The Myth of the Feminist Hijab
With a rise of anti-Muslim attacks and hostility, it is understandable that some Muslims in the West feel increasingly unsafe. Muslim women who veil are particularly vulnerable to targeting because they are often more obviously Muslim in appearance. However, as this essay will show, in the attempts to defend our fellow humans from such appalling prejudice and attacks, seemingly liberal voices have promoted a form of backwards cultural relativism, religious apologism and anti-intellectual logic, acting as a barrier to societal progress and an illegitimate defence for patriarchy.
It is perfectly compatible to denounce anti-faith attacks and argue against or question the legitimacy of a religion or aspects of that religion. This is a fundamental tenet of free-speech and the freedom of expression. Unfortunately, through a well-intended attempt to show cultural sensitivity and solidarity with marginalised and oppressed communities, sections of the left have ended up defending damaging aspects of religion and supported arguments with no logical bearing, such as the ludicrous notion that wearing the hijab constitutes a feminist act. This essay thoroughly critiques that notion.
As you might expect given the prevailing climate of anti-Muslim animosity and media-bias (not just in the UK), there is scarcely a month that goes by in which anti-hijab/anti-veil or hijab-defence/veil-defence sentiment is not given prominence in mainstream media. A big debate in recent weeks has been the appalling and counter-effective French laws banning the Burkini. And just over a month ago, Kelvin McKenzie faced a backlash of anger when he opined in The Sun, that Channel 4 News’ reporter, Fatima Manji, should not have been reporting on the Bastille Day attack in Nice by virtue of the fact that she was wearing a hijab and the attacker was assumed to be Muslim because of his French-Tunisian heritage (and because ISIS claimed responsibility through its news agency). At the time McKenzie wrote his opinion piece, it was still very much unclear whether the attack was Islamist or even whether the attacker was Muslim. McKenzie therefore, demonstrating in his article, highly irresponsible journalism and some of the anti-Muslim bias I mentioned.
Undertaking the slightest of analysis to McKenzie’s points within the context raised, it should be clear that the wearing of a hijab (and the faith and culture it signifies belonging to) is completely irrelevant unless there is evidence that wearing that hijab (or belonging to that faith or culture) distorts Manji’s ability to do the job she is asked of doing — namely reporting the news. Of course, there is no evidence of this whatsoever.
This was the main point, Media Professor and Guardian contributor, Roy Greenslade, made in defending Manji and criticising McKenzie (whilst rightly supporting his right to exercise free-speech). However, in keeping with the logical distortions that have gone alongside an increased desire to show solidarity and support to those facing prejudice, Greenslade used what has become a common false trope, arguing that Manji may wear a hijab as a feminist statement.
The argument that the hijab represents a feminist statement has been adopted and supported by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, but it also happens to be completely false. This argument or variations of it have been made many times before. It is familiar and well-tread territory.
In April, Amara Majeed, founder of The Hijab Project, an initiative encouraging women to wear a headscarf for a day, wrote an open letter to Laurence Rossignol, France’s Minister for Families, Children and Women, responding to Rossignol’s controversial comments in an interview about fashion companies catering to Muslim women, after she compared women who choose to wear the hijab to “American negroes who were in favour of slavery.”
Majeed says in her letter, published on online women’s magazine, Bustle:
“Minister Rossignol, would it surprise you if I told you that I actually wear the hijab for feminist purposes?”
Majeed goes on to say, “For me [the hijab] is a feminist symbol… Throughout history and on a global scale, women have been sexualized and objectified.” “By wearing it,” she says, “I’m stating that I want to be seen for so much more than my physical appearance or my body. I want to be seen for my intellect, my personality, and my activism. My choice of wearing the hijab resonates with me as a female and as a feminist.”
In January of this year, Celene Ibrahim wrote in a New York Times piece, tellingly entitled Wearing the Headscarf Is a Matter of Feminism, Aesthetics and Solidarity for Me:
“The feminist in me sees long, loose clothing as one way for women to guard their bodies against unwelcome gazes and other forms of male chauvinism.”
In June last year, Hanna Yusuf said about her decision to wear a hijab on a popular but nonetheless controversially met video on The Guardian website:
“It has nothing to do with oppression. It’s a feminist statement… In a world where a woman’s value is often reduced to her sexual allure, what could be more empowering than rejecting that notion.”
Nadiya Takolia wrote in The Guardian in 2012:
“In a society where a woman’s value seems focused on her sexual charms, some wear it explicitly as a feminist statement asserting an alternative mode of female empowerment. Politics, not religion, is the motivator here. I am one of these women… I am taking control of it… I don’t want to be part of a system that reduces and demeans women.”
And so on….
Majeed, Ibrahim, Yusuf and Takolia’s arguments all show a relative amount of balance in recognising and accepting that some people who wear a hijab don’t have a choice. And they all emphasise the importance of having a choice in order for the hijab to be a feminist statement. Yusuf, for example, extends her argument to say we should be wary of “assuming that all veiled women are oppressed” because this “belittles the choices of those who want to wear it.”
The crux of their argument is that wearing a hijab is an effective feminist method to reject objectification and sexualisation of women, as long as the choice to wear the hijab is free. But when we subject this claim to the mildest scrutiny, it begins to fall apart.
It’s probably best for me to say what the hijab is. A hijab is a scarf worn over the head, usually covering the hair and usually extending in its coverage to cover the neck.
The passages in the Koran referring to the wearing of a hijab (as we understand it today) say:
“They should not display their ornaments [zeena] except what appear thereof, [and] they should draw their veils [khumur, s. khimar] over their bosoms [juyub, s. jayb].”
“Tell thy wives and daughters, and the believing women, that they should cast (draw close) their garments [jalabib, s. jilbab] over their persons. That is most convenient, that they should be known and not molested.”
