Dear “liberal feminists”, please allow me a LITTLE agency???

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.

How about we listen to *them* for once?

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?

I refuse to buy into this capitalism propelled self-hate!

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.

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7 thoughts on “Dear “liberal feminists”, please allow me a LITTLE agency???

  1. Hi there TBH,
    Your work is amazing. I’m a rad fem and am wondering if you feel the same way about the burqa as the hijab?
    As a white woman with no idea (I have Iraqi/Iranian friends but they’re not in their original countries/culture.
    I totally get that modesty or not is up to individuals and the western world certainly ain’t winning any medals in feminism.
    I really struggle though with accepting the burqa, to my unknowing mind it seems that to actually hide a person’s face because of the male gaze/sexuality is very anti feminism. How do you see this? In the Muslim feminist world is all covering considered the same? I’d love to know your thoughts. thanks TTMaree – Australia

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    1. Hi TTMaree,

      So I think the issue is that context must always come first and foremost. I find absolutely no reason to take issue with the burqa when a woman has chosen to wear it. I know a fair few women who find the burqa incredibly empowering in that it reconfigures the Gaze into their hands and strips men, or anyone else, of the power or ability to see them at all. In that sense you could see it as a really radical stance against the male gaze and denial of male entitlement to view women and dominate public spaces. It’s also a complete rejection of any sorts of aesthetic standards women are expected to live up to, in that sense some women also find it liberating. This is great to watch and get some opinions from burka-wearing women: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NeX9lM4vqcM

      It’s also worth pointing out that women don’t have to have a ‘feminist’ reason for wearing certain clothes and indeed rarely do, they might just wear something because they like it, I mean we all do that right? Some women may wear the burqa because it fits their conception of piety or closeness to God rather than any other reason.

      On the other hand, there are of course women who are made to wear a burqa and it is therefore not a choice of their own. Coercion can come in many forms whether from family pressure, violence, laws; it is not always overt. In this context then of course I don’t think the burka symbolises liberation. The main thing is that a woman has the choice, and the freedom to make that choice any which way she chooses.

      There are people who’d argue that women who want to cover their bodies and call it liberation are suffering from ‘false consciousness’, but a) this is deeply patronising and removes all agency from such women, and b) acts as if all other women make their decisions in vacuums where they are not informed by media images, culture, identity, etiquette etc. We have to accept that things that may once, or even STILL represent oppression to some people can have different meanings to others. Just as many people have reinscribed the meaning of marriage in the west – no longer a transaction between father and husband where the woman is always someone’s property – people can reinscribe things with new meaning. Covering women has had patriarchal meanings in the past but in changed contexts and times people can reinscribe.

      What I’m getting at ultimately is that when you ask ‘is all covering considered the same?’ to me that is a void question. All that matters is what choice a person has made. Though it may feel that someone is ‘hiding their face because of the male gaze’ we have to reconsider why someone might wear something and put THEM as the agent. Just as when people say ‘women only wear short skirts to attract men’, we reconfigure the lack of agency that statement implies women have and we instead suggest that women’s choices aren’t made only with men in mind and that perhaps their choices empower them in their own ways.

      Different Muslim women will have different opinions on what clothes they choose to wear and you should get other opinions. In my opinion feminists need to be more open to consider alternative ways in which patriarchy can be challenged and the ways in which women DO challenge it though those ways may be different to how it has to be done in their own society. Different societies and cultural contexts require different battles though its all the same war against patriarchy.

      Hope that helps.

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      1. Thanks so much for taking the time to answer. You’ve expanded my view and it is appreciated.
        As an outcome I guess for me it leaves two major problems, both from the patriarchy, you’re very right I completely agree ‘liberal’ societies wear clothing that the patriarchy encourage and I think non secular countries wear clothing that a patriarchal faith (and I believe all the major world faiths are entirely patriarchal) encourages them to wear.
        So all round to my mind the patriarchy have far too much to do with our clothing choices, both consciously and sub consciously. To really know what we would wear by choice would take us to live in a matriarchal world. We can all have our pipedreams!
        All the best. Ttmaree

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      2. Having said all the above, I agree the Burkini law is completely outrageous, Skin cancer alone means we should all be more, not less covered up at the beach. And the idea of men telling women to remove clothes is ridiculous.

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  2. So you are a radical feminist and have no issue talking about issues women face here in the UK – what is your take on women’s rights in majority Muslim countries, specifically those where Shariah law is implemented? Do you agree that the poor women face these issues due to religious law or do you have some other cooky left wing narrative to spew? (I’m sure you do..)

    Would love to hear it

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    1. I’m not sure why you feel I should have an opinion on women’s rights EVERWHERE. I live in the UK, I am British, the issues I talk about are the ones I have most experience with and I would be cautious about talking over women who live in muslim majority countries who know their experience better than I do. Women should have freedom everywhere and not be deprived of choices concerning their own lives via the state, that is my belief currently.

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