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A few yards of cloth

A young woman finds an exciting new path to liberation. She takes to wearing the hijab.

 …before you race to label me the poster girl for oppressed womanhood everywhere, let me tell you as a woman (with a master’s degree in human rights, and a graduate degree in psychology) why I see this as the most liberating experience ever.

We know. You’re taking control, you’re being seen for who you really are instead of as a female human being with hair and a neck.

My experience working as a Faiths Act Fellow for the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and dealing with interfaith action for social action brought me more understanding and appreciation of various faiths. I found that engaging in numerous interfaith endeavors strengthened my personal understanding about my own faith.

Do you think she uses the word “faith” enough times in that passage? Maybe a few hundred more would get her point across better?

Tony Blair, you have a lot to answer for.

I am abundantly aware of the rising concerns and controversies over how a few yards of cloth covering a woman’s head is written off as a global threat to women’s education, public security, rights and even religion. I am also conscious of the media’s preferred mode of portraying all hijabi women as downtrodden and dominated by misogynist mullahs or male relatives who enforce them into sweltering pieces of oppressive clothing. But I believe my hijab liberates me.

Despite the reality of the misogynist mullahs and the conservative male relatives – she “believes” the hijab liberates her, and faith can move mountains, so there you go.

For someone who passionately studied and works for human rights and women’s empowerment, I realized that working for these causes while wearing the hijab can only contribute to breaking the misconception that Muslim women lack the strength, passion and power to strive for their own rights.

No, that’s not accurate – that “only” is wrong. Working for women’s rights while wearing the hijab can also for instance send the message that you’re confused, or that your religion trumps your commitment to women’s rights, or other possibilities that you probably don’t like.

In a society that embraces uncovering, how can it be oppressive if I decided to cover up? I see hijab as the freedom to regard my body as my own concern and as a way to secure personal liberty in a world that objectifies women. I refuse to see how a woman’s significance is rated according to her looks and the clothes she wears. I am also absolutely certain that the skewed perception of women’s equality as the right to bare our breasts in public only contributes to our own objectification. I look forward to a whole new day when true equality will be had with women not needing to display themselves to get attention nor needing to defend their decision to keep their bodies to themselves.

Uh huh, but the hijab isn’t the opposite of baring your breasts, it’s the opposite of baring your hair and neck.  Different thing. It’s very easy to refrain from baring your breasts without putting on a hijab. There are lots of ways you can attempt to secure personal liberty in a world that objectifies women without wearing a hijab, and wearing one is in many ways a very bad way to attempt to secure personal liberty.

Comments

  1. sambarge says

    This is the same as women who claim that pole-dancing liberates them. No, it doesn’t. There is nothing inherently liberating about willingly participating in oppressive practices. It just means that you’ve so absorbed the oppression that you no longer recognize it for what it is.

    If, at some distant time in the future, no woman is forced to wear the hijab, then you can claim your choice is unencumbered by oppression. Until that time, you are participating in oppression, whether you acknowledge it or not.

  2. Brian says

    Well said sambarge. Both pole dancing and hijab wearing are examples of women being objects.

  3. Lyanna says

    Random point: baring breasts in public only contributes to our own objectification? Really? Are men objectified when they take their shirts off? I don’t think so.

    Yeah, I know female breasts are more sexualized than male ones, but that’s kind of my point. That’s a culturally determined thing, and many cultures choose to determine that parts of a female body must be sexualized, when corresponding parts of a male body are not. Changing this would reduce, not contribute to, objectification of women.

    That random point is related to a more central point: wearing hijab just reinforces the idea that women’s bodies are always inherently and primarily sex-objects. That idea is precisely why female breasts are way more sexualized than male ones. The ideology of hijab takes that principle and applies it to the head, neck and hair. Men’s heads aren’t primarily sex-objects, so they can be displayed without being called “provocative.” But women’s are.

  4. says

    Hi Ophelia,

    I apologise in advance for being off topic – I couldn’t see a more sensible place to put this.

    Today I got flamed on the internet for something I hadn’t actually said. It was only once, but it hurt more than I would have expected, and made me realise just how brave you’ve been lately. I just wanted to thank you for being awesome.

  5. jose says

    So she submerged herself into Islam, learned that Islam teaches women who don’t dress modestly are whores, and embraced it, and now she believes such teachings are liberating.