There is a still debate in Islamic circles (as well as non-Islamic circles) including clerics, commentators, followers and theologians as to how exactly the reference to khumur should be interpreted. Technically, the word khumur is the plural of khimar which means “cover”, but it was also the word used for a type of headscarf worn by pre-Islamic women (and what we now generally call a hijab), which at those times would have tied at the back. Based on that evidence and the use of the plural khumur, the most widely accepted explanation provided by Muslim clerics is that the specific passage in the Koran is in reference to headscarves, meaning, to some logical extent, that women must, at the very least, cover [parts of] their hair. Although some still debate this assumption, Sahar Amer, Islamic Studies Professor and author of What is Veiling? accepts that this is the most widely accepted interpretation, saying in her 2014 article for The Conversation, “Most Muslims acknowledge… covering one’s hair is a religious duty.”
The specific meaning of the word juyub is also very much debated, but, in the main, followers of Islam interpret it to mean breasts, neck, or to incorporate the overall area of neck and breasts.
Most, if not all, women that wear a hijab do so as an act, whether partly or fully, of religious observation. The doctrinal interpretative elements to wearing one are of pivotal importance in evaluating whether the act of wearing hijab constitutes a feminist act, particularly because some of the key reasoning set out in the Koran for wearing one is so as women can avoid molestation. This is what we would in many other contexts today, obviously, describe as victim blaming.
The doctrinal elements which support wearing a hijab are clearly divisive and sexist because they outline behaviours which, if it weren’t for supernatural belief, would be seen to be putting much more of an imposition on women, in terms of what is expected of them, than men (who are only expected to lower their gaze and dress modestly — the same already expected of women). Clearly it’s not necessarily seen as an imposition to those that feel they are obeying an order of god. However, this does not mean that it is not an imposition; it simply means that they do not recognise it as an imposition. Just because a person might not remember suffering from an event, it does not mean that they did not actually suffer. To put it another way, sometimes the most oppressed people are the ones who have no idea they’re oppressed. This is, of course, not to recognise that there aren’t many other ways in which people of all walks of life are oppressed, to some extent, without realising.
We should also not forget the role that fear plays to the followers of almost any faith, when they are told or made to believe that disobeying those rules may lead to infernal damnation or restriction from heaven (some specific examples being the fear of “hanging in hellfire from their hair” or Satan urinating on their hair).
Worryingly, the hijab could also serve as a ripening signal within the cultures that adopt it. Whereas without a hijab (or veil) it might be assumed that a female has not yet reached the age of sexual maturity linked to menstruation, the hijab can serve as an automatic symbol that a woman is sexually mature and potentially ‘available’, a point made by Iram Ramzam in a blog post, originally published by The Nation, when she says:
“Rather than promote modesty, the hijab does reduce a woman to her sexual allure. Islamically, any girl who has reached sexual maturity must start covering, which then tells the world — specifically men — that she is sexually available for him and ready for marriage.”
This also suggests that the [almost] entirely cultural practice of veiling pre-pubescent girls, which is poorly supported by religious text, could have the negative affect of sexualising children through a conscious or unconscious cherry-picking of doctrine.
A common justification and defence for wearing a hijab is to analogise unveiled women as unwrapped lollipops, which, as you might expect, spoil much quicker than wrapped lollipops and attract ants or flies.
Those who cite this argument or some minor variation of it seem completely ignorant of the absurdity of such an analogy. Women are not lollipops and men are not ants or flies. It doesn’t help to understand reality better when you explain away men’s desires for women by suggesting they are as instinctual and uncontrolled as an ant or flies attraction to sugar. Giving these sorts of explanations the room to flourish without sufficient challenge, helps parts of society mould a monstrous view of women and their worth.
Rape happens because men decide to rape. Gang rape happens for the same reason. Such metaphorically dubious explanations abdicate men as innocent because of their desires, and pushes judgment on the women who choose not to wear a veil (which could be the hijab, or niqab, chador or burka, etc.) as being to blame for any rape or sexual violence that they might be victim to.
There is another frequently cited defence used by some Muslims in the West to justify the veil. The story goes that a reverend speaks to a mufti and asks him why Muslim women are expected to cover up. The mufti responds by asking whether the reverend places money in wallets and safes, rather than leaving them out in the open, and the reverend replies irreverently that he obviously does because there are too many people who can’t be trusted and they would steal it. The mufti then concludes that women are even more precious than money (as well as that they want their inner beauty to be appreciated), so this is why they are expected to veil. It is another utterly absurd analogy that compares women to inanimate objects such as money, and whether intended or not, pushes an argument for men being less culpable for their own actions because they can’t help themselves. It’s not as unpolished as the previous example, but it’s practically as moronic.
As of at least 2013, the Iranian government paid for and installed a series of billboards and posters, encouraging women to veil and dress more modestly. One billboard is a variation on the lollipop example, this time with an image of an unwrapped candy/sweet surrounded by flies, compared alongside the fly-free unwrapped sweet, captioned: “veil is security”. One of the other victim-blaming posters is from the point of view of two cartoonised women deemed not to have been dressed modestly enough, saying: “We ourselves invite harassment. Girls who do not dress properly are harassed and targeted in the streets.”
It is only fair to acknowledge that many Muslim women and men do not seek to justify or explain the need to wear the hijab by using such crude examples. In fact, many point out how crude those examples actually are, such as in the image below.
Nevertheless, this image doesn’t remove the fact that those using it expect the hijab to be worn by women to show their “love for Allah”; the clear subtext being that it’s done because it’s an explicit requirement of women set out in the Koran (and hadiths).
