Via Lauryn Oates, a terrific article on the myth that the hijab protects women against sexual assault.
I was only 6 years old when my family was forced to flee the civil war in Afghanistan for Pakistan in the late 1980s. My sister, Neelo, who is five years older than me, was enrolled in a Saudi-funded Muslim Brotherhood-inspired public school for Afghan refugees. She, like many Muslim women, wore a simple headscarf.
I remember Neelo picking up her tiny bag, wrapping her scarf around her hair, and going to her first day of school. I also sadly remember her coming back from school that day and telling our parents: “The guards told me, ‘Either you are going to wear the full hijab or wear a chador [an Afghan burqa], or you can’t come to school.’” Her tiny headscarf was no longer enough.
Age 11. Ordered into a body bag at age 11.
Neelo was forced to wear the most restrictive form of the hijab—almost exactly like the woman in this image. Things were fine until the next year, when I started school myself. My mother sat me down and told me that from then on I would have to walk my sister to school every day.
I grew to hate it. Every school day, for years, as the two of us walked toward Neelo’s school, men would stare at her, sizing up her body behind the dark clothes, whispering to each other, making signs with their hands, making catcalls, taunting her, and saying things like how pretty she was—even though the only thing you could see on my sister’s body were her eyes.
The men who passed us on sidewalks would say demeaning things—things sexual in nature that I was too young to understand. My mom and dad wanted me to walk her to school because if I wasn’t with her, who knew what these men would do? I grew up hearing stories about women being groped, punched, even abducted—all while wearing hijabs. The perpetrators were from all ethnic groups and were both Pakistanis and, like us, refugees.
The experience left me angry, helpless, and traumatized.
It’s hatred. Hatred, contempt, domination. It leaves me angry and traumatized too. It makes the world feel like an alien place sometimes.
The myth that there’s a correlation between the hijab and a low incidence of sexual harassment and violence against women actually systematically victimizes them. Men are doing women a disservice in that they are placing blame on women who don’t cover themselves, as well as insinuating that a woman who is attacked while wearing a headscarf somehow did something to deserve it. As with all victim-blaming, this prevents women from speaking up about sexual assault. Many mainstream conservative Muslim clerics and pseudo-social scientists—like Zakir Naik, in this video, which is a must-see for anyone wanting to learn about this issue—openly imply or proclaim that women who don’t wear the hijab are callingfor sexual harassment and sexual violence. They go so far as correlating a woman’s right to wear what she wants in the West with a high incidence of sexualized violence against women there.
That’s what it’s like. It’s as if, by going outside, you’ve actively asked for attention or interference.
I’m celebrating World Naked Head day.
I do hope they escaped that imprisoning country too, and Neelo escaped her ‘body bag’. What a look into the reality of the burka and hijab wearing life.
I view the type of clothing in the hijab image (black, almost completely covered) as a signal that says “pretend I don’t exist”.
Forcing women to wear garb like this is telling them to pretend they don’t exist. But of course they do exist, and I think this dissonance leads to the apparent conflict between sexual harassment and the wearing of “modest” clothing.
The comments on the original argument are incredible. Arguing the harassment was caused by men who did not hold ‘Islam’ in their hearts and that the Koran ‘demands’ the women wear the burqa.
Emily Isalwaysright says
Islam is femophobic.
It’s supposed to be a signal that says “Ignore me, I’m not here”, but it ends up just meaning “Pick on me, I’m a woman”. If these men were serious about letting women run under the radar, not getting harassed, they’d encourage them to dress like men — baggy clothes and short hair.
Or, you know, try to convince other men not to be street harassers, but that might actually require effort.
Amy Clare says
It’s a good trick isn’t it, convince women that the responsibility is all on them to prevent assault, etc, and in so doing give license to the men to behave however they like.
I always wonder about the Muslim women in the UK who say they like wearing the full veil because nobody judges you on your appearance. Clearly the woman who wrote the article in the OP would beg to differ. As octopod says, the burqa is just a massive advertisement saying ‘I’m a woman’, and if that doesn’t invite judgement then what does?
