Thursday, June 17, 2010

Free Choices

The Innocent Smith Journal recently featured a couple of thought-provoking pieces discussing choices, as they relate to Muslim women who choose to wear a hijab, burqa, or niqab, and how those choices may influence how women are perceived in general worldwide. A further discussion ensued in the comment thread about whether the choice to wear a hijab, burqa, or niqab is really a free choice. The first post was in response to the recent criticism the creators of South Park faced in their decision to censor the image of the Prophet Mohammed in a recent episode, and Bill Maher's reaction to the ordeal:

Before I conclude, it should in fairness be noted that, in speaking of Muslims, we realize that, of course, the vast majority are law-abiding, loving people, who just want to be left alone to subjugate their women in peace.

InnocentSmith responds:

Notice that the punchline (Muslims just want to “subjugate their women in peace”) undercuts the distinction Maher purports to make between the “vast majority” of Muslims and Muslim extremists. Not only are most Muslims are just as wacko as the violent fringe, Maher insinuates, it would be laughable to think otherwise.

While InnocentSmith approaches the controversial topic of Islamic culture promoting the subjugation of women with a great deal of respect and tolerance for a topic so widely misunderstood in Western culture, a few questions remain. As I asked in the discussion thread:

...Of course the “regular” Muslims aren’t the same as jihadists; the remark, though, applies to most practicing Muslims. The idea that a woman should be more modest that a man, for example, is, quite simply, perpetuating misogyny.

Do most Muslim women wear a hijab, or more? I'm not sure; I admit to having only a basic understanding of Islamic cultures, and as a non-Muslim, I can hardly claim to speak on behalf of Muslim women. But as far as making the choice to cover oneself in a way that is dictated only to women, I remain unconvinced of the insistence that to do so is a free choice that is without misogynistic influence.

A simple Google search will yield many convincing arguments made by Muslim women for why wearing a hijab, or even a burqa, is less oppressive than the expectation that women in Western cultures wear clothing that is considered sexually attractive to most men. In a poem titled Object of Despair, Fahim Firfiray (Abu Omar), in observing the differences between her Muslim character, Aisha, and a non-Muslim fellow attorney, Emma, in regards to their attire, writes from her colleague Emma's perspective:

Aisha is in full hijab
With a loose all over suit
Emma's in her business wear
With accessories taboot

Emma's really quite bemused
At Aisha's godly ways
She looks Aisha in the eyes
And very firmly says

You're a smart girl Aisha
Why do you wear that across your hair?
Subjugated by "man"-kind
An object of despair

Take it off my sister
Let your banner be unfurled
Don't blindly follow all around

It's an oft-cited argument that many associate with Western feminism: To cover yourself is to be oppressed, censored, enslaved. The objection to hiding ones hair seems particularly reminiscent of the Spice Girls days-- embrace your femininity! Short skirts and tall shoes and long hair! Be smart, powerful, and sexy!

While embracing this particular brand of femininity can be empowering for many women who feel oppressed by the implications of such an image (for example, the perceived invitation to men to give sexual attention to the woman), it's problematic on a number of levels, and the argument Firfiray gave her Western character was too one-dimensional and half-hearted to take seriously.

Firfiray continues with Aisha's response:

My dear sister Emma,
Why do you dress the way you do?
The skirt you're wearing round your waist,
Is it really you?

Now that we've sat down,
I see you tug it across your thighs,
Do you feel ashamed?
Aware of prying eyes?

I see the way you're sitting,
Both legs joined at the knees,
Who forces you to sit like that?
Do you feel at ease?

I'll tell you who obliges you,
To dress the way you do,
Gucci, Klein and St. Laurent,
All have designs on you!

In the main, it's men my friend,
Who dictate the whims of fashion,
Generating all the garb,
To incite the basest passion

"Sex Sells" there is no doubt,
But who buys with such great haste,
The answer is the likes of you,
Because they want to be embraced......

They want to be accepted,
On a level playing field
Sure, with brain and intellect
But with body parts revealed

Intelligence and reason
Are useful by and by
But if you want to make a mark
Stay appealing to the eye

Aisha's almost got me here. After all, who could argue that looking "sexy" is always in the back of our minds, as women? Who would disagree that isn't always the most comfortable feeling? I certainly couldn't counter the point that men who are given the opportunity to see more of my body than I see of theirs are less likely to take me seriously as a business associate or social equal. The possibility of eliminating that possibility is, admittedly, very appealing.

Via a later article on the Innocent Smith Journal, a Muslim woman discusses how she found relief in her decision to wear a niqab to work:

“I do this because I want to be closer to God, I want to please him and I want to live a modest lifestyle,” said Ms. Ahmed, who asked that her appearance without a veil not be described. “I want to be tested in that way. The niqab is a constant reminder to do the right thing. It’s God-consciousness in my face.”

But there were secular motivations, too. In her job, she worked with all-male teams on oil rigs and in labs.

“No matter how smart I was, I wasn’t getting the respect I wanted,” she said. “They still hit on me, made crude remarks and even smacked me on the butt a couple times.”

Wearing the niqab is “liberating,” she said. “They have to deal with my brain because I don’t give them any other choice.”

The absence of leers, gropes, and harassment that followed Ms. Ahmed's decision to wear a niqab undoubtedly brings with it a feeling of liberation and empowerment. But should it? And was her decision to wear a niqab really influenced in any way by "secularism," or could we be more honest in calling the motivation "sexism"?

This sentiment, the one about how empowering it feels to hide your face and body under layers of cloth so that predatory men don't sexually harass and assault you, is a temporary solution to a huge and systemic problem. Women everywhere are consistently told that they are responsible for the harassment they encounter, sexual assault, and even their own rapes. More often than not, women's clothing choices are the basis for these accusations.

Several months ago, Thúy-Lan Võ Lite from Equal Writes wrote a piece for Feministe about India's new female-only traincars, called Ladies Specials, a new option for women who want to avoid the rampant sexual harassment, leering, and groping that they regularly fall victim to on their daily commutes. While, like Ms. Ahmed's situation, the separate train cars are a good temporary solution to the rampant sexual harassment and assault that occurs daily on public transportation all over the world, Thúy-Lan succinctly concludes:

...It’s great that these trains are giving women a safe space. But it’s also important to note that the Ladies Specials are only a temporary solution; for real social change to occur, something must be done to stop the catcalling men.

Indeed, it must. It's time we stop making women responsible for their own oppression, and start holding harassers and abusers accountable for their oppressive behavior. If a Muslim woman wants to wear a niqab, the reasons shouldn't have to include finally feeling like she's able to be respected because men are prevented from seeing her face and body. For a Muslim woman to take into consideration the sense of entitlement these men feel toward women's bodies takes the freedom from that choice.