These sorts of examples of pushing hyper-judgemental and arbitrary ideas as to how women should dress and present themselves (and the negation of their value should they not adhere to such expectations) are not exclusive to followers of Islam. Similar views are all too prevalent in non-Islamic, Western and Eastern contexts. Take for example, the story used on a Christian discussion forum here, comparing women to iPads without any reference to headscarves:
A girl bought an iPad, when her father saw it, He asked her “What was the 1st thing you did when you bought it?
“I put an anti-scratch sticker on the screen and bought a cover for the iPad” she replied.
“Did someone force you to do so?” “No” “Don’t you think it’s an insult to the manufacturer?” “No dad! In fact they even recommend using
a cover for the iPad” “Did you cover it because it was cheap & ugly?”
“Actually, I covered it because I didn’t want it to get damage and decrease in value.”
“When you put the cover on, didn’t it reduce the iPad’s beauty?”
“I think it looks better and it is worth it for the protection it gives my iPad.”
The father looked lovingly at his daughter and said, “Yet if I had asked you to cover your body which is much more precious than the iPad, would you have readily agreed???”
She was mute…..
Indecent dressing and exposure of your body reduces your value and respect.
Misogyny and sexism are quite evident everywhere, but if you note how easy this same example is modified (or may have been adopted from it in the first place) to support the hijab, and if you acknowledge the hijab’s codification and justification in doctrine (and its observance), it is difficult to avoid seeing the intrinsic link between the adoption of the hijab and the perpetuation of patriarchy.
In her 1988 essay, Defining Feminism: A Comparative Historical Approach, Karen Offen examined major historical developments and historically intertwined interpretations in feminism, before outlining a modern and more standardised definition of a feminist, inclusive of three criteria:
“(1) they recognize the validity of women’s own interpretations of their lived experience and needs and acknowledge the values women claim publicly as their own (as distinct from an aesthetic ideal of womanhood invented by men) in assessing their status in society relative to men; (2) they exhibit consciousness of, discomfort at, or even anger over institutionalized injustice (or inequity) toward women as a group by men as a group in a given society; and (3) they advocate the elimination of that injustice by challenging, through efforts to alter prevailing ideas and/or social institutions and practices, the coercive power, force, or authority that upholds male prerogatives in that particular culture. Thus, to be a feminist is to necessarily be at odds with male-dominated culture and society.”
Offen’s definition is one of the best regarded and widely cited in modern academic feminist discourse, but the definition is not without one particular problem. It too readily considers a person feminist simply based on intent, and does not give suitable consideration to pre-act assessments, in terms of what Professor Noam Chomsky described in Hegemony or Survival as, “the range of likely consequences”.
It should be self-evident that if an actor consistently fails to even consider the likely consequences of their acts, or ignores the likely negative outcomes, it would be much harder for them to qualify as a feminist, regardless of their stated or actual intent.
Sadly, however, the above argument points toward a different road than much of popular feminist discourse is moving, in which it is often suggested that the sole or primary criteria for a feminist is simply whether that person identifies as one. Take, for example, Roxane Gay, author of best-selling and critically well-received collection of essays, Bad Feminist. When commenting on questions as to Beyonce’s claims to being a feminist, Gay said, “[Beyonce] is a feminist because she says [she’s] one.”
If there is any great logic to this argument, it’s been camouflaged to invisibility. Imagine a racist person being allowed moral abdication simply based on explicitly expressing that they were not racist or that they were pro-equal rights. It is completely ignorant of actions, motives, outcomes and whether the actor undertook assessments of the likely consequences of their actions. In fact, the argument is so illogical that adopting it makes comprehension of the very word ‘feminist’ a pointless task.
When considering Offen’s definition, one must also tread carefully as to how we define a feminist act. One cannot simply assume that for an act to be feminist, it follows the same set of criteria. A feminist can be someone who undertakes an action with the intention that it furthers the feminist cause, but an act cannot be said to be feminist solely on the intention of the act. Hence, the outcome of the act is pivotal to the feminist label in that it must further the feminist cause in some way to be considered feminist, not simply be intended to.
It’s also important to note that there is a significant distinction between intention and outcome. Good intent does not necessarily or automatically guarantee a good outcome (a fine example to illustrate this is the 1920’s prohibition era in America). I raise this as an issue because an act might be intended to be feminist, but it does not mean that the act is feminist. My contention here is that intent makes an actor feminist as Offen mentions (although there must be some limitations to this), but intent does not necessarily make the act itself feminist.
In the case of an act itself being defined as feminist, intent is not a sufficient enough barometer. An outcome that furthers the cause of feminism and was intended to further the cause of feminism is the only relevant measurement. To put it another way, for an act to be feminist, intent isn’t sufficient unless the outcome mirrors the intent. In the case of Majeed, Yusuf, Ibrahim and Takolia’s act of wearing a hijab, their stated intent and outcome are clearly at loggerheads.
It’s important that I acknowledge that the act of wearing a hijab doesn’t automatically stop a person from being a feminist. In fact, many women who wear the hijab are feminists. Many are brilliantly informed and hugely supportive of women’s rights and human rights, and actively fight against or support the fight against oppression and injustice.
It is also important that I make clear that I am not saying that wearing a hijab might not ever represent a feminist act. There are plenty of contextual bases that allow for this. Take, for example, the act of wearing a hijab by certain women in Iran. It is against the law not to wear a hijab and the punishment meted out can be severe, including lashings or imprisonment. Yet, many Iranian women regularly wear the hijab so far back as to reveal most of their hair and head, in large part to fit in with current trends but in many cases to part point out their derision of the law to cover, either without breaking the law or by breaking it in a way which can quickly be reversed, to, hopefully, avoid risk.
