Free Choices

The Innocent Smith Journal recently featured a couple of thought-provoking pieces discussing choices, as they relate to Muslim women who choose to wear a hijab, burqa, or niqab, and how those choices may influence how women are perceived in general worldwide. A further discussion ensued in the comment thread about whether the choice to wear a hijab, burqa, or niqab is really a free choice. The first post was in response to the recent criticism the creators of South Park faced in their decision to censor the image of the Prophet Mohammed in a recent episode, and Bill Maher’s reaction to the ordeal:

Before I conclude, it should in fairness be noted that, in speaking of Muslims, we realize that, of course, the vast majority are law-abiding, loving people, who just want to be left alone to subjugate their women in peace.

InnocentSmith responds:

Notice that the punchline (Muslims just want to “subjugate their women in peace”) undercuts the distinction Maher purports to make between the “vast majority” of Muslims and Muslim extremists. Not only are most Muslims are just as wacko as the violent fringe, Maher insinuates, it would be laughable to think otherwise.

While InnocentSmith approaches the controversial topic of Islamic culture promoting the subjugation of women with a great deal of respect and tolerance for a topic so widely misunderstood in Western culture, a few questions remain. As I asked in the discussion thread:

…Of course the “regular” Muslims aren’t the same as jihadists; the remark, though, applies to most practicing Muslims. The idea that a woman should be more modest that a man, for example, is, quite simply, perpetuating misogyny.

Do most Muslim women wear a hijab, or more? I’m not sure; I admit to having only a basic understanding of Islamic cultures, and as a non-Muslim, I can hardly claim to speak on behalf of Muslim women. But as far as making the choice to cover oneself in a way that is dictated only to women, I remain unconvinced of the insistence that to do so is a free choice that is without misogynistic influence.

A simple Google search will yield many convincing arguments made by Muslim women for why wearing a hijab, or even a burqa, is less oppressive than the expectation that women in Western cultures wear clothing that is considered sexually attractive to most men. In a poem titled Object of Despair, Fahim Firfiray (Abu Omar), in observing the differences between her Muslim character, Aisha, and a non-Muslim fellow attorney, Emma, in regards to their attire, writes from her colleague Emma’s perspective:

Aisha is in full hijab
With a loose all over suit
Emma’s in her business wear
With accessories taboot

Emma’s really quite bemused
At Aisha’s godly ways
She looks Aisha in the eyes
And very firmly says

You’re a smart girl Aisha
Why do you wear that across your hair?
Subjugated by “man”-kind
An object of despair

Take it off my sister
Let your banner be unfurled
Don’t blindly follow all around

It’s an oft-cited argument that many associate with Western feminism: To cover yourself is to be oppressed, censored, enslaved. The objection to hiding ones hair seems particularly reminiscent of the Spice Girls days– embrace your femininity! Short skirts and tall shoes and long hair! Be smart, powerful, and sexy!

While embracing this particular brand of femininity can be empowering for many women who feel oppressed by the implications of such an image (for example, the perceived invitation to men to give sexual attention to the woman), it’s problematic on a number of levels, and the argument Firfiray gave her Western character was too one-dimensional and half-hearted to take seriously.

Firfiray continues with Aisha’s response:

My dear sister Emma,
Why do you dress the way you do?
The skirt you’re wearing round your waist,
Is it really you?

Now that we’ve sat down,
I see you tug it across your thighs,
Do you feel ashamed?
Aware of prying eyes?

I see the way you’re sitting,
Both legs joined at the knees,
Who forces you to sit like that?
Do you feel at ease?

I’ll tell you who obliges you,
To dress the way you do,
Gucci, Klein and St. Laurent,
All have designs on you!

In the main, it’s men my friend,
Who dictate the whims of fashion,
Generating all the garb,
To incite the basest passion

“Sex Sells” there is no doubt,
But who buys with such great haste,
The answer is the likes of you,
Because they want to be embraced……

They want to be accepted,
On a level playing field
Sure, with brain and intellect
But with body parts revealed

Intelligence and reason
Are useful by and by
But if you want to make a mark
Stay appealing to the eye

Aisha’s almost got me here. After all, who could argue that looking “sexy” is always in the back of our minds, as women? Who would disagree that isn’t always the most comfortable feeling? I certainly couldn’t counter the point that men who are given the opportunity to see more of my body than I see of theirs are less likely to take me seriously as a business associate or social equal. The possibility of eliminating that possibility is, admittedly, very appealing.

Via a later article on the Innocent Smith Journal, a Muslim woman discusses how she found relief in her decision to wear a niqab to work:

“I do this because I want to be closer to God, I want to please him and I want to live a modest lifestyle,” said Ms. Ahmed, who asked that her appearance without a veil not be described. “I want to be tested in that way. The niqab is a constant reminder to do the right thing. It’s God-consciousness in my face.”

But there were secular motivations, too. In her job, she worked with all-male teams on oil rigs and in labs.

“No matter how smart I was, I wasn’t getting the respect I wanted,” she said. “They still hit on me, made crude remarks and even smacked me on the butt a couple times.”

Wearing the niqab is “liberating,” she said. “They have to deal with my brain because I don’t give them any other choice.”

