Recently I spoke with a friend of mine who happens to be a Muslim woman; she does not wear hijab, though every few years she struggles with the urge to cover her hair, because some part of her feels it’s essential to her religion. But she told me something curious about some of the ‘cultural’ reasons for wearing the niqab, which arguably predate the invention of Islam; basically, some Muslim women take to the full-body veil because they feel they are ‘too beautiful’ to go through their daily lives without sexual harassment from all of the men around them.
Thus we see in microcosm something that Christopher Hitchens condemned for religion in general; it is at once the height of abjection and servility, combined with the quintessence of arrogance and solipsism. Men are the favoured of God, entitled to all of the power and property and respect, but they are base animals who cannot be expected to control themselves if they see the curve of a woman’s chin; it’s the wretched woman’s fault for putting herself in ‘civilised’ company, distracting from the business of the day, for being too beautiful and perfect a creature to do anything but be admired in the home of the man who owns her. This utter debasement of men and women (with its concomitant erasure of non-cis, non-heterosexuals) is present in all of the major religions, but it is rarely so blunt and transparent as we find in Islam.
I am glad that I live in a country where a woman can wear the niqab if she chooses…but I’m much more concerned with providing women the space and freedom to take it off if they choose, as well. I wish there were women’s shelters designed specifically to accommodate women and their children fleeing religiously-inspired abuse (no matter what religion), spaces for women to take refuge away from the patriarchs who seek to enforce their control by force. And I believe that all children must attend a public, secular school, where they interact at least a few hours a day with kids of every gender, kids whose parents aren’t the same religion, or colour, or economic status. Children have a right to a diversity of opinion and experience, a right that trumps any self-proclaimed right of parents to cloister them into only one worldview. These measures are by no means sufficient conditions for the dismantling of sexism inherent in religion, but I believe they (or something like them) are necessary.