Rather ironically, while some American Muslims (such as Majeed and Ibrahim) and some British Muslims (such as Yusuf and Takolia) continue to argue that their wearing of a hijab whilst in relatively liberal countries in which there are no legal bans on it is feminist, Iranian women of the Facebook group, My Stealthy Freedom, risk severe punishment from authorities as they push for a fairer standing in law, posting images of themselves without hijabs in defiant protest against the arbitrary and sexist laws forcing them to wear one.
I don’t want to understate or downplay the importance of intent, and how intent and our perception of intent impact us. Research from psychologists, Daniel Ames and Susan Fiske, reveals that when a harmful act is seen as intentional, the victims are more likely to assess the outcome as more harmful than they would if they perceived the very same act to be unintentional. So intent, stated intent and perceived intent are very important to our analysis of an outcome.
Moral culpability can be negated, sometimes entirely, by the actual intent behind any bad-outcome act. To illustrate this point, consider the example of Adolf Hitler being rescued from drowning in a river as a small boy, from a Telegraph article cited by Brian Tomasik in his piece entitled Should We Base Moral Judgments on Intentions or Outcomes? for Foundational Research Institute (which was set up to “examine how humanity can best reduce suffering in the future”):
“In 1894, while playing tag with a group of other children, the way many children do in Passau to this day, Adolf fell into the river. The current was very strong and the water ice cold, flowing as it did straight from the mountains. Luckily for young Adolf, the son of the owner of the house where he lived was able to pull him out in time and so saved his life.”
This was an act which resulted in a negative long-term outcome but was clearly undertaken with positive intent. It’s patently clear from that example that no pre-act assessment available to the actor would suggest saving Adolf Hitler’s life would be an immoral act, despite the bad outcome of him going on to become a genocidal dictator.
Conversely, intent can also increase our moral culpability and increase the basis for negative moral judgment, despite a good or neutral outcome. To illustrate this point, consider the following example:
An actor attempts to hit an innocent person with a boomerang, misses, and then ends up catching the boomerang again.
There was no actual physical harm caused. The act could be seen the same as someone throwing a boomerang and catching it. However, the intent behind the act leaves the actor with increased moral culpability and negative moral judgement.
Of course, assessing intent in real life can be difficult. We either have to make assumptions when mistakes can easily be made or rely on the actor’s stated intent which can clearly be very different to their actual intent. Stated intent can also too readily be used as an attempted get-out clause after bad outcomes. Take, for example, the Clinton led US bombing of the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical manufacturing plant in Sudan in 1998, whereby the explanation provided for the bombing was that there was evidence it was being used to manufacture chemical weapons. It initially killed one person and injured eleven, but the bombing of the plant — a plant reported by Patrick Wintour in The Observer that same year as manufacturing “50 percent of Sudan’s medicines” — resulted in thousands of deaths (some estimate in the tens of thousands) because the casualties could not get access to vital medication in order to cure or treat diseases and illnesses such as malaria and tuberculosis.
The relevance of the example above is to point out that there are situations, like that one, when intent or stated intent is not sufficient in assessing moral culpability, and we must also evaluate actions, as I earlier mentioned Chomsky puts it in Hegemony or Survival, “In terms of the range of likely consequences” before acting.
We also have to consider, when assessing moral culpability, whether probable outcomes had even been considered in the first place. The extensive evidence presented in Michael Barletta’s Chemical Weapons in the Sudan more than suggest that the US bombing was gravely irresponsible act because there was sufficient information available at the time to make an assessment as to the likelihood that the plant was manufacturing chemical weapons and what the outcome would be if they went ahead with bombing the factory, yet there was little done to seriously consider that probable outcome. As Chomsky puts in in his email discourse with Sam Harris:
“In this case, we can hardly doubt that the likely human consequences were understood by US planners. The acts can be excused, then, only on the Hegelian assumption that Africans are “mere things,” whose lives have “no value,” an attitude that accords with practice in ways that are not overlooked among the victims, who may draw their own conclusions about the “moral orthodoxy of the West.”
And, earlier, in Hegemony or Survival:
“The claim that the actions were not criminal can be sustained only on the assumption that the fate of the victims was of no concern to the perpetrators.”
It would be daft to attempt any broad examination and critique of the feminist-hijab argument without discussing intersectionality.
Although similar ideas and arguments had been raised in the preceding decades by women who felt excluded from the work of (or advancements made) by mainstream feminists at the time, the term ‘intersectionality’ was coined by Kimberle Crenshaw in her 1989 essay Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.
Crenshaw explained and gave concrete examples to demonstrate that mainstream feminism, which was mainly led and dispensed from academics of a white middle class background (and mainly focussed on women of similar backgrounds), did not represent women of colour, nor sufficiently consider race and/or class implications. The experience of being a woman and black, Crenshaw argued, was completely different to the experience of being a black man or being a white woman because, “She has to deal not only with one form of oppression but with all forms, which link together to make a double, a triple, multiple, a many layered blanket of oppression.”
Intersectionality revolutionised feminism and changed the way many feminists approached the subject, making them justifiably more wary of making cultural or classist assumptions. However, despite its successes, the feminist movement has also suffered, at times, from its over-use and the way in which it has been distorted, largely due to how closely it owes its origins to post-modern and post-structuralist influences of the likes of Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Michel Foucault.
Post-structuralism is notoriously difficult to define but it can loosely be seen as the incorporation and extension of structuralist and phenomenological analyses to wider areas of interest such as sociology, history, anthropology, health, illness, medicine, and many others.
As you might expect structuralism focusses on structures as a basis for behavioural and conceptual understanding, arguing that human phenomena can only be understood when seen within its structural context. It owes its origins to the linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure, who argued that language was only understood within the system of language itself and through the hidden rules within its governance. Claude Levi-Strauss took this analytical framework and used it in within the field of social anthropology, arguing that human processes of thought and behaviour did not necessarily dictate culture as much as they operated within culture.