Since when does a few anecdotes prove a case?
Has anyone sat down and undertaken a comparison study to see IF countries with strict Islamic codes do have different figures for sexual assaults and other ‘misogynistic’ crimes? Or is this just more armchair Daily Mail knee-jerk ‘All foreigner’s are heathen savages”?
Many countries treat women less than ‘equal’ not just Islamic ones, yet it is always Islamic ones that get the bad press. I have spent time in different countries and can tell you that a young woman will get slyly ‘felt-up’ much more on a bus or walking in India than they would in a Muslim country.
This kind of bigotry shouldn’t be happening in ‘advanced’ western countries. Look at the news in Europe and America, every day, if you actually look, crimes are committed against women and few are wearing any kind of religious clothing.
In ‘civilized’ countries a ‘covered’ Islamic woman stands more chance of being spat upon, assaulted, ignored or assaulted than in an Islamic country. I am no defender of Islam, I loathe all religion but westerners have got this wrong.
Anecdotally, I have Muslim friends, some do wear such clothing BY CHOICE. One friend said it is handy if you want to go out first thing you just throw it on – unlike western women who either 1) go to Tesco in their nightclothes/dressing gown or 2) spend half an hour or more ‘Putting on their face”.
I have worn one myself, as a dress up game, no leering, no whistles, no dirty remarks, no ogling my boobs. The only thing I had against it was it was quite hot to wear for any period.
Humans do do nasty things to one another, we don’t need many excuses, I would suggest that a rapist is going to rape, and sometimes don’t care about age or how you dress, although I would suggest that dressing with your goods on display makes you a more obvious target than some anonymous, black shape.
I worked for a Japanese company once and everyone there had to wear exactly the same, sexless uniform. I can never remember any report for sexual harassment nor any commentary from people as to someone’s fitness to mate with.
Maybe we all should wear Hijab, Burqua or a plain white sheet like a cartoon ghost.
Ophelia Benson says
Oh yes? You can? How?
Also – you do realize that India has more Muslims than any other country other than Indonesia, right?
Ophelia Benson says
Also…your comment is kind of all over the place. You seem to be indignant in a different direction with each sentence.
And then adds…
A few anecdotes aren’t enough to prove a case, then, but apparently one is.
One Way Monkey says
Kerry – I have no idea what you’re arguing for or against.
WRT “choosing” to be a hijabi, that’s like women who say “I choose to shave off my body hair” or “I choose to wear heels”. That isn’t possible I’m afraid.
“I choose my choice!” is just not thinking critically about the environment and culture you live in, acceptable standards of beauty and dress, and the role of conformity. It’s nice to pretend to yourself that they’re true choices, that you have real agency, but unless you’re in a vacuum? That’s all “choice” is, an illusion to keep you sweet.
@ One Way Monkey:
I’m all for a world where women don’t feel the social pressure to where high heels or shave their body hair. But saying that choice isn’t possible unless it is completely divorced from social pressures? That nothing is a real choice unless you exist in a vacuum? That’s ridiculous.
Of course the choices people make are influenced by the culture that they live in. But just because our choices are influenced by our environment doesn’t mean that they aren’t choices. If that were true, then no one could ever make a choice about anything. This sort of logic denies the agency not just of women who choose to conform to societal expectations, but of everyone in the history of ever.
One Way Monkey says
Anathema – under patriarchy our choices are limited. Don’t you think it’s a strange coincidence that the “choices” many women make are patriarchy-compliant?
We all know the result of making the wrong (ie. those not approved by the patriarchy) choices, don’t we?
Women cannot ever win, even if we’re 100% compliant because those “choices” are just illusory, to let us believe we have true agency and power en masse.
Choosing to scrape your skin free of hair (which performs a useful function), or force your feet into unnatural shapes, or wrapping nous head in cloth – how would that come about naturally? How many times have you heard “I shave because hair is itchy/ugly/inconvenient” or “I wear the hijab because it frees me/protects me/I want to”? They’re just excuses designed to almost apologise for conforming to harmful /ridiculous/unnecessary practices.
