By Hind Berji
The Western world equates personal freedom and expression with the clothing we choose to wear, paying special attention to gendered expression in relation to social behavior. For Muslim women, the pressure is insurmountable, as the ethnocentric obsession over veiled clothing is bigger than ever. The hysteria that surrounds this topic is one that draws criticism, analysis, debate, and personal opinions from almost everyone, Muslim or not. Why is this a controversial topic? Why is it a topic at all? The manufactured image of a Muslim woman is one riddled with suspicion, even though the Virgin Mary, Mother Teresa, Christian nuns, and Hasidic Jewish women cover their hair. There is something about a veiled Muslim woman that gets under people’s skin.
In her essay “The Motivations Behind Westerners’ Obsession with the Islamic Veil,” Claire K. Alexander describes the distinctiveness of the hijab in comparison to other pious modes of dress for women: “The Jewish sheytls (wigs) and Tikhls (scarves), the Christian veil, and the Islamic haïkchador, and hijab (different forms of headscarves)—serve as forms of resistance, allowing women to challenge sexual objectification as well as gain access to the public sphere.” This puts a lot of pressure on Muslim women who are forced to look at themselves through different perspectives, negating the initial goal of avoiding the male gaze in all its forms. There’s no denying the profound affect that wearing or not wearing a hijab has on Muslim women (a Muslim woman’s choice to remove her veil causes just as much inner turmoil and angst as deciding to wear one). Identities can form through group affiliation, and the veil can even be a divisive garment between Muslim women themselves. Sometimes, the most difficult part is the space in-between—the transition from the private sphere of the home or mosque (where veils are a requirement during prayer) to the public demonstration of their faith.
A woman’s choice to wear any type of veil is an extremely personal, intimate decision she makes with herself and her faith in mind. It isn’t a political statement or an act of defiance. Some women choose to wear it based on their interpretations of certain verses in the Qur’an and/or to align themselves with a set of cultural values and identities, and some wear it to escape the male gaze and gain freedom from sexualization and objectification. Rather than acting as a barrier between privacy and harassment, the hijab has become a gateway for discrimination, harassment, and even fetishization.
In her book Battle for God, historian Karen Armstrong writes about the resurgence of the veil in Islam as not just a symbol against colonial practices, but also as a critical moment for postcolonial and feminist ideas in the Muslim world: “Arab writers refused to accept this [colonialist] estimate of their society, and in the course of this heated debate the veil turned into a symbol of resistance to colonialism. And so it has remained…By using feminist arguments for which most [British] had little or no sympathy, as part of their propaganda, the colonialists tainted the cause of feminism in the Muslim world, and helped to distort the faith by introducing an imbalance that had not existed before.” The West doesn’t really care about the oppression of Muslim women; it cares about trying to colonially modify the garment on its own terms.
Western feminists like the Ukrainian activist group Femen, an organization that once told Muslim women that their topless protests would liberate them from patriarchal slavery, are ironically quite confused, oppressed, and sexualized themselves. (The person behind Femen is a man by the name of Victor Svyatski, who started the group by selecting “the prettiest girls” for topless protests against issues like sex trafficking). So what happened to intersectionality? Beset by modern neocolonial discourse, some non-Muslim feminists decide to take pity on these “oppressed” women and even appropriate their veils to walk in their shoes for a day. Let’s set the record straight: no non-Muslim feminist is doing any Muslim woman a favor by modeling a hijab or protesting against it.
“…By using feminist arguments for which most [British] had little or no sympathy, as part of their propaganda, the colonialists tainted the cause of feminism in the Muslim world, and helped to distort the faith by introducing an imbalance that had not existed before.” The West doesn’t really care about the oppression of Muslim women; it cares about trying to colonially modify the garment on its own terms.
Consider this: all women are analyzed primarily on their appearances as visual markers and representatives of society’s values; we are burdened with the task of setting moral standards for social behaviors. Women are responsible for controlling the sexual desires of men—that idea knows no cultural or religious bounds. The garments and culture may be different, but the emphasis will always be on women.