Post-structuralism differs from structuralism in that structuralism can still be understood as searching for “universal truths”, whereas post-structuralism has no qualms about questioning common interpretations, concrete concepts or absolute truths. Post-structuralism emphasises truth as always being subject to complex power relationships between the human phenomena in question and the experience, culture, society and individuality of the person/people exhibiting such phenomena.
In the interview, Truth and Power (from the collection Power/Knowledge), Foucault says, “Truth is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extend it.”
Foucault goes on to suggest the intention and emphasis of any analysis should be on attempting to “[detach] the power of truth from the forms of hegemony, social, economic and cultural, within which it operates at the present time.”
Hence, there is a conflicting assertion of the existence of truth and rejection of the notion of universal or absolute truth. Thus, for some post-structuralists, every proposition may be considered a sort of Schrodinger’s cat of veracity — in a state of multiple truths and non-truths at the same time. Here, an obvious criticism of post-structuralism arises because the analyses are themselves arguably self-refuting in that the very framework of its analysis is befallen to the very same things it suggests truth should be befallen to (e.g. ‘if you claim that there is no such thing as universal or absolute truth then this claim itself cannot be universally or absolutely true’).
Professor Susan Archer Mann points out the similarities between post-structuralism and intersectionality in a 2013 essay, Third Wave Feminism’s Unhappy Marriage of Poststructuralism and Intersectionality Theory as thus:
“The epistemologies of intersectionality theory and post-structuralism both embrace a strong social constructionist view of knowledge. This means they highlight the relationship between knowledge and power, as well as how people construct knowledge from different social locations, such as their race, gender, class, and global location. Because all vantage points are socially situated and perspectival, both of these epistemologies embrace polyvocality or the inclusion of many voices or vantage points in their construction of social reality.”
Critics argue that many post-modernist and post-structuralist analyses (when they are over-extended) result in a form of intellectually-masturbatory, navel-gazing, with frameworks that have everyone grappling over concepts of power relationships and the complexities of individual experience and meaning, in place of any tangible conclusions to challenge the status quo — reducing or limiting knowledge itself to [misattributed] Socratic assertions of, “All I know is that I know nothing.”
It doesn’t always have to result in these outcomes, especially when one is aware of the dangers. Daniel Matthews, defended post-structuralism quite brilliantly and eloquently in a 2014 blog-post when he said:
“It would be a little silly to read a poem to be making some verifiable, scientifically determinable truth claim about the world. If one did, one might be bound to say that such an endeavour had rather missed the point. Equally, I would suggest it would be rather silly to claim that poetry has no role in revealing things about the world and the particular place humans find themselves within it.”
Used in healthier dosages it can reveal wider truths and make meaningful contributions to bettering societies or communities. However, post-structuralist frameworks have all too easily been (mis)used to create time-wasting, meaningless, obscurantist and unintelligible works.
Similarly, intersectionality has become a victim of its own success. What first started as a healthy, pragmatic and nuanced reminder — to consider the distinct cultural, political and hegemonic differences between women of different demographics and cultures and to be more aware of our own cultural and political position when we think about these issues — is becoming increasingly perverted by its postmodernist roots, to the point of being, what Joan Hoff had forewarned in her 1994 essay, “a category of paralysis” which “casts into doubt stable meanings” and “reduce[s] the experiences of women… to mere subjective stories”, “disconnect[ing] women from any material experiential base”, leaving them “annihilated through disassociation.”
Worryingly, both post-structuralism and intersectionality frequently serve as catalysts towards a form of relativism which hijacks relevant and important debate or discourse by automatically dispensing an author from that debate by virtue of their privilege, rather than the strength of their argument.
Rebecca Solnit’s essay Men Explain Things to Me presented the idea of mansplaining (although the term actually came about a few months later) with fairness, nuance and excellent examples (indeed, a recent study seems to confirm that men are more likely to consider themselves as experts). But the bigger lessons we could have taken from this work have already been distorted to allow for increasing numbers of people being actively discouraged from speaking when they may have something important to say. In fact, rather than engage in conversations or debates, male individuals, writers and critics are all too frequently accused of mansplaining simply for discussing or holding an opinion on a feminist topic (or even a topic in general).
Significantly, it’s not just men being attacked, Michelle Goldberg superbly highlights in The Nation how the perverted use and understanding of intersectionality is leading to discussions in feminism being drowned out in anger or being silenced from even happening, such is the ‘toxic’ nature of online rage linked to these misunderstandings. Jonathan Chait’s essay, Not a Very P.C Thing to Say, the reactions to it as well as his follow-up blog-post response also reveal the way in which intersectionality and post-modern analysis are limiting and closing down relevant feminist discourse and opportunities for furthering our understanding of a topic.
In the case of the hijab and Islam in general, some prominent contemporary feminists present the argument that Western views are entirely irrelevant (except, presumably, to say when their views are irrelevant). Take Roxane Gay, again. In one of the essays from her collection, Bad Feminist, originally published at The Rumpus, entitled How We All Lose, she says:
“We don’t get to decide for Muslim women what does or does not oppress them, no matter how highly we think of ourselves.”
It is a point she elaborates on in the introduction to her essay collection, asserting her belief that:
“Women not just in the United States but throughout the world deserve equality and freedom but [I] know I am in no position to tell women of other cultures what that equality and freedom should look like.”
In essence, there seems to be an increasing movement advocating for opinions or arguments to be ignored based on who holds them, rather than their content. If such a logic prevails, it only serves to limit our opportunity for relevant debate, discourse and, ultimately, development in almost any conceivable subject, providing an immoral protection to subject matter by notions of identity.