The only way we can express our agency is to refuse to participate, but that comes at a heavy price. When saying “No, don’t” leads to fifteen months of harassment, death and rape threats, then the other choice, playing along, almost seems attractive.
We need to dismantle these illusions of “choice”, and start rejecting patriarchal norms (like hijab) or we’ll never make progress.
No, I don’t find it strange that the choices that many women make are patriarchy-compliant. As I said, social pressures influence the choices we make. Patriarchy is one of those social pressures.
Yeah, the way society treats women who make the “wrong” choices plays a role in the decisions women make. But we take into account the potential consequences of our actions all the time. That’s simply part of the decision-making process. It’s part of how we make choices.
Okay, what does it take for a choice not to count as illusory? What does it take for someone to have “true agency”?
As far as I can tell, you’re definition of a “true agent” is someone whose choices are completely uninfluenced by their society, culture, or the potential consequences of their actions. I don’t think this is a useful definition though, as it would mean that absolutely no one is a true agent. The term simply ceases to be meaningful.
How about something like “I choose to shave my legs because I feel better when I do. I live in a society where women with hairy legs are considered unattractive and women are judged primarily by their appearance. I remember hearing other girls who had hairy legs being mocked by their classmates when I was a teenager. This has led to a situation where I feel less confident and more self-conscious when I don’t shave my legs.”?
I’m not entirely sure if you have a problem with women who have decided to conform to patriarchal expectations in certain areas in general, or just with the overly simplistic reasons that they sometimes give.
If it’s the former, I disagree. We all have to navigate the patriarchy one way or another. In some situations, some women are going to think that the benefits of conforming are going to outweigh the costs of not conforming. Sometimes women are going to decide to take the easier route. Sometimes we have to choose which battles we want to fight.
If it’s the latter, I’m generally sympathetic to your concerns. I don’t think it’s fair to ignore the way society influences our actions. Denying the fact that society influences our actions simply isn’t helpful. We need to be willing to examine the choices that we make and why we make them.
One Way Monkey: It certainly sounds as if you wish to replace one tyranny with another. It’s one thing to say “you don’t have to do this and there are no repercussions should you choose not to” and something entirely different to say “you can’t do this even if you ‘choose’ because you’re choice has been unduly influenced by the patriarchy.”
I choose to shave my body because yes it is itchy and occasionally bothersome and I enjoy the smoothness of my hairless skin. (I also choose when/when not to shave because its rather time consuming.) But apparently I don’t really have a choice in the matter and this illusion of choice is just a means to keep me sweet.
Would it make a difference if I were a man? How would my choice to shave feed into the patriarchal norms then? And, most importantly, if the choice of a man to shave his body is a valid one, how is the invalidation of that choice in women not just another form of misogyny?
One Way Monkey says
Recreant – How and when did you decide that something growing on your body was inconvenient to you, and how did you hit upon the idea of scraping or ripping the hair out from the roots?
How did you fashion tools for removing it?
You’re totally missing the point with “It’s itchy! It is!”
Anathema – my anger and frustration isn’t with my fellow women at all, I’ve worked for years at a project designed to expose girls and women to images and testimonials featuring totally untouched and unposed bodies, and honest descriptions of things like sex/pregnancy/birth/feeding etc.
I hate that women used to come to me (I worked in sexual health) suicidal because they had hair on their nipples, or stretchmarks. I saw young girls who self-harmed because their labia minora were purple or brown. Kids who thought they were freaks because their breasts were unevenly sized.
So I’m angry that girls and women are first presented, as the image of a “normal” and desirable body, something which cannot be achieved naturally. Automatically they’re at a disadvantage.
If they buy into it they’re signing up to a lifetime of battling their own body. If they don’t buy into it they’re called dyke/ugly cunt/animal/pig/manly/bitch/troll until they give in, or get mad.
I’m angry at the escalation. The anal bleaching, botox, fillers, facial implants, full waxing, fake tan etc. being pushed as standard, as necessary, to compete with Photoshopped pictures. I hate that the pushers do this knowing that a lot of women are often scared into not adding all of these extras into an already punishing routine.