Demonizing a piece of fabric so controversial it isolates, condemns, or purifies whoever wears it is ridiculous within any cultural framework. The same can be said for shorts, mini skirts, or bikinis. There is an underlying recognition of how society dictates the way women should present themselves in the Western world, but the criticism is one-sided. We criticize the commodification and sexualization of women’s bodies, but chastise women who wear the hijab.
What is this fascination with the freedom to clothe or unclothe oneself? Women should not exist as aesthetic objects; we do not function to contain the normative and the desirable. Furthermore, not all women necessarily share the same concerns, so defining them solely by their gender and religion is more than oppressive. Remember, oppression is often unrecognizable, and it takes many forms, succeeding in its divisiveness. If we were to believe for even a moment that this is opening up a larger discussion about the relationship between physical appearances in terms of piety, then we’re only lying to ourselves. Interesting topic, yes, but let’s be frank: that isn’t what this is about. It’s about controlling an image.
People are paranoid over images of observant Muslims, assuming they are a threat—a disturbance; an interruption, really—to their day-to-day lives and to Western civilization. While Muslim men who wear traditional garb are no strangers to discrimination, Muslim women are the manifestation of the West’s sinister perceptions of Islam. Because of this production of the Muslim world as medieval and backwards—the inhabitants of barren, destitute lands and even more barren, destitute ideals—Muslims have been the international scapegoats of our paranoid, post-9/11 world. This idea is so pervasive, so toxic that it has permeated government and political action against Muslim women who choose to wear veils. It has come to the point where we cannot discuss veils outside of a political or academic environment, sometimes forgetting that human beings with agency choose to wear them.
Women’s Islamic dress is considered an emblem of oppression and the threat of radicalization. The niqab or burqa appear to be garments used to silence women or make them disappear from public life. But using oppression as a buzzword, a springboard to justify colonial practices or human rights violations, also adds to the oppression of Muslim women by Western figures, who implement legal procedures and practices to shun them out of public life. At this point, it isn’t their religion or culture that is silencing them or taking away their agency; it’s the conversations that take place about their appearances.
In Europe, public safety is used as an excuse to discriminate against and deter Muslims . The emergence of conservatism in Western Europe has led to overall anti-immigrant, Islamophobic climates, but it is France’s unwavering, staunch ban on the veil that criminalizes Muslim women the most.
According to BBC News, only 2,000 women out of the five million Muslim immigrants in France wear veils, but that didn’t stop France’s ban on wearing the niqab or burqa in public from going into effect in April 2011. The law was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in 2014, stating that any woman who refuses to unveil in public when prompted by law enforcement would be forced to pay a fine and take citizenship classes. Nicolas Sarkozy, who was president at the time of the initial implementation in 2011, claimed the veils were an assault on France’s secularism and gender equality—but can you achieve gender equality when you politicize and police a woman’s body?
France’s secularism, or its separation of church and state, is at the basis of the country’s constitution, but considering the way France unapologetically fans its Islamophobic attitudes, it certainly seems like they’re targeting Muslims. We know the last thing France needs is to alienate its Muslim population, but it’s awfully good at doing just that.
Similar implementations of niqab and burqa bans have found their way across Europe, including in Turkey where, up until October 2013, the veil was banned in civil spaces and office buildings. Turkey’s secular establishment later recognized the difficulties in shutting out young women from academic and career opportunitiewws; why can’t France follow a similar approach?
When you criminalize a woman’s appearance, you are expelling her from civic and public life. Studies show that veiled Muslim women expect to make less money and receive fewer job offers, and they are considered less friendly and intelligent by both Muslim and non-Muslim men in their communities. Public perceptions of the veil do more than alienate Muslim women: they release a set of implications that can severely threaten their lives. Muslim women are some of the biggest victims of radicalism and xenophobic hate acts worldwide. When will the U.S. and Europe get over its veil obsession to ensure cultural integration?