When you really examine it, the logic is patently absurd, but I do have an element of sympathy for her and those that hold such views. Professor of Philosophy, Allen Wood, puts it beautifully in his essay, Ethical Relativism, when he says:
“Those who subscribe to cultural relativism about ethics are often trying to make a point that is both correct and important. Ethics or morality in itself can, in a certain sense, be seen as a social or cultural phenomenon.”
However, as Allen points out, there is often an extension beyond exercising “prudence” and “moral decency” by considering matters with “care and sensitivity”, towards holding the view that “if you want to know whether an action is right or wrong, simply find out what the agent’s culture believes about it. If they think it is right, then it is right; if they think it is wrong then it is wrong.”
Ultimately, such arguments end up serving as illegitimate protection for patriarchal practice under the guise of demonstrating cultural sensitivity. Not only are such arguments an example of the obfuscation that intersectionality can heavily influence, they can contribute to a highly irresponsible position when one might have an opportunity to prevent or limit something harmful, but, instead, cowardly refuse to do so for fear of being perceived as so culturally insensitive to define an act as harmful in the first place. As feminist scholar and assistant professor, Arati Rao, put it in 1995 in The Politics of Gender and Culture in International Human Rights Discourse: “No social group has suffered greater violation of their human rights in the name of culture than women.”
Gay and others might consider an opinion by a Western commentator on a non-Western topic to demonstrate “narrow cultural awareness” but it sets her up as the thing she rallies against — an arbitrator and gatekeeper of feminism. And, ironically, if this logic prevails, it precludes an awful lot of humans from having a voice about feminist issues. Essentially, this logic, as Allen Wood explains is:
“…totally incapable of combating any form of culturally entrenched imperialism, racism or ethnocentrism. For whenever we find these ugly things built into a culture’s beliefs, cultural relativism is committed to endorsing them.”
To fall for such intellectual dishonesty is, to use the title of Gay’s essay, how we all lose.
Proponents of the feminist-hijab argument focus on the act of wearing one as being a choice. But what do we even mean by choice? Whenever we look at choice, we always have to consider oppression, and particularly so in relation to the choice of wearing a hijab. If a woman believes in Allah and believes Islam as the only true religion, then wearing a hijab isn’t really a choice as much as a doctrinal necessity. We must also accept that there is a level of oppression influencing or dictating every decision we make.
As the hijab is essentially a scarf, consider an example of wearing a scarf outside of any religious context. If I wear a scarf over my head to conceal a bad haircut, in some way, there is an aspect of oppression — I suffer because of the way society or individuals might judge my haircut. If I wear a scarf over my head because I’m cold then there is, again, an element of oppression from outside sources like the weather, which coerces me into covering up, lest I suffer the harsher alternative.
These are by no means implausible determining factors on a decision to wear a head-scarf without the added religious context. Most, if not all, of our decisions are dictated by context, levels of autonomy and agency, intent and levels of oppression, regardless of whether we’re consciously aware of them at the time of acting.
And what is the difference between a choice and a free choice? There is often technically more freedom to choose than we might admit, but that might not tell us as much as we’d like to think it does. For example, if someone holds a knife at me and asks me to give them my wallet, in some ways I am technically free not to give them my wallet, but I’m confident that most of us would accept the choice to give my wallet is not really within the accepted meaning of a free-choice, and resembles more closely what Lacan described as a choix forcé: “Your money or your life! If I choose the money, I lose both. If I choose life, I have life without the money, namely, a life deprived of something.”
The most obvious counter argument in relation to wearing a hijab is that it really can be done completely by choice. Then, the argument goes, the hijab moves away from being a representation or symbol of oppression. But is that true? And can a choice ever be free? As we have already seen, a choice is never free in the Foucaultian sense that it’s always made under systems and structures of power, with limits placed on them and/or pressures exerted.
But to dwell on these interpretations and understandings of choice is to enter into the sort of unnecessary and unhelpful labyrinthic postmodernist discourse I’ve criticised. To move forward, we can actually use a far more logical approach by considering what the implications are (or would be) if we assume free choice exists and the decision to wear a hijab operates under parameters that allow for it to be a free choice.
Supposing a particular choice is free, that doesn’t mean that the actor can successfully imbue that choice with any meaning they see fit. The feminist-hijab arguments are in keeping with the increasing absurdity of post-modern, choice-feminist arguments, where, as Meagan Tyler, co-editor of Freedom Fallacy: The Limits of Liberal Feminism writes in The Conversation, “In privileging individual choice above all else, it doesn’t challenge the status quo…. It doesn’t demand significant social change, and it effectively undermines calls for collective action. Basically, it asks nothing of you and delivers nothing in return.”
To stress my earlier points, in order for an act to be considered feminist, it has to have the relevant intent and/or consideration of likely outcomes, as well as an actual outcome that furthers the feminist cause. We also have to consider, keeping with the assumption that a choice is free, what that choice actually means. The fact remains that when a woman of Muslim faith wears a hijab, the act will always represent the religiously sexist and divisive background from which that decision is at least partly founded on.
That is not to say that one ‘bad’ act itself removes the actor from being feminist. Roxane Gay, who I earlier criticised so strongly, makes an important argument that feminism must allow women the freedom to make bad choices. It is deeply troubling how easily a point of relevance can be lost in a cacophony of anger, removing it from the debate and replacing it with an argument about the privilege of the person making it or a poor turn of phrase.
There must also be room to debate what a bad choice might be, and room to allow for an actor to gain enlightenment and learn from errors, rather than being hounded into resignation. However, we must also be careful not to be so wishy-washy in our understanding of feminism as to do a disservice to the movement by continually including everyone in its grasp. There should be some rational limitations imposed on who we can consider feminist based on the size and frequency of bad choices, and there has to be some sense of essentialism related to what a choice represents, otherwise feminism itself becomes meaningless.