The absence of leers, gropes, and harassment that followed Ms. Ahmed’s decision to wear a niqab undoubtedly brings with it a feeling of liberation and empowerment. But should it? And was her decision to wear a niqab really influenced in any way by “secularism,” or could we be more honest in calling the motivation “sexism”?

This sentiment, the one about how empowering it feels to hide your face and body under layers of cloth so that predatory men don’t sexually harass and assault you, is a temporary solution to a huge and systemic problem. Women everywhere are consistently told that they are responsible for the harassment they encounter, sexual assault, and even their own rapes. More often than not, women’s clothing choices are the basis for these accusations.

Several months ago, Thúy-Lan Võ Lite from Equal Writes wrote a piece for Feministe about India’s new female-only traincars, called Ladies Specials, a new option for women who want to avoid the rampant sexual harassment, leering, and groping that they regularly fall victim to on their daily commutes. While, like Ms. Ahmed’s situation, the separate train cars are a good temporary solution to the rampant sexual harassment and assault that occurs daily on public transportation all over the world, Thúy-Lan succinctly concludes:

…It’s great that these trains are giving women a safe space. But it’s also important to note that the Ladies Specials are only a temporary solution; for real social change to occur, something must be done to stop the catcalling men.

Indeed, it must. It’s time we stop making women responsible for their own oppression, and start holding harassers and abusers accountable for their oppressive behavior. If a Muslim woman wants to wear a niqab, the reasons shouldn’t have to include finally feeling like she’s able to be respected because men are prevented from seeing her face and body. For a Muslim woman to take into consideration the sense of entitlement these men feel toward women’s bodies takes the freedom from that choice.

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20 Responses to Free Choices

  1. Jim says:

    “The idea that a woman should be more modest that a man, for example, is, quite simply, perpetuating misogyny.”

    This is a wonderful exampmle how a repressive tradtion can be both misogynist and misandrist at the same time.

    The standard explanation that defenders of hijab give is that men are visually aroused and thus women must cover themselves or else be continually harrassing men by visual display. They contend that the way Western women dress is a female version of a catcall. Ths expalins a lot of the hostility towards the way Western women dress. (My answer: Tough shit. Get a grip.)

    The misogyny of this is obvious to everyone – why should women be hostage to others’ reactions (but then that argument applies to catcalls, I guess) – but the misandry is pretty plain – too – men are supposedly just lab rats responding to visual stimuli. It’s sometimes hard to make this argument without Othering – oh, maybe that’s how animalistic YOUR men are….

    It goes to another difference between Islamic and Western culture, the locus of control. Clearly the pro-hijab argument is predicated on external locus of control.

    • April says:

      I also find offensive the underlying assumption that men are no more than “lab rats responding to visual stimuli.” It should be offensive to all men that they are frequently portrayed in that way. I find it especially ironic that, when arguing for the superiority of men, one will often cite the ability to reason as something men supposedly have over women, while simultaneously arguing that their “animal instincts” toward sexuality and women’s physical appearance are uncontrollable and natural, and should therefore not be questioned or fought against.

    • Jim says:

      It is ofensive. Again, it goes to locus of control. It is exasperating beyond all telling to discuss anything with anyone with this kind of worldview…”Well, what was I supposed to do?”, “See what you made me do!”, ” What else could I do?”, “The media makes me….”, “They are socialized to….”

      That’s what I find degrading about it. It reduces people to passive, reactive little blobs that everyone else out on the universe is controlling. Disgusting.

      I don’t for a minute deny the power of these outside forces, and I think a child can be so brainwashed before the age of whatever that he may never completely clear all that out, but I also think we have a responsibility to decide who’s going to be in charge in our lives.

  2. David K says:

    I think a revival of dungarees is well overdue in feminism – it would cut through the whole tangled problem. 😉

    • Jim says:

      It sure was a great leveler when everyone was wearing fatigues, and it was even better when the organization switched to BDUs because you could just let the waist strap out on the pants when you got pregnant. The same is probably true for the ACUs for that matter. All you need is some non-garish running shoes to replace the boots for the duration.

  3. I would certainly agree that Ms. Ahmed’s decision to veil herself is “a temporary solution to a huge and systemic problem.” I also agree that simply eliminating the objectification of women would be a better, more long-term solution. But I guess I’m a bit more pessimistic than you are about the latter possibility — which seems to me about like saying, “I’m all for reinstating the Glass-Steagall Act, but we really ought to eliminate all income inequality” or “George Bush isn’t the problem, mankind’s propensity to wage war is.” What’s missing here, it seems to me, is a realistic plan of action — and, I would add, an awareness of the inherent limits to human perfectibility.

    “It’s time we stop making women responsible for their own oppression, and start holding harassers and abusers accountable for their oppressive behavior.” Agreed. But what would that look like on the ground? Would it look the same in Kabul as in Kansas City?

    Your post does a great job of highlighting the tensions between the Muslim perspective, as described by Fahim Firfaray (loved the poem!), and the American feminist perspective described by Thúy-Lan Võ Lite. I think that this tension can be healthy and dynamic, so long as both sides recognize that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions.

