I have only seen a niqabi once in my life. She was at the San Francisco airport and I remember being struck by that slash of black in a massive space. It was a cool outfit.
Michaela and I went to buy the niqab after I decided I was gonna wear for a week. She asked me why I was doing it. I said I was just curious as to what it’d be like and what the reactions would be. I wouldn’t change my lifestyle at all, I’d just wear it whenever I was outside. She was like, ok, just be careful. I said, careful of what?
She said, “Once I was wearing this low-cut v-neck at the grocery store and I had a purple scarf wrapped around my hair and this guy comes up to me and is like, ‘You know, that headscarf is a symbol of modesty, and you’re not dressed very modestly.’ He seemed pissed. People might give you shit for wearing a niqab and drinking and stuff.”
I told her I didn’t think that would happen but that I kind of hoped it would so I could write about it here. There’s a lot of talk about Islam and feminism and colonialism in general terms, but few concrete examples.
I was amused, and then not-so-amused at how much people seemed to be missing the point of FEMEN’s protest. The whole thing about the oppression of female bodies is that it’s subtle and requires us to willingly participate in it. Why are so many feminists (of every stripe) refusing to acknowledge this? The subjugation of women is global, and while the symptoms and methods of control may differ slightly by region, the roots of oppression are the same.
“Let Muslim feminists figure out their own shit, they don’t need your white, Western feminism.”
Ok, a lot of things are wrong with this, chief being the conflation of race and religion. Amina Tyler, a Muslim woman fighting for reform of Islam, is accused of being a token while simultaneously being “disowned” by Muslims.
Literal Arab members of FEMEN are being glossed over. Brown secular women are accused of being “white” in ideology. The very people who are arguing for the voices of non-white women are dismissing those voices when they don’t fit the Muslim hijabi model.
White people don’t own secularism. Westerners don’t own secularism.
Muslim feminists are working within an Islamic framework and secular feminists are not, because they believe either the ideology or the application of the ideology is misogynistic. Therefore, to many secular feminists, Muslim women are part of the problem.
Omg you guys I am so mean I can’t believe I said that! How can they be part of the problem when:
- They’re Muslim [and if you critique Islam you're an Islamophobe]
- They’re women [and therefore automatically feminists despite countless examples throughout history of women participating in their own oppression and enforcing the oppression of other women]
- They’re brown [so their opinion is automatically more valid because imperialism]
- They live far away [so they probably have some sort of mystical culture that we can’t understand]
All of these arguments are terrible. To be clear, it is not hijabis that are the problem, but women who don’t acknowledge how the concept of female modesty has fetishized and commodified the female body as an item of trade between families and how women have been, and continue to be, killed over it. The problem isn’t women who choose to be modest, but those who refuse to stand in solidarity with secular feminists who point out the misogyny behind the concept.
FEMEN is asking women to protest with their tops off in a gesture of solidarity. They are not asking people to abandon hijab for toplessness forever. Of course, we don’t have to take our tops off in order to stand in solidarity–we can simply recognize their efforts instead of undermining them.
Secular feminists participate in modesty too. We wear clothes that make us feel safe. We tug at our shorts self-consciously. As secular feminists, however, we understand that these are concessions we make for living in a patriarchal world. We (hopefully) understand that the way we dress has literally nothing to do with whether someone will sexualize us or not.
After Michaela and I bought the outfit from Sultana in Berkeley (the lady who works there is a sweetheart by the way) we went back to her place and I put it on. The churidar was a little too big so Michaela pinned it for me and we went out to downtown Oakland. The pins stabbed me the entire time and I kept tripping and looked like a huge idiot basically. We also didn’t realize it was Art Murmur and super crowded.
We got a couple of drinks and nobody bothered us. The lady behind the counter checked my ID but didn’t ask me to show my face. The bouncer at a bar did, though. Michaela kept saying “Argh I feel like I’m boring you because I can’t see a single expression on your face.” I assured her that she wasn’t boring me and tried to indicate interest with my whole body and especially my eye muscles but I don’t think it worked very well.
Afterward, we were walking around these cars and I wanted to take a picture in front of one because it reminded me of M.I.A.’s Bad Girls video. This guy was the car’s owner.
He said loudly to his friend, “I bet she’s real sexy even under all those layers.”
Michaela was mystified. “How did he know that? Is it because you’re small?”
Of course he has no idea what I look like. It doesn’t actually matter, because his saying that has nothing to do with me and everything to do with him asserting verbal power over my body. We have seen this time and time again in sexual assault studies—you cannot control whether someone will assault you or harass you by the clothes you choose to wear. Yesterday in Berkeley, a bunch of gutter punk kids said the same thing (“I bet you’re hot under all that”). Assholes don’t need your permission to be assholes.