Blogger, The Salafi Feminist, argues an alternate free-choice based view for wearing the hijab as a feminist statement, suggesting that the notion of the female body being sexualised by men is actually peripheral to the main concern and objective of keeping the actors’ sexuality for whoever they specifically choose. For her, it is a “responsibility” for the gift of sexuality that Allah gave her; and to continue to wear one contributes to the “betterment of society”.
“Rather than believing that my body has been sexualized by men,” she says. “I am fiercely proud of my own sexuality — and thus choose to keep it for myself and those whom I choose, as opposed to everyone who believes they have a right to see my body.”
It is difficult to infer from this argument how this actually represents a feminist act, and it brings to mind a post-sport, non-showering, closeted, egotistical, mildly-homophobic team-mate who happens to be playing on the same team as a homosexual. The mild-homophobe is worried about being sexualised by his gay team mate so he quickly gets changed and has a shower at home. He publically asserts (and quite probably believes it himself) that he doesn’t have a problem with gay guys, but just doesn’t feel comfortable showering in front of one. It’s dripping with both an ignorant view of other men (gay or not gay) and a deluded self-aggrandisement of being irresistible. Despite the homophobe’s assertions and pitiful excuses to say otherwise, it paints a horribly distorted picture of gay men and men in general.
In any event, all of these arguments also present the problem of protecting one’s sexuality as to having only one solution: to cover one’s body. What about women who may choose to dress in a more revealing way, without feeling that they are making any statement as to their sexuality or sexual intent? Despite all the airs and graces of appearing to care not to pass judgement on others, the justification for the act, by its very nature, pushes judgement on other women as irresponsibly failing to protect their sexuality.
Perhaps the biggest irony in this debate comes from the women who claim to be wearing a hijab or veil as a feminist act and keenly point out that they have chosen to wear one and were free in that choice, but, by doing so, unwittingly pour scorn on certain women who choose not to wear one. Logically, these women, must be (despite assertions to say otherwise), by virtue of not adopting the same choice, devoid of self-respect and allowing themselves to be judged purely on their sexuality — all the while ignoring that those women may not be dressing so as to be defined or valued purely or even cursorily by their sexuality.
In the particular case Yusuf puts forward in her video for the feminist-hijab, she can be seen wearing make-up and tight fitting clothing revealing her body shape. It’s close to a non-sequitur to claim that you wear a hijab to fight against the sexualisation of women whilst wearing a tight top and jeans. That said, I don’t wish to elaborate any further on this point, because I don’t want to give any credence to the notion that there is anything wrong with Yusuf wearing clothing that reveals her body shape. I raise it to help point out how ill-thought her argument is, and how obviously it fails to even fit the purpose she purports it to.
This leads onto one important point which rarely seems to be raised as a response against those that claim the wearing of a hijab is a feminist act, and it is a perfectly legitimate point: it’s not bad to appreciate people’s aesthetics and looks; it’s bad to value someone entirely on their aesthetics and looks. Those that wear a hijab or veil enter into an idea that to not wear one is to suffer the latter, but there’s no certainty to that outcome. It’s based entirely on a false dichotomy which actually serves against their stated interest in that it increases the likelihood of women being valued by their sexuality.
Now, it might be argued that wearing a hijab is a cultural practice that is not based on theocracy or patriarchy. It might be argued that wearing a hijab is actually about signifying group identity. In fact, this is precisely the argument put forward from Munira Mirza, Abi Senthilkumaran and Zein Ja’far in a research paper for Policy Exchange in 2007 titled Living Apart Together: British Muslims and the Paradox of Multiculturalism:
“To view it as an old cultural tradition, which some observers have tended to do, is to miss a fundamental point — in some families the headscarf is novel and can even be counter-cultural… It might be more appropriate to see the hijab as part of that long-established, counter-cultural tradition of bright mohicans and nose studs, rather than traditional religious observance.”
It is true that the wearing of a hijab can be an act of counter-culture. Yet, there still remains the fact that this act is also imbued with the sexist and divisive religious basis which partly drives it, because the act of wearing one while serving as a cultural signifier, incorporates as part of the culture being signified, a belonging to (or following of) Islam, and furthermore an Islamic observation which is fundamentally sexist.
So while a “fundamental point” might be missed in understanding that headscarves are worn as cultural identifiers, one cannot ignore that those that do wear one, do so, at least in part, to signal their religion, and also, crucially, as a religious observance built on the foundations of sexist and unequal theological rules and justifications.
It might possibly be argued that I am overlooking that a hijab might not be regularly worn for either of the reasons I mentioned but, if that were the case, evidence of a significant number of non-Muslim women wearing one regularly would certainly assist somewhat with this argument. Regardless, one cannot ignore what a hijab continues to represent, to a wider majority, by virtue of how synonymous it is with Islamic observation. And, more importantly, one cannot pretend (at least convincingly) that covering up is a legitimate long-term answer to stopping any trend or widespread behaviour of valuing women by their sexual allure.
There is nothing effective about covering up as a response to objectification of women in wider society over truly confronting and informing the men who objectify women (and the women who don’t understand or care about the bigger picture behind being objectified). It brings to mind (as a response to deal with sexual harassment, groping and rape) women-only carriages on trains, notable examples being Mexico, Thailand, Brazil, Iran, Japan and India; as well as the recent movement and development of women-only cabs in America.
As a temporary remedy, it may suit and help some individuals, but it doesn’t really deal with the fundamental problems, or as the succinct title to Soraya Chemaly’s opinion piece on women-only taxis says, “Change culture, not cabs.”