    Also, those topless western whores aren’t helping!

    Sad.

  6. Joven says

    Maybe she should just add a cool gas mask and cosplay as a Quarian, or attach it to a nice cape for a neat flowing cloak. Or of course, ninja mask (bonus for flowing tails coming off the hood). I think those would be even more liberating.

    I think there’s a difference between “I like the way the hijab looks, so maybe I’ll add it to my wardrobe”, and “I understand/like the message behind the hijab, so I’ll follow it and cover up”, and whenever I’ve read people justify their decisions to wear hijab, and sometimes even burqas, its almost never just the first (granted, I’ve only read a few things like that.)

    I dont think I actually have a point.

  7. says

    Wearing a hijab by choice should be every woman’s right. And then it is everyone else’s right to criticize her for making a half-baked political statement that disappears the hijab-wearing women who are given no choice in the matter, making it harder for their rights to be taken seriously and fought for.

  8. Jean says

    “I don’t like what society says I should do so I’ll do what this religion tells me to do.”

    Yeah that makes sense.

  9. Robert (SeraphymC) says

    I was going to say something witty and clever (at least in my head), but Improbable Joe beat me to it.

  10. eric says

    I see hijab as the freedom to regard my body as my own concern and as a way to secure personal liberty in a world that objectifies women.

    Yeah, covering all sign of your own physical humanity is a great way of getting people to view you as more human.

    Call me skeptical that your strategy will work. There’s a reason they used to hood people before execution; it made it easier for society to tolerate what was being done if they didn’t have to see the face of the killed person. You are hooding yourself. That’s going to make it much easier for your opponents to treat you as a non-human object, not harder. Sure, it can be a powerful social or political statement. But you’re still hooding yourself.

    I am also absolutely certain that the skewed perception of women’s equality as the right to bare our breasts in public only contributes to our own objectification. I look forward to a whole new day when true equality will be had with women not needing to display themselves to get attention nor needing to defend their decision to keep their bodies to themselves.

    AFAIK, the most recent fights over the right to bare breasts in western societies have primarily been about the right to breast feed in public. Arguing against women who want to do it to ‘get attention’ is pretty much a straw (wo)man argument.

    Its a fight for the right to feed one’s baby when its hungry without being treated as if you’re doing something nasty or digusting or wrong. Its a very mundane and functional request, having nothing whatsoever to do with seeing women as sex objects, and (in an ideal world) shouldn’t be any more controversial than putting diaper changing tables in public restrooms.

    I regard my hijab to be a commanding question of “I control what you see, how is that not empowering” mixed with a munificent amount of authority emanating from the “My body is my own concern” clause. I believe my hijab gives me the right to assert my body, femininity and spirituality as my own and under my authority alone.

    If its about empowerment, don’t let a patriarchical religious organization decide how you are allowed to control what other people see. Don’t let them decide when you wear it and when you don’t, or what counts as acceptable garb and what dosen’t. After all, you could get the same body coverage from a regular western dress suit, boots, hat and scarf.

    Are we really supposed to believe that, of all the possible ways you could choose to cover yourself, you coincidentally decided to cover yourself the exact same way a patriarchal religious sect has been ordering women to cover themselves for centuries? This seems extremely doubtful; its far more reasonable for outsiders to attribute your choice of how you decide to cover yourself to your (patriarchal) faith.

  11. Charles Sullivan says

    Why is it that when Muslim women living in developed countries champion their choice to wear the hijab they usually fail to mention the millions of Muslim women in the rest of the world who really have no choice in the matter?

  12. maddog1129 says

    There is one way in which wearing a covering is more liberating. In the surveillance state where there are cameras watching everything, it might make sense for people (not just women) to wear something covering the most identified feature (the face) from the spy cameras. It’s nobody’s business where I’m going or what I’m doing, most of the time, and even in public spaces.

  13. says

    I know many who portray the hijab as the placard for either forced silence or fundamentalist regimes; but personally I found it to be neither.

    She can’t even admit that women are forced to veil themselves. They’re only “portrayed” as being oppressed; as part of “the media’s preferred mode” of reportage, you see. The Christian woman who was refused work in Jordan for deciding not to wear a hijab? The Pakistani women who were burned with acid for refusing to wear dupattas? The Canadian girl who was murdered by her father, apparently for going bareheaded? I guess they aren’t going to get articles in the New York Times.