    • Jim says:

      “For a Muslim woman to take into consideration the sense of entitlement these men feel toward women’s bodies takes the freedom from that choice.”

      I wonder if it’s a case of any sense of entitlement to these women’s bodies at all. That would fly in the face of the whole rest of the religion and cultutre, that puts such a huge gilf between men and women, and makes women into some unreachable, unattainable goal for men unitl and unless they marry, which is the opposite of what’s going on on the street. I think the dynamic is exactly the opposite of entitlement, it is that women on the street represent a great big dare, a mighty conquest.

      That’s equally objectifying and dehumanizing, on boht ends of the interaction.

      Whats’ going on in these incidents of harrassmnent sounds a lot more like simple hostility than some sense of entitlement. The woman is throwing a tease and the man is returning a taunt.

    • Jim says:

      “The woman is throwing a tease and the man is returning a taunt.”

      Wait – that can be read to erase what a lot of women experience on the street when they are dressed in completely unremarkable ways and still get non-stop crap anyway. That is not what I meant by that, if anyone’s reading it that way.

  4. femspotter says:

    I wonder if this is a timely topic because of how Sex and the City 2 treats Muslin women, as a punchline. Here are some interesting related links I posted on my blog:
    Not all women wear Islamic dress to protect themselves from the superficial assessment of the male gaze. Some do it for piety’s sake. I’d be willing to bet that every woman in an hijab or niqab has a slightly different reason.

    • Jim says:

      Sneering at Islam was the big subtext in that movie apparently. Very New York, come to think of it, so they have form.

    • femspotter says:

      I live in NYC Metro. I don’t think there’s a corner here. Think of all the ignorant crap McCain’s supporters in the Midwest spewed about Obama during the election. Provincial statements like that are damaging too.

      It was just an ugly movie. It could have been “Sex and the Country” and been just as ugly.

    • Jim says:

      No indeed. I certainly don’t think that NYC has a corner on that kind of thing, just that after 9-11 it may the one of the few remaining acceptable thing to slur.

      And NYC has nothing on the Teabaggers and their delusions and bigoted vitriol.

    • April says:

      Not all women wear Islamic dress to protect themselves from the superficial assessment of the male gaze. Some do it for piety’s sake.

      The wearing of a hijab for the sake of piety irks me a lot, because Muslim men aren’t also required to be modest to the same degree as women. I’ve tried to find a Christian parallel, as that’s the religion I’m most familiar with, and immediately thought of Catholic nuns– but even that isn’t really comparable. Obviously (oh god, obviously), Catholics have their own set of scandal and sexism (women can’t be priests, for example), but while nuns wear habits, catholic priests are required to remain celibate. Modesty for the sake of prohibiting public or other sexuality is required for both sexes.

    • femspotter says:

      I think the “required to be modest” language is problematic. While in some parts, under the Taliban certainly, women are required to cover themselves, there may be just as many Muslim men who wear robes and head coverings for piety’s sake. I think if we’re examining choice, it’s important to accept reasoning that isn’t sexually exclusive. Muslim culture isn’t busting at the seams with raving, naked men and contrarily bound women – especially not in North America and Europe. Any Muslim couples I know that wear traditional attire are like dressed.

    • Jim says:

      This is certainly true. Male nudity, or even much bare skin at all, even only in the presence of other males is a major taboo for the few Muslims I have spent any real time around.

    • April says:

      Interesting. I actually searched for this information before writing so confidently about the matter, but wasn’t able to find anything proving me wrong. My opinion is also based on my experiences at my community college, where there is a large Muslim population. I see women in headscarves all the time, but never any accompanying men (or men headed into or out of the prayer room that is there especially for Muslim men) dressed in a way that could be considered equally as modest.

      I do realize this is an oversight, though, so thanks to Femspot and Jim for pointing out that men are held to similar standards.

      I’m currently reading Reza Aslan’s No god but God, which is already giving me a great deal of education on Islam. It’s really engaging so far, and I’d recommend it!

    • Jim says:

      This goes back to the practical reasons for all this covering up. Nuns’ habits are historical relics – they are based on what widows wore in the 1500s, which was pretty much what all women wore except for the color. People wore a lot of clothes because the buildings were basically unheated and covered their hair because you couldn’t be washing it on a daily or even weekly basis in the absence of running hot water. People still do the same thing on long hiking trips and such.

  5. Jim says:

    In a lot of those climates both men and women cover up because they need the protection from the weather. In SA the sun will turn oyur hait to straw in a matter of days.

    But covering up like that protects you from observation too, and it becomes a form of modesty. The same is true for people who dress for cold climates, and then what was once a practical matter becomes a standard of civilized behavior. So if you don’t dress that way, it’s because you’re a backward savage, not because you are blessed to live in a climate like Samoa.

  6. Jim says:

    oyur hait = your hair.

  7. femspotter says:

    Please forgive my inability to use html.

    Here’s a link to an interesting CNN piece about the crackdown on men’s haircuts in Iran. I found it rather amusing given the opening line: “The Islamic regime, which strictly enforces head coverings for women, issued grooming guidelines for the guys this week.”

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