sit in judgement of other Muslim women, who don’t.
The police on the beach gave the woman a ticket and fined her for ‘not respecting good morals and secularism.” Poor putz of a policeman simply carrying out the decree of the Mayor, ends up scribbling and mixing up good morals with secularism. One a religious concept and the other supposedly not. So in doing so the police on the beach in Nice becomes the morality police—which has very little to do with secularism unless secularism in France means being naked. Not everyone being naked. Just women. Preferably only the good bits. Bare breasted women. That’s secularism?
Or did the policeman by writing ‘Not respecting of good morals’ actually inadvertently point to something very basic—a piece of garment is not the symbol of faith nor of goodness. It is in fact the symbol that you are weak of faith and goodness and must cloak yourself.
Nakedness. Nothing to hide. Open societies, bodies and minds. That’s a pretty good definition of morality and secularism isn’t it? Indeed the policeman shames the fully clothed woman, forcing her to take off her covering. Shames her in the name of good morality and secularism and does while being heavily clothed with body armor and had weapons. Did he reach deep inside his intellect and calling upon the entire Western Canon? Canon by the way, I have just learned, comes from the Arabic word, caanoon. Meaning, law. Come to think of it—modesty and morality for the French State is therefore the definition of what the Abrahamic God intended it to be—one where nakedness is the perfect state—and the unease with it—Shame, a crime.
Or does secularism in France mean ‘not Muslim’ Europe is being goaded to turn on itself, divide itself along religious lines. But this is not a fight within Europe. It is a conflict between women and their judgements of each other.
Wear what you want to but don’t tell me you do so in the name of ‘modesty’. Who decides what modesty is and what is virtue? Someone dressed in a burkini, hijab, burqa, or niqab? I say no. Do not argue the case of wearing a burkini or anything else in the name of modesty. If you do this then you are providing a judgement on what constitutes modesty and virtue and that those who do not don this garb are immodest.
It can be argued that a hijab, a niqab, a burka and abaya is a heightened and elevated sense of immodesty and titillation, bordering on pornography. It is a prop that constantly introduces sex and the danger of being raped into the public sphere when no such idea is even present. It suggests in a public sphere that a woman is covered because she is in danger of being molested or that if she were uncovered she would incite a molestation of her. Covered in the public sphere as these women who are wearing niqabs and burkas in Europe and the US where there is no social or cultural history for its presence these women are introducing the concept of being constantly stalked or in sexual danger or being the cause of it if they were uncovered. It is if not ridiculous, psychologically unstable. To cover herself is to suggest a constant pre-occupation with sex.
OH MY GOD! Oh my God what am I saying? How insulting of me! Is it? I am only repeat what we know from the Old Testament, the Bible and the Koran–what God said to Adam and Eve when God deported them, exiled them to earth, threw them out of Paradise–for their transgression, their loss of innocence–meaning their loss of equality, their loss of a sense of unawareness of any difference between them–a loss of their sense of freedom, their loss of an ultimate superiority which today we refer to as feminism. The acceptance of the burka and niqab is an acceptance of a loss of freedom, not its expansion.
If at a society’s level it is accepted that the covering from head to toe of a woman is her freedom of choice—to separate herself out and not interact with others, see them, but not be seen, create an unfair and unjust environment, a conversation that is only and only a perversion of sexuality, then why does she chose this? Does she make a moral judgement? The answer will be yes. Women who wear this, point falsely to religion for reason. They make a false claim to religion as well as to morality. Our ethics demand that she not impose her morality or the lack of it in our public spaces on us.
For to allow a woman in a full cover, the niqab and burka, to do so, makes her exception, the rule, her judgement valid and makes us all immoral, non-secular and unethical.
This collage of photographs really doesn’t need much explanation. On the left, women in Saudi-style abayas and niqabs. They’ve been convinced or coerced into wearing this uniform. They’ve been told that this is the way to paradise. Or they’ve been threatened with violence, or fines and jail if they don’t comply. For many of them, this is the only way to leave the house.
On the right, the beautiful array of traditional clothing for women that you can find all over Muslim countries. Not one of these outfits is immodest or obscene. Some include a head covering, some don’t. Yet they have all been deemed sinful, and a deliberate effort is going on to suppress and erase women’s traditional clothing (and in many cases, men’s, in favor of the Arab-style thobe and skullcap).
This is not Islam. This is cultural imperialism, mixed with misogyny.
As Inas Younis wrote in her deeply insightful essay “The Moderate Muslim Misogynist,”
…he too believes that God has created him to be a rational being, except when it comes to his sexual capacity, where he is totally helpless and inclined by nature to gravitate towards the path of least resistance. And to prevent him from falling into the deplorable world governed by loose women, he demands that all women exercise whatever degree of modesty he needs to maintain a state of chemical castration. All women must, for the benefit of preserving his dignity, and the dignity of his society, act as one organism and not as individuals. In some places this is taken so literally that all women are legally required to dress exactly the same. In other societies they are expected to be completely desexualized. Naturally this has had the opposite effect, by hyper- sexualizing the most benign and innocent expressions of female beauty. And if a woman should step out and express her individuality, it is perceived as an invitation to violently put her in her place.
I read those words yesterday, but it was the photograph above that really made it hit home. Younis goes on to write, about Muslim women who take part in this travesty, “Nevertheless, women in Islam continue to fulfill their part of the social contract, by feigning weakness as a sign of spiritual strength.” But Muslim women who take up the abaya and niqab by choice also are complicit in the lie perpetuated by misogynists (who can be found the world over) that they are responsible for keeping men from sinning, by erasing every inch of their bodies so that they do not tempt men.
