THE STRUGGLE FOR FREEDOM: To veil or not to veil? That is not the question

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Intellectuals are often pointing towards a “clash of cultures” or a “clash of civilisation” to analyse the French controversies surrounding Muslim women. This testifies of a perceived gap between Muslim women’s values and western feminism. Western politicians tend to adopt the view that Islam is inherently patriarchal, and the veil fundamentally oppressive. This issue highlights two problems. The first is that feminism has not moved on from its colonial and patronising premises that guided Western feminism throughout the 20th century. The second is that feminists are too openly divided between a fight against racism and a fight against sexism. By making it seem like there is a side to pick, feminism has lost some credit. In a context of growing fear of what is conceived as the “other” -the Muslim community- Muslim women are particularly vulnerable to stigmatisation. Yet, they are too often excluded from feminist debates. Our two guest writers A. (student, British, Muslim and wearing hijab), Zaynah (student, Bangladeshi, brown, Muslim and not wearing the veil) and myself (J., student, French, Christian, white and middle class woman) want to remind our readers that the focus must not be on our differences, but on what we have in common. We believe that clothing should be a way to express your freedom no matter what it is that you are wearing. This is a call for unity between feminists, for solidarity between ALL women. Feminism is about freedom: the freedom of choice and agency. Patriarchy controls our sexuality, whether it does so through asking you to “veil” or to “unveil”.

THE STRUGGLE FOR UNDRESSING written by J.

 In the West, feminism often refers to women’s sexual liberation in the media, popular culture and people’s minds. To me, choosing to undress means choosing to say yes to a sexuality that has been denied to women for so long. This is being topless on the beach. This is going out wearing short skirts, high heels and backless tops. In an ideal world, all of this we could do without fear of being judged or even assaulted. But instead we are met with the structures of patriarchy, constantly attempting to control our sexuality through slut shaming and the objectification of women’s bodies.

Slut shaming:an act of making any person feel guilty or inferior for certain sexual behaviors or desires that deviate from traditional or orthodox gender expectations, or that which may be considered to be contrary to natural or religious law”.[1]

Sexual Objectification: the “act of treating a person as an instrument of sexual pleasure. Objectification more broadly means treating a person as a commodity or an object without regard to their personality or dignity”.[2]

In Western societies, on the one hand, women are called to free themselves sexually. The problem is that the distinction between sexual freedom and the hyper-sexualisation of women is blurry. The media often portray women as sexual objects. Social experiments[3] widely demonstrate that breasts are regarded as sexualised objects of desire rather than as a human organ necessary to feed babies. Women are often pressured to engage in sexual interactions and to fit in this over-sexualised society. In that respect, women might be “forced to be free”. Coy[4] (2009, p.376) rightly argued that the hyper-sexualisation of society “fixes sexualisation as such a normal route that there is little space outside of it” for women. At the same time, women are subjected to ‘slut-shaming’ and asked to repress their sexuality by dressing up in a more “appropriate” way, in order to avoid being categorised as a “whore”. Slut shaming justifies sexual assaults, almost making it socially acceptable. So I am in the middle of a paradox here. I am called to engage in sexual intercourses and to show my body to prove that I am liberated, whilst being openly stigmatised for doing so through slut shaming.

In both cases, this is an attempt at controlling my body and sexuality. Still, I am grateful for women’s sexual liberation. It can’t be denied that sexual liberation brought major advancements for women’s rights. It is a freedom that is still denied to so many women around the world. In 2013, the World Health Organisation counted that more than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone female genital mutilation in the countries where the practice is concentrated (Central African Republic, Kenya, Somalia…). Even in England and Wales in 2015-16, there are an estimated 137,000 women and girls with female genital mutilation.[5] For women, being able to “undress” and explore their sexuality put and end to the idea that sexual desires and needs were reserved to men. Slut shaming and the sexual objectification of women are founded on patriarchal stereotypes, which encage women. When you freely choose to pursue your own desires, it means empowerment and that is what feminism really is about.

THE STRUGGLE FOR HIJAB written by A.

In this hyper sexualised society, the struggle for Muslim women is intense. My question to the readers is why? Why does a piece of material, which blows with the wind, affect you?

