I read this brilliant review of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s new book Refusing The Veil today. Wow. Although I should probably read the book itself, the review got me thinking about all the ridiculous so-called feminist arguments against Muslim women’s clothing.
From my own point of view, as a British Muslim woman who defines herself as a feminist I find it abhorrent, absurd and completely patronising that this debate is even going on. We feminists complain almost daily against the policing of women’s bodies, against the culture of victim-blaming and against the objectification of women. And yet, what do we do to Muslim Women’s bodies? We talk about them as passive objects, to be covered or uncovered; we want to police what women do with them, how the way a woman dresses might affect our daily life; we obsess over the lack of agency any woman wearing the veil has, her succumbing to a patriarchal system.
Are we not being hypocrites at all fellow feminists? Are we not setting a double-standard? A standard whereby control of our own bodies only applies to white, middle-class women? A standard wherein we say a woman does not deserve any less respect for the way she is dressed – as long it is not religious dress?
At its bare bones, the headscarf, or hijab, is a piece of cloth (the veil, although I do not wear it, is only another aspect of this); however, like most things, it gains significance through the meanings we give it. When I first chose to wear the hijab at age 14 the reasons had to do with my surge of interest in the religion I had been brought up in; and a desire to feel a sense of belonging, and to convey, in a symbol, my belief in God. However, six years down the line, my reasons have evolved and accumulated and this piece of cloth is now a symbol of feminism; of anti-capitalism; anti-imperialism and of my values and beliefs about the world.
It concerns me that some feminist are only just realising the feeling of empowerment that many women who wear the head-scarf, gain from it. Just as feminists advocate that women should be free to wear what they want; just as they propose that a woman’s body is her own and that only she should be involved in choices regarding it; when I put my headscarf on in the morning I too am making these decisions. I am affirming, in my own way, that this body is mine to cover if I so wish and that I above anyone else, am in control of its fabulous entirety. This triangle of cloth, is to me, a symbol against objectification. A symbol of choice. And a symbol that I am in complete control of the sexualisation of my own body. Because I feel that all people should be respected for who they are, rather than what they look like; to me, my headscarf represents this hope. A hope that we can live in a world where women can wear whatever they want without fear; that the rape-culture of victim-blaming – women being told how to dress to protect themselves – can be destroyed; that a culture of women’s being bodies first and foremost – think page 3 and how normalised this is – can be destroyed and that someday we will not judge books by their covers.
Choosing to cover rather than uncover is not a fear of our own sexuality; it is not a fear of men; it is not an internalised inferiority-complex; it is not a way to police our bodies – it is an empowering gesture which allows women to control their bodies and assert themselves. A woman who chooses to uncover would probably use similar arguments: that her body is her own, that she refuses to be policed, that she should not be objectified or sexualised just because she has skin showing. The hijab, in my mind, is a way of expressing that exact same belief. Why is uncovering necessarily more empowering than covering? Can women not do what they feel most comfortable with? Must we glorify one mode of empowerment above another?
In these choices I also feel I am taking the same stance as someone who may spray their hair bright green or shave themselves a Mohican. I am radically rejecting the constraints society has set for me. Apart from what I feel is a symbol of feminism, my hijab also reflects my views on capitalism and consumerism. To me, this piece of cloth reflects that I refuse to look the way advertisers say I should; I refuse to buy into media representations of human happiness. My scarf represents my support of Ghandi-style “simple living”: placing my spiritual satisfaction above worldly goods and consumerism. To me, it embodies my rejection of the harmful, capitalistic, unsustainable, anti-women, commodified society we live in today, and symbolises my hope for tomorrow.
But, once again, let me emphasise that it is just a piece of cloth, just as hair spray is a chain of molecules; and a tattoo is some ink. The meaning I give to the hijab is my own alone, it derives from my beliefs about the world I live in, and the way I see myself in it. It is a choice just like any other that people make every day. Although important to me, it really ought not to affect anyone else. And yet, because it is the symbol of a religion I am part of; I am burdened with the responsibility of representing “Islam” in all that I do. And it is because of this responsibility that we women who choose to wear headscarfs, are plagued like any minority group, in having to prove our worth, and our intelligence and value, before our choice will be fully respected and recognised.