The feminist movement doesn’t have a very large place for Muslim feminists, and with feminism being as diverse as they come, attitudes towards Muslim women vary from open and accepting to a very arrogant, pittying rejection.
We’ve Got a Long Way to Go, Baby.
Feminism was originally and has traditionally been by, for, and of middle-class white women. Bell Hooks discusses it in her free pdf, Feminism Is For Everybody. She explains how feminism has had to struggle and adjust to include women of non-white races and their unique struggles into the feminist movement. The same struggle, I think, is going on right now as the wider feminist community decides if we’re really welcome here. Not only is race/ethnicity an issue here, but culture and religion. It’s complicated, and it’s not going to resolve itself overnight. Still, there are some attitudes that are certainly outdated and need to get with the times.
The debate about hijab has been a heated one in feminist circles. While some may observe that it’s a little bit ridiculous for nonMuslim women to form opinions on how Muslim women dress, it still happens. In the west, as Muslims, we’re still largely defined by our clothing, like it or not. For hijabis, the judgment is immediate. The moment they see us. Before they hear our voices or opinions, before they have a chance to get to know us, they see this foreign, seemingly cumbersome cultural “veil”, and decisions are made by them about us: your entire life revolves around your religion. If you’re not married, you live at home. You are conservative, and often, you judge everyone else’s clothing choices. For nonhijabis, when they “find out” you’re Muslim, the fact that you’re not wearing hijab brings on an entirely new set of judgments. You’re not that practicing, you’re very liberal, you resent “back home” culture, etc.
It’s a difficult situation for us Muslim women to be in. You cannot win for losing. You’re either pious and untouchable, or secular and “loose”. No middle ground. It’s the case of “virgin or whore” on a whole new level; and it’s inescapable.
In relation to feminism, it’s worse. If you’re a feminist, or are familiar with the feminist movement and its many (and often diametrically opposed) opinion-factions, you’ll understand the complexity that arises from any controversial topic, and we’re one of them.
To some feminists, womens’ personal choice is paramount. It is the quintessence of feminism, the backbone of the movement. It super-cedes everything else. To other feminists, womens’ liberation is more important than womens’ choice. The two may not seem to be particularly opposed, but they are.
For a feminist that values choice above everything else (I’ll use the term choice feminists, though keep in mind it’s a bit of a simplistic term), topics like the issue of pornography are very clear cut. If a woman chooses to engage in porn, it’s fine. Obviously, if she’s coerced or forced, the choice feminist is against it. For a (what I’ll term for the purpose of this article) liberation feminist, pornography becomes more complex. To some, it’s seen as an empowering experience, a way to take control of ones sexuality in the way one likes. The liberating potential of porn becomes the topic of discussion more so than “well, she chose it so it’s fine”. To others, porn is a demeaning, disgusting thing and no woman should ever take part in it. That a woman may make the choice to participate is hardly a concern, often the reasons a woman may choose it are discredited or analyzed. There is no way, to these feminists, that pornography is acceptable, and the women who partake in it simply aren’t liberated. They can’t be.
That is not to say, of course, that choice isn’t a factor for all “liberation feminists”.
The issue of porn is one that is heated and lengthy, read any feminist message board or facebook page and you’ll see it immediately. Muslim women are fast becoming the “new porn” topic.
Why Hijab Has Become the Feminist Issue of Note
The Muslim world has long been under scrutiny for its, let’s just say, lax attitude towards women’s rights. In Pakistan, women are attacked with acid for refusing marriage proposals (though the practice has recently become illegal). In Saudi Arabia, women still cannot drive, or travel without the accompaniment or at least written permission of a male relative. In Afghanistan, women are forced into Burqas, full cloaks that cover the entire body including the eyes, and in some cases are fitted with blinders (like horses wear) so that their husband or father can see exactly where she’s looking. Just in case she checks out another man’s ankles. These countries have had centuries-long issues with treating women like humans, issues that extend into history far before Islam. They are, to say the least, deep seeded parts of the culture. Many misogynist men, women, and even scholars, use their religion in an attempt to normalize oppression and quell protest. In many cases, it works. In many cultures and countries, women are prevented from receiving not only basic education, but religious education as well. They have no opportunity to question what they are told. It is like Middle-Ages Europe, you’re forced to rely on your religious “superiors” to tell you what you must and must not do. If you object, hell fire is your obvious destination.
These practices are opposed by most Muslims – if they identify as feminists or not. The vast majority of us will tell you that they are a clear bastardization of our beloved religion and way of life. Islam loves, honors, and respects women, we’ll say. We may reference the countless female scholars who have shaped modern Islamic jurisprudence discourse, or the heroines in Islamic history who have been warriors, leaders, teachers, professors, and scholars. We may suggest you learn a little more about Khadija Bint Khuwaylid, the wife of the Prophet, who could be classed as nothing less than a fierce, intelligent, loyal and independent woman. We offer you these examples of women of old who inspire us and have shaped how we see our world.
But they are not alive today. If they were, they’d weep for us.
They never would accept that Muslim women be treated like cattle, they would, no doubt, remind us all that Islam was, at its very core, a liberation movement. It came to free women from the oppressive culture of the Arabian Peninsula – and indeed the world. Regardless, many of these practices survive in Muslim communities today.