I am a Muslim, a Muslim who also chose to wear the hijab. This means that it was not my father nor my brother who got to make this decision, no one but myself. I wear my hijab for God, not for his people. So believe me when I say there is nothing more patronising than when men in politics, or men in media, or men who have never met me tell me that what I cannot wear. Although a choice, at times in England it can prove to be ugly, inconvenient and uncomfortable. There are days when I don’t even get the door held open for me and for what? Because I don’t look as good as the girl in front of me, I’m covered and therefore somehow disregarded. This is tough. What everyone needs to understand is that the hijab and feminism can be unified through the notion of empowerment. There is more to me than my face, than my outward appearances, which will deteriorate with age. I have a mind, I have a character, I have a culture, I have morals and I have principles. There are qualities in me which I will carry with me to the grave but then why is it when I cover my beauty I am seen and treated differently. I am liberated in the sense that when people talk to me, I’m not entertaining them for their shallow desires, I am reassured that people spend time with me because of who I am, not just because of features which can be changed by chemicals bought off amazon. To me, hijab is a mean of expression, it is not about oppression or blindly conforming to expectations, it is an expression of identity, which is further amplified when incorporated into e.g. fashion. It voices the same message feminism does; to stay unapologetically true to yourself because being a woman does not harm anyone. 

THE STRUGGLE FOR MODESTY, written by Zaynah.

Feminism is one of those terms nowadays that makes many uncomfortable. What was supposed to be a movement towards gender equality and hence unbiased towards both men and women quickly became controlled by the agenda of a particular type of woman. Think white, middle class, ‘liberally minded Christian’ or is an inconvenience to feminist goals, cis gendered. This however, is problematic. If feminism in essence is about achieving equality for both men and women by protecting women from patriarchy of all sorts in all corners of the globe, there needs to be representation. For too long now the orientalist ideas of veiling/covering being a sign of oppression have made the rounds in Western circles. As a Muslim, Brown, Bangladeshi girl, I consider myself a feminist. But, my feminist struggles differ vastly from that of the women whose voices are heard the most. Often people would comment on my way of dressing, describing it as “forward thinking”, “chill” or “liberal” whatever those words may mean, because, you see, despite being Muslim I am not visibly so. Even though I don’t show a lot of skin, there is no scarf covering my head and this apparently makes me easier to accept. In my opinion though, the hijab far from being a sign of oppression, is a symbol of the agency Muslim women hold. Although popular media has reduced hijab to the scarf women wear on their heads, the actual meaning of it is far deeper, it calls for modesty, not just in dressing but also in behaviour. The scarf on the head is amongst the various ways that make up the hijab and so for the sake of clarifying, my decision on how much skin I don’t show also comes down to my hijab, that is to say my personal practice of modesty. The same society that slut shames girls for showing skin, bashes Muslim girls in scarves and modest outfits for not showing enough of it. This is patriarchy, it has nothing to do with upholding secular values as it is often argued. But as a Muslim feminist my fight is also against the patriarchy that exists in Muslim states where veiling and covering is not a choice but a requirement by law. In those states, it is a man again who dictates how a woman should dress, twisting religious doctrine to suit his own desires for masculine dominance. There is however a risk in looking to such states as representational of the conditions of the Muslim woman. It oversimplifies the choices and agency that the majority of Muslim women worldwide have. Insisting that Islamic values around women’s rights are archaic leaves a significant population of women out of the feminist discourse. Feminism strives for freedom of choice, by forbidding women to cover/veil the media and the West contradict this important principle. We should ask ourselves: has the masculinisation of sexuality really ended or did it just shift to focus on other social groups? Islamic feminists argue that veiling can in many ways free women from objectification; it makes them feel safer in cultures that are very different from Western society. I believe it is a personal decision and a Muslim woman’s right to practice her faith as she pleases. I am a feminist because I stand up to fight for the girls who want to cover their heads despite the backlash from the West, for those girls I stand up against patriarchy masked by principals such as Laïcité in France.

To conclude, patriarchy is about controlling women’s bodies and it operates at different levels, whether you decide to “veil” or to “unveil”. We are tired of still having to explain that it truly exists, that it is real and that we all suffer from it everyday. Feminism is about freedom, and we need to understand freedom in terms of agency. This is about your freedom to choose your identity and sexuality. This is not a clash of cultures, values or civilisations. This is not a struggle between Western principles and Muslim morals. The real fight is against the patriarchy affecting us all: this is the struggle for freedom.

May women remember they all are sisters.

J, A & Zaynah.

References

[1] http://www.yourdictionary.com/slut-shaming

[2] https://feminismfortnight.wordpress.com/2016/08/04/day-5-sexual-objectification/

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sKjO0jZWkx4

[4] Coy, M., 2009. Milkshakes,
Lady Lumps and Growing Up to Want Boobies: How the Sexualisation of Popular Culture Limits Girls’ Horizons. Child Abuse Review, 18, pp.372-383.

[5] https://www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse/child-abuse-and-neglect/female-genital-mutilation-fgm/fgm-facts-statistics/

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