Headscarves and burqas are symbols of gender apartheid and of patriarchal-Islam’s intolerance towards female sexual agency and autonomy.
Gender-based religious dress is grabbing headlines again. Last week an unnamed Birmingham girl was slut-shamed and flooded with hate mail and received death threats after she was captured on camera twerking while wearing a hijab. After the video went online, she was intimidated into a YouTube interview (confessional and apology) for allegedly “disrespecting” Islam and “dishonouring the Muslim community”. This week’s European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling permitting employers to ban workers from the “visible wearing of any political, philosophical or religious sign” – including headscarves – further sparked debate about the headscarf. Finally, sporting apparel company Nike launched a hijab for Muslim female athletes. The Nike Pro Hijab has been in development for a year, the company said. Athletes contributed input into the product, and figure skater Zahra Lari was among those who tested it.
In response to these stories, our own Madelaine Hanson penned a column insinuating that modesty is the new “sexy”, in which she claimed that there’s “a realness to modesty; a privateness that evokes intimacy” in contrast to the kind of contrived sexuality typical of Western ‘femininity’ (and pornography?). She concluded that the hijab is a fantasy that men can engage with.
There are conflicting (or disturbing) messages in all of the above that need some unpacking. Some Western Muslim academics deny the primary theological significance of the hijab or burqa and instead claim that Westerners see the burqa as a symbol of the irrevocable “otherness” of Muslims. Accordingly the “hysterical” reactions to veiling are just a Western pretext for racist attitudes towards Muslims. Yet the discourse vacillates between this claim and the contradictory claim that the veil has no special significance other than what the wearer intends it to mean, and so is no more than a form of personal expression – a symbol of Muslim women’s freedom to “be themselves”. The scorn of the (self-described) “Muslim community” that rained down on the Birmingham Hijabi twerker suggests otherwise. Evidently, for many Muslims the hijab does have a singular normative religious significance, and the girl was apparently wrong to think that she had a right to behave as she pleased while wearing it.
The alleged ‘sexiness’ of the hijab is all about its appeal to male sexuality, not about female sexual agency. But then Madelaine Hansen didn’t suggest otherwise. Apparently female sexuality is all about what men want, end of story. This points to an interesting feature of the taboo on female sexuality, whether in Western culture or Islamic theology. Neither are really against female sexuality per se. In fact both fetishise it to the extent of obsession. Whether cultural ideas about female sexuality are grounded in Christian or Islamic tradition, both combine prurience and Puritanism. The result is a perverse fixation on women as sexual objects of male desire that strips them of their own. For religious Puritans, female sexuality is not the problem – their sexual agency is. The very same people who reprimanded the Birmingham girl did not avert their own eyes from the video. If they were that offended by it, the appropriate response would be to not look at it. Perhaps this obsession with the very thing you wish to repress or contain explains why it was viewed over 1 million times on social media.
The issue is not whether Western women are guilty of a similar form of capitulation to that of Muslim women, but whether the pressure on females to acquiesce to “feminine” dress codes (in either culture) amounts to sexist oppression. Even if Western women are not fully liberated, this has no bearing on their ability to oppose forms of sexism in other cultures as well as in their own. But the assertion that Western women who are not ashamed of their own sexual desires are “oppressed” needs further analysis. If female sexual agency is somehow shameful while male sexual agency isn’t, then this needs to be argued for with good reasons. Male and female feminists should welcome a discussion of these double standards. Many forms of female undress in Western culture are celebrations of shame-free female sexual agency. Women in the West know they can wear what they want without fear of molestation because the law acts as a deterrent to would-be male predators.
The assumption that Western feminist critics of the burqa or hijab do not oppose the sexualisation of the female body within their own culture is unfounded. Western feminists do maintain a trenchant critique of sexual objectification “at home”. This argument also rests on the assumption that you cannot be a “good” feminist if you regard the (shame-free) sexualisation of the female body as potentially empowering for women as autonomous sexual subjects (agents). The real question is who decides what women can or should wear – individual women, or communities who enforce dress codes?
In Islamic cultures the predominant theological reasoning for veiling seems to be that the female body is such a powerful sexual object that nothing short of covering it can prevent men from molesting it. According to Islamic Hadith (or allegedly “poor interpretations” of it), the female body is so powerfully sexual that it is literally irresistible to the opposite sex. This statement is from Australia’s influential former senior Islamic cleric, Sheik Taj Aldin as-Hilali:
“If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside. . . without cover, and the cats come to eat it. . . whose fault is it, the cats’ or the uncovered meat’s? The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred.”
Sharia law is still enforced in approximately 35 nations, where some form of veiling is compulsory. An estimated 83 Sharia courts operate in England today. Many Muslim families living in Western Europe use legal forms of coercion to make girls and women conform to veiling. In 2012 the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO) found that 39 out of 52 police forces across the UK had recorded at least 2,823 “honour” attacks over 2010. Some forces showed a jump of nearly 50 per cent in such cases from 2009. More than 11,000 cases of so-called honour crime were recorded by UK police forces from 2010-14. The figures revealed 11,744 incidences of these crimes between 2010 and 2014, consisting of data from 39 out of 52 police forces in the UK. South Yorkshire had 1,009 unconfirmed incidents in 2014 alone while Lancashire Police had 1,049.
This is the backdrop against which Muslims in Europe claim that wearing religious dress is primarily a free “choice”. The claim that covering yourself up in public is an empowering choice insults the intelligence and dignity of women everywhere, just as the theological claim that the burqa is a necessary defence against predatory male sexuality insults Muslim men insofar as it treats them as fundamentally incapable of sexual self-control.
The reason Western feminists (male or female) object to seeing women in headscarves and burqas is not that we can’t tolerate diversity, but that the burqa is a anything but a symbol of diversity. On the contrary; it represents conformity. It is a symbol of gender apartheid and of patriarchal Islam’s intolerance towards female sexual agency and autonomy. The real question is whether Islam’s gender enforcement authorities can tolerate diversity. Can they countenance Muslim women who refuse to conspire in a rape culture that constrains what women can wear in order to prevent men from preying upon them? Laws that punish men for assault and molestation are a more just deterrent. They rest on a presupposition that men are free agents capable of taking responsibility for their behaviour. After all, if men are incapable of self-control, then they should not be entitled to the rights that other adults enjoy: voting, holding office, driving, smoking or drinking alcohol. There is no way to assess the issues raised by religious dress while ignoring its theological significance.