Guest post: Only when it is nothing more than a personal choice

Originally a comment by Saad on An entire way of dressing, behaving and believing.

I wonder how many progressive never-Muslims find this convincing and are tricked into thinking the hijab (and other such Islamic coverings) are some neutral thing that are only bad when the Taliban or ISIL enforces them. This is what my issue with people like Yusuf is. They’re doing a disservice by calling the concept and practice of hijab a way to avoid sexual exploitation or some sort of statement on behalf of women.

Also, let’s be very clear here that advocating for the right of hijabi women to feel safe in non-Muslim societies is not the same as defending the notion of hijab. She does not need to defend the hijab in general in order to defend women wearing hijab.

This is the stupidest thing I’ve read in quite a while:

Last week, I made a video for The Guardian newspaper’s website. In it, I explained how I see the hijab as a feminist statement. As far as I’m concerned this is a straightforward statement; it follows directly from my experience of the world.

This is pure bullshit. It does not follow from experiencing the world. How can a headdress which is required (or very sternly expected) of you by the male-dominated society around you be a feminist statement? And that is what the hijab is for very large parts of the Muslim world. It is a requirement and you face punishment of varying degree for not following it: mistreatment by family, harassment by community, fines by your government, or even corporal punishment.

Second, the issue of what the hijab is is quite simple. It is a disgusting tool used by a very patriarchal system to treat women like objects whose sexuality is used to bring honor or shame to their guardians and their community at large. That is all it is. I’m sorry, but the hijab hasn’t gotten to the point where it can be used by the targets themselves like some racial slurs can be used. Most of the Muslim world isn’t there yet.

An analogy I like to use about this is that there are arranged marriages that work out for the husband and wife. I know of several in my family alone. Just as you can be assigned a random roommate and end up becoming great friends, you can be arrange-married to a stranger and end up being a good match. This says absolutely nothing in defense of the coercive and anti-choice practice of arranged marriage. Just because some women feel that living with the requirement that your head must be wrapped in a cloth even in very hot weather is a good thing for them does not do a damn thing to paint the actual practice of hijab as it exists in large parts of Muslim societies in a good light.

The hijab is antithetical to feminism.

It’s all about choice. The question is: how many Muslim women who wear hijab around the world do it out of 100% personal choice and stand to face absolutely no criticism or violence for removing it whenever and wherever they choose? When the practice of hijab becomes nothing more than a personal choice, only then may it be considered a feminist statement. In other words, when a Muslim woman in a Muslim family and Muslim community can wear a hijab on Monday and then not wear it on a Tuesday (without receiving so much as a mean glance from her family and community), then we’ll talk about the hijab being a neutral or good thing.


  1. sambarge says

    When the practice of hijab becomes nothing more than a personal choice, only then may it be considered a feminist statement.

    I would argue, even then, that the choice to wear a hijab would be feminist neutral. There is nothing inherently feminist in the choice to wear a hijab and its history (whatever it may develop into in the future) is rooted in oppression.

    A choice by a feminist is not necessarily a feminist choice. Allow me to give a non-veiling example:

    25 yrs ago, I was an under-grad, thinking about grad school and my unwieldy last name. My parents were Italian immigrants and our family name included the dreaded “gigli” combination that English speakers find almost impossible to pronounce. Tired of the mispronunciations, I looked into the cost and process of changing my name. Initially, I chose my mother’s birth name. No feminist reasons, only that it was a family name I felt an ownership to, I had cousins with that name and it was easier for Anglos to say. But the cost was prohibitive and I didn’t like the idea of a new a birth certificate, as if SamBarge had never lived. It was weird. Also, my parents were uncomfortable with me changing my name. It seemed like a rejection, which is certainly wasn’t but all the same, what would they tell their friends? I didn’t hate my birth name, I just didn’t want to lug it through my whole life. I wanted life in my Anglo country of birth to be a little easier.

    While I considered my options, my then boyfriend (now spouse) and I decided to get married. Suddenly, I was offered the opportunity to change my name to a lovely Anglicized German name for the low price of $26 (the cost of a new driver’s licence). My family’s protests about me changing my name disappeared. They were thrilled that they wouldn’t have to explain to their friends why I changed my name. All their friends completely understood this sort of name change. No one wondered why, my birth certificate stayed the same. This name change was easy, peasey, lemon-squeezy. It was as if society had been set up to make this choice easy.

    And, of course, society was set up to make this choice easy. And it was my choice. My spouse would never have forced me to change my name and was a little surprised when I chose to do it. I had a lot of good personal reasons to make the change but he knew that I was a feminist who didn’t view marriage as an erasure of my previous existence for a rebirth as Mrs. Husband’s Name.

    So I made a choice to which I had the privilege as a heterosexual woman to access. I made that choice as a feminist but it was not a feminist choice. It was a choice that was expedient and useful to me but it was a choice that upheld a patriarchal tradition.

    That point was driven home a few years later when our friends were getting married. At the reception, the groom insisted that I tell the bride to change her name after marriage. Apparently, she wanted to hold on to her easy to pronounce and spell (and frankly preferable to her new spouse’s) name. Why would I tell her to do that, I asked? Because I had done it and I was a feminist so she should do it too, was his reasoning.

    And so, every act by a feminist is not necessarily a feminist act AND sometimes our actions help to keep our sisters who would choose otherwise oppressed.

  2. says

    That’s an excellent story/example.

    (And it’s true about gigli. I just tried to do it and I can’t make it come out right. Pagliacci is nooooo problem, but gigli is. I have no idea why. I apologize for all Americans.)

  3. sambarge says

    Oh, I’m Canadian, so it wasn’t a slight on Americans. “Gigli” in Italian isn’t a sound that you make in English. The closest and easiest way to say it is “gee-lee” as if the second “g” was silent. In Italian, it isn’t silent but it’s best to ignore that when speaking English.

  4. Saad says

    sambarge, #2

    That’s a great point, and your example is right. But I wasn’t saying the hijab will be a feminist symbol. I was saying only when it’s 100% choice may it have a chance of being used as a symbol. I was trying to be as charitable to Yusuf’s position as possible.

    I had something like this in mind: We can imagine a black activist staging a demonstration where she puts a “colored people” sign on a water fountain and drinks from it as a way of saying that black people are still treated poorly. This would work as a statement in 2015. The hijab does not. It’s still a standard current form of sexist oppression so a woman wearing a hijab is just seen as a virtuous, god-fearing woman and not a feminist making a statement.

  5. johnthedrunkard says

    The ‘feminist veil’ argument is equivalent to claims about the health-protecting benefits of circumcision, or the ‘right’ of Black Americans to wear Confederate flags or attend public schools named for slave owners.

    These institutions all have entirely reprehensible causes and origins. Recruiting the language of ‘diversity’ or political correctness to justify them is blatant post-hockery.

  6. CJO, egregious by any standard says

    I agree with this. But it should be recognized that all such choices are made within social contexts; there is no such choice that can be made that is truly “100% a personal choice”

    To repurpose a formulation from another context:
    No choice with social implications could be trivial enough to be 100% personal.

    Ice cream flavors, maybe color choices when decorating etc.
    But anything like what clothes to wear, what hairstyle to adopt, etc. signifies and marks in ways that we can’t control or be aware of in all circumstances. And those choices are always going to be at least partly the product of pressures and influences that are fundamentally interpersonal and social.

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