    If she wants to veil herself then she’s free to go ahead. She shouldn’t feel she has the right to speak for others, though.

  14. Illuminata, Genie in the Beer Bottle says

    If wearing a something that erases any vesitage of your humnanity is so “liberating”, why do those who make action movies put something over the heads and faces of cannon-fodder type characters?

    The point is the – drumroll – ERASE THEIR HUMANITY SO THE AUDIENCE DOESN’T THINK TO HARD ABOUT HOW MANY HUMAN BEINGS ARE KILLED IN THE MOVIE.

    What does covering up all traces of a woman’s humanity – except, of course, for her gender – do again?

    liberate wouldn’t be on the list.

  15. says

    If the choice she’s making is between wearing a hijab and wearing a full veil, the hijab is the more liberated choice.

    Oh, that’s not what happened? Never mind.

  16. Dianne says

    I agree with the writer that her body is her own concern and its no one else’s business whether she wears a burqa or a loincloth and maybe some body paint. But there’s nothing particularly liberating about giving in to the forces that say that women must be out of view-either by simply not being allowed in a certain place or by being covered from head to toe while you’re there.

  17. says

    “There are lots of ways you can attempt to secure personal liberty in a world that objectifies women without wearing a hijab, and wearing one is in many ways a very bad way to attempt to secure personal liberty.”

    Oh I dunno. Under the hijab (or better still, a bourker) the inmate can behave however which way she chooses. If she’s laughing, poking out her tongue, giving a cross-eyed response; who’s to know?

    Under a bourker she could be dancing as well. Even at the news of some terrible embarrassment suffered by the Supreme Ayatollah, or even by a Caliph of long ago.

    It’s important to think outside the square. :-)

  18. says

    Her assertion that she wears a hijab out of a commitment to working for a world where women are not judged for what they wear or how they look is massively undercut by her statement that women who have bare breasts in public are contributing to women’s objectification.

    Make up your mind already!

  19. A 'Nym Too says

    Oh maddog is so clever. All that stuff about modesty and boobs is just awily ruse. Clearly she just wants to be able to avoid cameras.

    Of course smugdog has missed just one thing. The hijab doesn’t cover the bloody face.

    Maybe if she wants to be the next Banksy she should get a niqab.

  20. sambarge says

    Dianne @ 19:

    Exactly. There is no problem with a woman making a choice to wear either a burqa or a bikini but it’s disingenuous of this author to pretend that her decision is made in a non-patriarchal vacuum.

    I’ll use myself as an example. I was born with a long, ethnic last name. For many years, I listened to English-speakers butcher my name – if they tried to say it at all. As I prepared to leave university and enter the job market, I knew that my birth name would be a hindrance in job searches. So, I considered changing my name legally, to my mother’s birth name (still ethnic but easier for English folk). The problem was, legally changing my name cost a lot of money and it wiped out the life that I’d lived up to that point. My birth certificate, etc. would all be issued as if my name had always been the new one. That didn’t sit well with me.

    Then I got married to a guy with an Anglo name. How easy was it to change my name on my wedding day to something easy to spell and pronounce to the 90% of people around me? Very easy. I just took the wedding license down to the Ministry of Transportation and – BOOM! – I had a new driver’s license that allowed me to call myself something Anglo. No fuss, no muss and minimal cost. Plus, my birth certificate, education records, social insurance number, etc. all stayed the same; with my birth name.

    But, I’m a feminist. Taking my spouse’s name is participating in a patriarchal tradition that, frankly, I find absurd and insulting. But it was sooooo easy… And it was something I wanted.

    Now, I have a lot of personal reasons for my actions but I would be dishonest if I claimed that what I did was “liberating” or good for me or women in general. It was easy. It suited my personal needs at the time. I’m a feminist now and I was a feminist then. All those facts are true and I still participated in a patriarchal tradition. The cognitive dissonance is easier to live with than you might think.

    But, it’s not liberating to adopt your male partner’s name on marriage.

  21. Chris says

    I know a number of women who wear a hijab because it’s what they’re used to and comfortable with, which I don’t have a problem with. The problem comes when people try to justify why it is positively a good thing.

    I am abundantly aware of the rising concerns and controversies over how a few yards of cloth covering a woman’s head is written off as a global threat to women’s education, public security, rights and even religion.