Feminism has, of course, noticed this, and has, of course, gotten angry. It’s become a hot topic because here, in the Western feminist sphere of discussion, like in the hills of Afghanistan, our religion and our cultures have become melded. There is no concept of the distinction. They have become the same.
That most of us would tell you “they are NOT the same!” makes little difference. You see a woman forced to veil in Somalia and a woman veiled in New York, and you cannot fathom that their lives have nothing to do with one another. You don’t realize that while the Somali woman may not have a choice, the girl in New York probably does. You lump us all together, good intention-ed but naive.
More than Just a Poly-Cotton Blend – Hijab, Identity and Piety
For many Muslim women, hijab is a symbol of freedom. Freedom from being objectified, judged based on our bodies (will they listen to me when my boobs are so perky/saggy/big/small?), and vanity. For a lot of us, we not only enjoy the ease of throwing on hijab (if I had a nickel for every woman who told me she “envied” how quickly I can get ready in the morning), we enjoy the control over what parts of us are seen. We determine it, not society around us. It’s liberating.
For many Muslim women, hijab is an expression of piety and relationship with God. It’s a spiritual journey to the decision to wear hijab, something done only for their God, no one else. For these women, their spiritual identity is very closely linked to their hijab. It is not only a clothing accessory, it’s their identity. A part of themselves, a connection directly to their Creator. Criticism of hijab is not only a disagreement with their dress code, it takes issue with their very core being.
It’s more complex than many Western feminists understand. To be honest, we don’t expect you to. The problem, however, lies in the judgmental ethnocentric ideals that are pushed down our throats.
Ethnocentric Feminism: Pity Their Way to Liberation
What I earlier referred to as “choice feminists” usually don’t get particularly involved in this topic. “If a woman wants to dress that way, she should, but no one should be forced” is the summed-up-stance. Like the porn debate, though, “liberation feminists” have, in my experience, tended to be divided into two categories.
Some “liberation feminists” argue that, as I touched on earlier, hijab is a liberating and freeing choice to many women. It has its value and place in Muslim society and in these womens’ lives. As long as women are choosing it of their own free will, it’s a positive, empowering, and beautiful thing.
Others argue that hijab, as it’s used to control and oppress women in other parts of the world, is at its very nature oppressive and controlling. Women cannot, they claim, choose it of their own free will because it is in essence a symbol of coercion, fear, control.
The problem with this idea is that it’s entirely ethnocentric. A western feminist may have no idea why a woman from Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Ethiopia, or Yemen may want to wear hijab. There’s nothing within her own culture or belief paradigm that can compare, it’s foreign, and in her mind, associated with oppression. Obviously, then, it is bad. It’s not western, it’s not something that “we”, independent, intelligent, educated feminists in the West, do. Thus, independent, intelligent, educated women don’t choose to wear it. Anyone who does, obviously, is none of those things. She cannot be. She’s not like me.
The West has long viewed “foreigners” as stupid, less evolved, backwards, oppressed, poor, and uneducated. They wear funny clothes, eat food that we only eat on a night out as a “cultural experience”, talk in weird languages and in fact some of them incorporate sounds we’ve never heard before. Some of them can’t speak English, or do so poorly or with a thick accent. The West views these people as almost child-like, less intelligent beings that need us, the civilized West, to help them along in their quest for modernity. It’s the White Savior Complex at its most systemic. It’s not always about skin color, but culturism isn’t something that even feminism has managed to escape from.
To many feminists seeing a woman in niqaab (a face veil) or even hijab, pity is what they feel. Poor, sad, oppressed little girl. She cannot even dress herself, her dad, husband, brother, or uncle chooses her clothes for her. She’s pathetic, probably uneducated, and more than likely has been beaten in her life time. She’s passive, mousey, shy, introverted, and stupid. She’s no woman, she’s the intellectual equivalent of an abused child. Pity her. Pity the sad foreign girl. No woman would choose that.
What they’re forgetting is that we’re not like that. Most of us, indeed, especially in modern countries, aren’t like that. We’re doctors, teachers, professors, lawyers, manual workers, chefs, surgeons, nurses, seamstresses, and homemakers. Just like you. We struggle with overcoming cultural expectations and oppression, just like you. We struggle with fitting in to a society that doesn’t really know where it wants us to fit – in the kitchen, or is it comfortable with us on the front lines? Especially for us in Western countries, it’s a struggle. A struggle nonMuslim feminists won’t ever understand. Because they can’t. But they don’t need to.
We can choose. We can think. We can feel. We can make decisions for ourselves. If we find hijab liberating, we’ll wear it. If we feel it is an important part of our religious identity and that it brings us closer to God (even if you don’t believe in one), we’ll wear it. Don’t assume that your culture knows how to liberate women better than us. Feminism in the West has had a long struggle, and still has a long way to go. Muslim feminists are facing the same struggles, and we’ll do it our way, sensitive to our cultures and spirituality, and it may look quite a bit different from the Western feminist movements. It’s no worse. It’s no better. But it’s our movement to make, they’re our bodies to clothe. If Western feminists want to be involved, it should be in a role of support and attempted understanding, not of ethnocentric arrogance. We do not need a schoolmaster to come teach us how it’s done.
Muslim women are fighting for change and equality in their own ways, ways which are appropriate within their own cultural and spiritual contexts, ways that differ from the feminist movements in the West. You’re not going to see women in Saudi Arabia burning their bras in public, but you do see them driving cars in protests. Our feminism is no less valid than western feminism. It just looks a little different.