I’m sad that I’ve seen so many people sob when they see pictures of real bellies, and breasts, and faces, because they believed they were freaks.
I’m sick that women are stripped of their power and beauty, and agency because they’re trying to live up to an impossible ideal. It hurts. Eleven year old girls with staph infections on their mons from trying to shave their pubic hair off, or mums with week old babies, who’re frantic because their “baby weight” hasn’t come off. It’s heartbreaking.
Then the victim blaming? Kelly is blamed for her assault because she went to a bar, Rekha asked for it because she left the house in a flimsy hijab and without her brother, Malky asked for it when she went out with her forearms uncovered.
I’m sick of it all, because women and girls are given these fake choices, and then they’re blamed for whatever happens as a result of those choices, and it’s the women that Suffer, whatever happens. What’s worse is, they believe their choices were bad, they believe they caused their own abuse/assault/harassment.
So yeah, I sound extreme, but I’ve had enough of seeing my sisters used as pawns. I get to opt out most of the way, I don’t need men in my life, but I see the strain and pain on the faces of the women who think that they have to stay on that impossible treadmill.
I just wonder where it’s all going to end. I want women and girls to have truly free choices, free of terrible repercussions for say… not depilating, not curling straight hair, straightening curly hair, lightening dark skin, darkening light skin.
Sorry this got long, but shit’s starting to get real for the little girls in my life, and they’re almost paralysed by the million choices they’re expected to make, that aren’t genuine choices anyway. I don’t want them to end up like me, eating disordered, self-hating, self-harming for twenty wasted years.
/sad auntie, who wants a femmetopia for tomorrow’s women.
Ms. Daisy Cutter, Vile Human Being says
Nice. Victim blaming and framing of women’s bodies as “goods.” With of course a nasty jab at all those awful Western women who either don’t dress up “enough” or who put on “too much” makeup.
BTW, if you’re decrying anecdotes as data…
…using your own experience makes you look hypocritical.
One Way Monkey, I really dislike the radfem assertion that all patriarchy-compliant choices are inherently wrong, oppressive, and unhealthy. It glosses over the fact that human beings of all genders have been altering their bodies since the start of recorded history. It also glosses over the fact that some women really do enjoy dressing “femme” — as do some men.
The treatment of any expression of “girliness” in woman as evidence that the woman in question is either brainwashed or “a gender traitor” is a kind of internalized misogyny.
And as for hair “performing a useful function”… I think you can easily slide into the naturalistic fallacy there.
FWIW, I am not especially girly.
You failed to answer my questions. I’ll do you the service of answering yours.
I decided that my hair was occasionally bothersome when it caused me discomfort. Whether this was from getting caught in zippers or pulled out on bandages or causing irritating rashes, it was personally bothersome. Perhaps it’s less bothersome for you in that regard. Good for you, but your personal feelings do not invalidate mine.
Where the tool I use to remove hair came from is wholly irrelevant. If you’d care to argue otherwise have at it.
Finally, telling you that my hair does in fact itch is not missing the point. When I shave, I have reasons that are independent of the patriarchal justifications, among them personal comfort. What you appear to be saying is that my reasons aren’t the true motivation for my actions, and that reeks of condescension.
“The reason you won’t sleep with me is because you’re a prude.”
“The reason you’re offended is because you hate men.”
How is you telling me the ‘reason’ I shave any different from the above? All of them seek to invalidate my personal opinions and choices.
Finally, back to my question: Would the validity of my choice change if I were a man?
SOOOOOO much this.
First of all, a LOT of the patriarchy seems to be based on weird perversions of non-patriarchal femininity and masculinity. (whatever those are, in whatever culture). If people should downplay and hide their body among those they do not know, then this becomes forced upon women but not men, and forced to an absurd degree. If a smooth and hairless body is beautiful to behold, then this becomes absolutely neccessary not merely for exceptional beauty but for everyday acceptablity. This does not destroy or mitigate the underlying reasons why people do things.