    The hijab is either just a piece of clothing, or it’s a statement. It can’t be a piece of clothing if anyone criticises it, but a statement if it is being promoted.

    I refuse to see how a woman’s significance is rated according to her looks and the clothes she wears.

    “the clothes she wears”… like the hijab? Again, wanting to have it both ways. In communities wear hijabs are prevalent women are very much judged by the clothes they wear.

  22. says

    The hijab is either just a piece of clothing, or it’s a statement. It can’t be a piece of clothing if anyone criticises it, but a statement if it is being promoted.

    QFT. This. Right here.

  23. kagekiri says

    This reads like:

    “I’m very pleased with the feel of handcuffs on my hands in day to day life. They make me feel like I’m in control; they’re so liberating, because I can take them off whenever I feel like it. I don’t understand why all those prisoners and arrested people look so unhappy when they’re being forced to wear cuffs with the threat of on-sight execution or beatings/tasings if they try to take them off. What’s all this stuff about ‘what handcuffs represent’? To me, they’re just fashion accessories. How could they ‘mean’ anything bad to anyone else?”

    Or similarly:

    “I like having bars on my windows. They can be secured, and make me feel safer from burglary or people snooping in my house. Why would prisoners complain about having bars on their windows?”

    Hey, it turns out, context matters!

  24. Godless Heathen says

    Her assertion that she wears a hijab out of a commitment to working for a world where women are not judged for what they wear or how they look is massively undercut by her statement that women who have bare breasts in public are contributing to women’s objectification.

    Also, by the fact that she’s trying to make a statement with what she wears.

  25. A. Noyd says

    You can comply with objectification, but you can’t objectify yourself because that happens inside the other person’s head. Objectification is done to you, and not objectifying you is the other person’s responsibility.

    There is no liberation in seeking to appease someone else’s standards of propriety. And, whether it’s part of the dominant culture or part of a minority one, appeasement is what veiling is all about. True liberation happens when you change the minds of the ones doing the objectifying—you teach them not to withhold their respect for your humanity no matter how covered or naked you are.

  26. Lyanna says

    Call me paranoid or mean, but am I the only one who finds that comments about the “objectification” of topless women smack of slut-shaming when they come from women who adopt extreme “modesty” as a statement?

    Don’t mistake me, there is definitely a porny culture that does the following:

    (1) encourages women to dress to titillate men, but doesn’t encourage men to do likewise for women,

    (2) simultaneously shames women who do that (because that’s part of the fun, you see–the slut turns you on, but it’s degrading to her, that’s part of the point) and blames them for harassment or assault, and

    (3) can encourage an atmosphere where ALL women are objectified, even if they’re not all wearing revealing clothes.

    I think this woman’s basic point about revealing attire often (though NOT always) promoting objectification is perfectly fine.

    But when it’s coming from a woman who wears a hijab, or an Orthodox Jewish get-up, or otherwise promotes “modesty” as a value, it does come across to me as as slut-shaming. It comes across like she’s saying, “oh, you’ll accept THOSE women who SHOW THEIR BREASTS (the sluts!) but you won’t accept a veiled woman?”

    I realize this is a bit paranoid because she didn’t actually say this. But I don’t think it’s TOO paranoid because her religion (or at least prominent exponents of her religion) actually DOES say exactly this! And blames the “immodest” women for their own harassment and assaults to boot. So, yeah, I feel like coming from a woman who adopts the ideology of modesty, talking about topless women seems more like a dig than like concern.

  27. Lyanna says

    A. Noyd, I didn’t see your post before I commented, but that’s perfect. 100% correct.

  28. says

    The subtext of the topless women comment is that western feminists are doing it wrong. In this ideology, there’s really only the one way to achieve equality for men and women, and that’s through accepting that women are sex objects who will inevitably titillate men into oppressing us unless we cover up.

    The idea that the freedom to be naked is just as, if not more, fundamental to equality as the freedom to be clothed from head to toe is apparently lost on her. Otherwise, she’d realize that equality between men and women does, in fact, require the right to be topless anywhere men are permitted to be topless, in addition to anywhere a baby needs to eat.

    So while western feminists will fight for her right to wear the hijab, we cannot expect the same courtesy from this woman who has found the One True Way to secure personal liberty.