There seems to be an idiotic dichotomy between “the freedom to be sexualized” (Western) and “the freedom from sexualization” (Muslim). FEMEN’s toplessness is sexualized by the media, not themselves—nothing about their comportment says “sex”. They look pretty pissed, actually.
But yes, of course they are being sexualized, because female bodies are inherently sexualized in a patriarchal world. A hijab doesn’t free a body from sexualization—instead, it emphasizes its sexuality by aggressively signaling a deletion. It just moves the threshold of sexualization even farther away from nudity.
Last time I went to India, I had to fight with my family for half an hour in order to wear a tank top and an above-the-knee skirt in the sweltering heat. Their argument was: “Yes, of course you have the right to wear whatever you want, but people here don’t dress like that so you’ll stand out and attract the wrong kind of attention.” This is capital C CULTURE you guys! Notice how that doesn’t prevent it from being shitty and anti-feminist!
I googled “why wear hijab” and the first page that came up was this one. Here is a quote:
Of course, it is the men who are to be blamed for harassing women, yet the woman who fails to realize that dressing in a way which is so strikingly appealing (particularly when working in a male-dominated environment) is only asking for trouble is part of the problem as well. Regardless of where the blame lies, there is only one way by which a woman can guard herself against such evils, and that is why Hijabi women conceal their beauty in public as much as possible.
This is a factually inaccurate statement! Concealing your beauty won’t, in fact, guard you against sexual assault. Such an assertion is victim-blaming, and part of rape culture! Is rape culture different in Asia? Why, no, it isn’t! Women get blamed for their own sexual assaults ALL THE TIME! So is this the kind of culture leftists are legitimizing by refusing to critique it?
(There are, of course, other reasons for wearing a hijab. But I have heard the modesty reasoning many, many times and it seems to be the main one. This makes sense, since it’s in the Quran.)
People have been rationalizing oppressive practices by using the catchphrases “my choice,” “my culture,” and most of all “my religion,” for a long time. There is nothing about the Islamic conceptualization of female bodies that doesn’t have a conservative Western correlate. The concept of modesty is by no means unique to Islam. The west has dress codes too, it also controls the venues for the display of nudity. In the west, female sexualized nudity is encouraged in order to sell products. However, non-sexualized, non-commodified nudity is not only discouraged, it is criminalized. A critique of this is inherent in FEMEN’s mode of protest. They are being civilly disobedient by taking their tops off. They are critiquing Western culture as well as non-Western culture because they understand that the modes of oppression are the same.
I did this experiment knowing that I would probably not be harassed. I am lucky, though. I live in San Francisco, where people largely leave each other alone as long as no one is getting hurt. This seems like a reasonable definition of a free society. Then I thought about whether I would be brave enough to go topless for a week. Hahaha. No, I would not be brave enough to do that, partly because it is illegal but mostly because I would be extremely worried about my bodily safety. If you agree that there is nothing immoral about a woman being topless, this should concern you. If you do think there is something immoral about a woman being topless, I encourage you to voice why in the comments.
Critiquing the misogynistic aspects of Islam is neither imperialistic nor Islamophobic. It is not Islamophobic because a phobia is by nature irrational, and hopefully a critique is based in rational argument. It is not imperialistic because there is no military force backing the critique. In fact, Islam itself is an imperialistic force. Who has a bigger force of violence backing its cause, FEMEN or Salafis? In this Atlantic article, Amina Tyler voices her concerns for her safety after FEMEN’s actions. But who is she afraid of?
Bangladesh used to be a moderate Muslim country (well, sort of. Taslima Nasrin still had to flee for being a feminist speaking out against Islam). Saudi oil-funded madrassas have been spreading Wahhabism in the region, culminating in a recent march of hundreds of thousands of people demanding the death penalty for bloggers who speak out against Islam. Is this the kind of political climate in which “Let Muslim women figure out their own shit” is a workable idea?
It is true that FEMEN has used creepy racist rhetoric and imagery for shock value—that is not good and it should be criticized. It is also a problem that they seem to be largely comprised of hot chicks, although I haven’t seen any indication that they actively discourage non-hot-chicks from protesting–it may be that these are the kind of people comfortable with this kind of protest. It may also be because they’re based in the Ukraine and their physiology tends to align with our standard of beauty. However, it doesn’t negate their larger point.
Most people of any culture are not progressives. Why would Muslim women be any different? Of course Amina Tyler doesn’t represent the majority of Muslim women. That is precisely the problem.
As for the niqab, it’s not a terrible garment. It’s been fun scaring children and it’s interesting to wear something that makes me anonymous IRL. But I’m not even done with the full week yet and I’m horribly bored. I am clearly not cut out for asceticism. If any of you guys want to try wearing it, let me know and I’ll mail it to you.