Choices ARE subject to criticism. And the real world constrains and punishes all choices. There is always a path of least resistance. However, this is not even vaguely something that only happens to women. If I perform masculinity sufficiently badly, I can be punished pretty severely, and can become an object of contempt and ridicule among people who don’t even value masculinity that much. That does not change the fact that I LIKE performing a specific form of masculinity, and choose to do it, and if I REALLY didn’t want to I would be able to stop.
One Way Monkey, if you acutally suceeed in having a society like you want exist, I am going to come around offering asylum. A society where there are no constraints or pressures on choices is a society without human desires or enviroment or society itself, a black void unsuited to life. That’s not to say this society is good. It needs massive improvment including less constraint on choices. That’s what choices are: optimization under constraints.
THis is one of the problems: Wanting to want things different than what you want,or thinking that people are wrong about what they want. This is condescending and nobody is as smart as they think they are. Sometimes there are issues. For example, I am pretty sure that most people are wrong about not wanting immortality. But invoking that over inconvenient hygeine practices? Its rather absurd.
Also, jerking people around by doing the opposite of what they want you to do, by itself, is not very agentic. Whether or not you are oppressed.
I’m not sure how much you can compare the penalties for not wearing heels or not shaving body hair in countries where the patriarchy is being dismantled to those for not wearing the hijab either in those countries, or in the more patriarchal Islamic countries, or in the really hardcore Islamic theocracies.
Ms. Daisy Cutter, Vile Human Being says
im, considering that last night you jumped onto a year-old thread to leave some “what about teh menz” type comments, I’m not thrilled to have you on my side.
Markita Lynda—damn climate change! says
I have an equal and opposite anecdote. A friend went to India and stated that she was left alone in Hindu villages but in Muslim villages was constantly groped–a problem if she was carrying her luggage and couldn’t manage to have a hand free to fend off the men.
Women are sexually assaulted in Muslim countries. In fact there are gangs of men who cruise around hoping to see a woman stumble and show an ankle, because that gives them an excuse.
I’m beginning to think that an appropriate female outfit includes clubs and pepper spray.
Since I don’t (nowadays) get harassed or groped, I’m not sure how I would react, but I like to think I’d have presence of mind to spit on anyone who physically harasses me in public. Probably not go for pepper spray, though …
I can hardly say how glad I am to have gotten old enough to be “invisible”. I can walk through a crowded shopping mall and see other people’s eyes just slide right past me, looking for other targets to gaze at (and perhaps targets for actual harassment, as well). I still appear physically competent enough to not look like an easy mark for a criminal – not that I’m immune to assault, of course, just not frail or impaired-looking that might “invite” granny-bashing. And it helps that I never, ever go in public except in my invisibility-uniform: khaki pants and a neutral-colored polo shirt. It’s perfect.
Except, really, it isn’t perfect at all. I’d much rather all girls and women could be seen in public without being targets. I’d trade places, if I could, and take some of the leering and obscene comments on their behalf, because at my stage in life I’m plenty tough to take it without it harming my self-confidence.
I’m sad to think how much it twists a teenager to be told she must care about her beauty to attract a boy, and then when she does, it turns out that the boys will call her slut and worse. I don’t know how to fix our broken culture. Much less anyone else’s.
My personal experience (living in London) is that harrasment is more common if I am covered up than when I wear a nice (and possibly revealing) dress. I first noticed this when I had men shout something at me when I was walking down the street wearing a full length winter coat and a hat. I was propositioned in a shop when I was wearing a very old pair of jeans and one of my husband’s jumpers.
My sister has always dressed provocatively (quite deliberately) and was once signed up to a modelling agency. Men really notice her but she does not get harrassed as frequently as I do. My mother says it is because men find her intimidating whilst I am too polite. I am certainly approachable, I get stopped by tourists for directions or help using the tube all the time.
I wish people would stop blaming women for harrassment. I recommend reading Ed Hussein’s the Islamist. The author describes how in Saudi Arabia he couldn’t leave his wife (who was veiled) for a few minutes in the supermarket without men coming up to her and whispering obscenities into her ear.