  29. Alukonis, metal ninja says

    No one ever writes articles about how liberating it is to tuck all your hair up under a beanie and wear a snazzy scarf. Every single day. Forever.

    I wonder why that is?

  30. Charles Sullivan says

    The NY Times article strikes me as composed by a person who doesn’t recognize her 1st world privilege (probably based on class), and ignores that others, in the 3rd world, don’t have the same privilege.

  31. dirigible says

    I’m sure that embracing sectarianism, difference, and isolation can feel liberating.

    For the person who does it.

    At first.

  32. says

    I don’t buy the argument that wearing a hijab is a way to avoid being judged for how you look. Then, people just judge you based on whether or not you’re wearing it (both those who may think badly of you for wearing it and those who may think you are being more moral for wearing it).

    I didn’t wear hijab, as my parents never made me (but I have other relative who do tell their daughters to wear it). I did have to wear it whenever I went to Islamic Sunday School though. My most vivid memories of going to the Sunday School were — not of some meaningful connection with God or some motivation for following Islam — but of being judged based on my gender and my clothes. One day, when I forgot my hijab (because I didn’t usually wear it at home, like I said) I had to borrow one from the school, and one of the adults was upset because it didn’t cover my long hair. One another occasion, because I had grown a few inches taller, my pants were a tiny bit short (just above my ankle bone) and one of the adults commented on that. It was worse than being made fun of in school, because I could just ignore other kids who made fun of me, but this was coming from adults.

    @Chris (#24):

    The hijab is either just a piece of clothing, or it’s a statement. It can’t be a piece of clothing if anyone criticises it, but a statement if it is being promoted.

    This.

    @Lyanna (#29):

    Call me paranoid or mean, but am I the only one who finds that comments about the “objectification” of topless women smack of slut-shaming when they come from women who adopt extreme “modesty” as a statement?

    I know what you mean about seeing it as slut-shaming. I think I feel that way because I know that their wearing certain cloths isn’t just their own fashion sense but is based on a religion that says wearing those clothes is moral — implying that those who dress differently are being immoral.

  33. Leo says

    I think she’s oversimplifying things a little bit. It’s not just about wearing a hijab. Or, rather, oppression is not a feature that automatically comes with the hijab. For someone who supposedly has a degree in psychology, she seems to be failing to take peer and cultural pressures into account. Sure, she perhaps can wear a hijab and feel liberated. Because she doesn’t have to go home to a husband or parents or friends who will shame her if she doesn’t wear it. Interestingly enough, she does mention “misogynist mullahs or male relatives.” So why does she fail to realize this is a critical component of the hijab that she herself is lacking?

  34. says

    Lyanna:

    Call me paranoid or mean, but am I the only one who finds that comments about the “objectification” of topless women smack of slut-shaming when they come from women who adopt extreme “modesty” as a statement?

    No, you’re not. It’s par for the course, whether the woman in question is Orthodox Jewish, conservative Muslim, or a prairie muffin.

  35. Boomer says

    All I can glean from this article is the fact that a masters degree in human rights and graduate degress in psychology are largely worthless.

  36. hopeevey says

    Like it or not, people will have reactions to what we wear. Clothing is a form of non-verbal communication. I can claim that wearing sneakers is liberating, and a sign that I’m in control, but my employees and coworkers will “read” it as a lack of seriousness. I am taken more seriously when I wear dress shoes to work.

    Why, yes, this comment is inspired by Greta Christina’s posts on the topic of fashion as a language :)

    What I intend by wearing the hijab won’t change how people react to it. If everyone around me sees the hijab as a sign of oppression, when I wear hijab, I will be seen as oppressed.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Ophelia Benson of Butterflies and Wheels and Kausik Datta point to yet another article where a woman equates wearing the hijab with somehow being liberated from the constraints of patriarchy. The problem, of course, is that the game is rigged; whatever we do, we can’t win.  It’s a feature, not a bug. Anyway, instead of eviscerating the entire article, since I have meadows of wildflowers to traipse through unburdened for a moment with the knowledge that I’m an oppressed member of the sex class whose rape by like five guys like right now would just be fucking hilarious, I just want to point out one line. It’s all the fail of this reasoning is distilled into one sentence: I see hijab as the freedom to regard my body as my own concern and as a way to secure personal liberty in a world that objectifies women. […]

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