I have met women who attended Al-Huda classes who refused to wear perfume for fear of arousing strange men, as if men would turn around and sexually assault them if they got a whiff of Chanel No 5. In some countries women’s voices are silenced from public broadcasts because of the fear that men will become aroused listening to them. Salafi interpretations of the Quran add to the verses instructing women to draw their outer clothes over themselves with a parenthetical instruction to cover their faces entirely so that only one eye can see the way.
When Muslim women believe in this sort of nonsense, they imprison themselves, and they insult men. They deprive men of the opportunity to practice exerting self-control over themselves. They do not allow men to deal with their temptations and conquer them and emerge better men. Even our prophets had to deal with these very human urges and control themselves. By hiding themselves away, women contribute to the sexual immaturity and underdevelopment of the men in their society.
And it’s not as if those urges go away; when repressed, they emerge even more strongly and destructively in the form of sexual violence.
Women have a responsibility: to be normal, and to move in the world normally, so that men can also be normal. Carrying yourself in the world as if your very existence is a sin will never allow that to happen.
PS: Don’t use this post to justify anti-Muslim bigotry or prejudice, or anti-immigrant racism. That’s not what this post was meant for. Also, I have no problem with women wearing the hijab; it’s the complete erasure of women that I protest.
Today, I read what are possibly the most beautiful opening words of any essay or opinion piece ever. It went like this:
“When a woman is the sum total of her headscarf and hymen – that is, what’s on her head and what is between her legs – then nakedness and sex become weapons of political resistance.”
This comes from a powerful essay by Mona Eltahawy in the Guardian, called “Egypt’s Naked Blogger is a Bomb Aimed at the Patriarchs in Our Mind” (Eltahawy was recently sexually assaulted and beaten by police in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, her left hand and right arm broken by the force of their blows).
The background is that a young woman blogger in Egypt posted a photograph of herself, naked, as a symbol of resistance against the patriarchal conservative forces that are threatening to overwhelm Egypt in the post-Mubarak era.
The response has been incendiary; read it for yourself. But it proves that women’s bodies are still seen as public property, to be violated by soldiers, discussed and debated on by men as if they were the experts on women and their feelings, thoughts, sensations, inclinations. Our minds are seen as weak, unable to reason, to think for ourselves. Instead of believing that women have moral agency, we are seen as morally inferior in every way to men.
Is the real war against terrorism, or against patriarchy?
What men do to women on a daily basis, demeaning, insulting, patronizing, and physically and mentally hurting them, IS terrorism, plain and simple.
It reminds me of a news clip I saw several days ago, in which it was declared that Saudi Arabia might enact a new law in which women who are deemed to have “tempting eyes” and “tempting faces” would be forced to cover them up.
Because one of the men behind this bill saw a woman with “tempting eyes”, felt attracted to her, and ended up having a fight with her husband. Then he stabbed the man in the hand. The logical conclusion was that the woman who tempted him with her eyes was at fault, so such eyes can and should be hidden away from view.
I brought this up on Twitter, adding my own comment that perhaps it was the men who should be covered up instead of the women, so that they couldn’t see the tempting eyes, faces, hands, and perhaps the entire existence of women on this planet to avoid being tempted by them.
A young man decided to take up this argument with me, accusing me of being against women choosing the hijab and niqab of their own free will. He said he was sure that the majority of women who take up these coverings do it voluntarily. I decided to respond by asking this man if he would consent to covering himself up to avoid arousing the lust of homosexual men. He wouldn’t answer.
My point: why do men believe women are so willing to choose the bars of their prison so happily?
What justifications have taken place in their mind to make them believe that women are not coerced into wearing the veil? After all, coercion takes many forms: Legal. Physical. Mental. Emotional. Social. Many people use blackmail to convince women to wear hijab or niqab: you won’t be a good Muslim, you’ll go to hell, you’re pleasing God, you’ll be subject to harassment and molestation if you go outside without a veil. By playing on women’s vulnerabilities, by bringing up the imagery of women being sexually violated or bringing shame upon their families by walking around unveiled, by implying a woman’s morality is linked to how she dresses, women are coerced into believing they are making a free choice in the thousands and millions, every day of their lives.
The hidden pearls. The precious jewels in velvet boxes. The sweets that attract flies without a wrapper. The metaphors used to convince women that their worth is higher if they remain covered makes clever use of a great deceit: that women are objects to be kept on shelves, their value directly correlated to their shininess, their newness. When are people going to realize that women are not objects or things or possessions? That we are human beings with as much autonomy, independence, sovereignty as men? That we must be left alone, to make our own decisions about what we do with our lives, our bodies, our selves?
The truth is that mental, emotional, physical, social or legal coercion over the issue of the veil immediately takes away the “freedom” of the “choice.”
Men have no right to exercise control over women in any way, shape, or form. Their opinions have no validity in what concerns women’s bodies and lives. Recruiting, paying, or giving some women a portion of the patriarchal privilege in order that they may influence and coerce other women over the issue of the veil, whether by “gentle persuasion” or out-and-out blackmail, is merely another trick men use to exercise control over and dominate women.
Here’s what freedom of choice really looks like when it comes to the niqab, the hijab, the burqa, and the abaya:
“Nothing happens if you wear it. Nothing happens if you don’t wear it. Now, it’s up to you.”
Then stand back and let the woman decide for herself. And stay out of it, for good.
And for those of you who feel a hijab or a niqab or a burqa or an abaya is not a prison, but a symbol of empowerment, I want to ask you why a piece of cloth on your head or face has so much sway over your lives that it transforms you from a whore into a virtuous woman.
Remember that in Pakistan, even the prostitutes wear veils.