I saw a video the other day, in the form of a gifset on Tumblr. The phrase that resonates most with people is, “the liberation lies in the choice.” It’s a noble sentiment. People should be free to wear what they choose, and be treated with respect for their choices.
“It’s just a scarf,” says Hanna Yusuf in the original video (at The Guardian), and yet it is more than that. It is a political weapon. In many communities – in many countries – there is no choice. There is no liberation. Woman are forced into self-concealment, and so of course the veil, even the hijab, is symbolic of the oppression of women. Hanna Yusuf disagrees. “My concern with the hijab being unfairly portrayed as a symbol of oppression is in no way a denial of the fact that some women are forced to wear it, in some parts of the world, sometimes through appalling violence.”
Some… some… sometimes…
“In a world where a woman’s value is often reduced to her sexual allure,” she says, “what could be more empowering than rejecting that notion? By covering up, we reject the message that women must be sexy but not slutty, stick-thin but still curvy, youthful but all natural. It’s a market that pressures women to try to attain the unattainable.”
Perhaps, but you can reject the message, and even fight against it, without covering up. Covering up is making an additional statement: to be seen as a respectable woman, not as a sexual object. It all sounds very feminist, but feminism should be about striving for freedom and equality for all women, not about encouraging the concealment of women.
And it is fundamentally flawed anyway. Covering up is a form of concealment, and concealment creates erotic charge. “In olden days,” the song goes, “a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking…” Forbidden. Erotic. Once, also, the rare sight of an ankle was intensely erotic. In contrast, in cultures where nudity is normal, the sight of exposed breasts is not erotic – see, e.g., Men Aren’t Hard Wired To Find Breasts Arousing (which also notes that even a forbidden glimpse of hair can be erotic).
So covering up reduces a woman to the status of a sexual object. Where is the liberation in that?
The liberation lies in the choice, but until it is a choice that can be freely made for all women, then there will be no liberation. The hijab is not, and cannot be, a feminist statement until then. If a woman chooses to veil herself from head to foot, she should be treated with respect; equal respect should be given to a woman who chooses to wear nothing.
Refusing the Veil
Criticism of the veil is too often met with strident accusations of racism and sexism. This is a difficult subject for anyone to talk about. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown dares to confront the issue, writing with clarity and the passion of one who sees a hard-won freedom slipping away. Refusing the Veil is not an attack on Islam or on Muslim women. It is, very specifically, a comprehensive argument for why the veil, in any of its variations, is a bad thing.
“While we talk openly and often about the negative impact of our perfectionist and sex-obsessed culture on other women and girls, hardly anyone dares to speak up about similar pressures on traditional Muslim females,” she says at one point.
At another: “Far more serious is the domestic violence that can be concealed under niqabs and burkhas. Not all women in burkhas are the walking wounded, but some are, and the tragedy is that it is impossible to pick up the signs. The usual network of concerned people – neighbours, colleagues, pupils, teachers, police or social workers – would need to be approached by the traumatised women and girls, otherwise the problem would remain hidden.”
It’s a short book, quick and easy to read, and is very concerned with the progressive spread of hardline, oppressive values. In a recent article, she says:
Misogynistic Wahabi values are now embedded across the UK. Malignant literature, well produced and written in English, is found in many of our mosques. The books insist women are congenitally deficient and must be beaten and controlled. Farhat Hashmi, who got her PhD from Glasgow university, is one of the most influential internet female proselytisers ever. She orders middle class women to stay at home and give in men’s demands. They obey.