Whether we believe it or not, the wearing of a hijab could actually further the objectification of women. It may also (unless it was no longer adopted as patriarchal cultural and religious practice) be encouraging a grossly offensive view of men in how they generally view women, as if they’re, somehow, incapable of controlling any sexual urges that they might have. Worse still, it may even help to naturalise or forge rape cultures by creating or lending credence to a sense of other’s being fair game if they’re not wearing one.
When we begin to unravel the arguments for the feminist-hijab, we find that it only ever existed in the mind of those telling us — a lie that those who used it tricked themselves (and others) into believing. For well-educated, young Muslim women, such as Majeed, Takolia and Yusuf, the contention that the act of wearing a hijab is feminist is probably best explained as an example of cognitive dissonance, which psychologist Elliot Aronson describes in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology as a “negative drive state which occurs whenever an individual simultaneously holds two cognitions (ideas, beliefs, opinions) which are psychologically inconsistent.”
Nadiya Takolia seems at pains to point out in her Guardian piece that her decision came, “As a twentysomething undergraduate, [while] reading feminist literature.” And Yussuf, in her follow-up article in The National about the reaction to her video says that the decision came about at twenty-one, after “three to four years of contemplation”.
The point that they both seem very keen to make is that not only was the decision to wear a hijab a free choice, it is linked to their increased understanding and education. In some sense, this is correct, but their reasons for wearing a hijab might be just as well explained by their decision to remain Muslim after accumulating knowledge and increasing education that would ordinarily conflict with such a decision. Thus, in order to deal with a sense of discomfort or dissonance caused by their changing value system being at loggerheads with their cultural and religious background (and perhaps doubly linked to accepting the information as true), their faith in Islam increases, but only through distorting the way in which they interpret and externally present their adherence to it as rational. Hence, the outcome of what is an increased religiosity of wearing a hijab, but linked to a false conscious reason that it is actually feminist to wear one.
Psychologist, Elliot Aronson, puts the process far more succinctly:
“The theory [of cognitive dissonance] does not rest upon the assumption that man is a rational animal; rather, it suggests that man is a rationalising animal — that he attempts to appear rational both to others and to himself.”
There is, of course, the possibility that indoctrination and/or cognitive dissonance are not the primary reasons for the claim that wearing a hijab is a feminist act. But if they are not the primary reasons, then, as we’ve seen, those making the feminist-hijab argument run the risk of being seen as morally culpable for perpetuating religiously institutionalised sexism and doing a disservice to feminism. If those biases affected their decision-making, then their positions are more forgivable; if the biases haven’t affected their decision-making, then, quite frankly, they should know better.
Why might this matter? As the research consultant, Brian Tomasik, notes for Foundational Research Institute:
“Our moral feedback to other people should not just reflect pure-heartedness but also should amend incorrect beliefs they may have about the expected value of different actions.”
Before I come to an end, it is only fair that I recognise that there are more significant institutional and systematic forms of patriarchy and controversy than the false proposition that the hijab constitutes a feminist statement.
In fact, the writer, Shelina Zahra Janmohamed, points out that the hijab receives disproportionate focus in questions and debates of feminism when there are much bigger issues that we could, and perhaps should, be debating. This may well be true, but the hijab is emblematic of much wider issues. And, if, for example, we didn’t keep hearing the justification of wearing a hijab through the lens of obfuscation, false consciousness and moral relativism then we wouldn’t continue having that sort of debate.
However, it is disingenuous to try to stop people questioning falsehoods through the use of whataboutery. One does not need to focus exclusively on one issue or another, and the issue is a significant part of a bigger picture that those who defend the hijab are failing to see, which is perhaps the underlying theme and argument to this entire essay: the feminist cause is hindered and undermined by upholding and observing beliefs which are essentially patriarchal and sexist.
Defenders of Islam’s credentials for feminism frequently argue, often legitimately, against the West’s crude misunderstanding of Muslim majority nations as uncivilised and sexist. For example, the scholar, Reza Aslan, in a widely shared interview on CNN in September 2014, points out the inherent dangers in assuming that despite there being 1.5 billion Muslims, that they are part of a homogenous whole without varying rights, interpretations, observations, beliefs, personalities and/or cultural practices.
It’s also inherently wrong to all too readily view a person of Muslim faith (or any faith for that matter) as more often making decisions or behaving in ways that are inseparable from their religion. However, it’s nevertheless, perfectly acceptable to question behaviours belonging to or inextricably linked to an ideology, particularly when that ideology undermines basic human rights, promotes patriarchy, advocates death to apostates, and is simply not supported by the foundations of critical or rational thought.
Sadly, defenders of Islam in general, particularly in the West, seem all too prone to extend their arguments towards a form of apologism, obfuscation and/or cultural relativism that only serve to protect the problematic elements and maintain status quo. For example, when Aslan, in the same interview, was asked about the fare of women in Muslim majority countries, he resorted to logical fallacies in defence of Islam, rhetorically asking “Do you know that Muslims have elected seven women as their heads of states in those Muslim majority countries? How many women do we have as head of states in the United States?” and taking his argument into territory of absolute false-hoods by saying, “It certainly is [a free and open society for women] in Indonesia and Malaysia. It certainly is in Bangladesh… [In] Indonesia, women are 100% to men”. When earlier asked about female genital mutilation, Aslan said that it was not “a Muslim-country problem,” but actually a Central African problem.
The arguments are spurious at best, complete lies at worst. And the examples are cherry-picked, demonstrating little concern for the objective truth by simply admitting the generally lower fare for women and the much wider gender gaps that exist in the majority, if not all, of the countries he referenced, which Aki Muthali’s article in The Nation succinctly points out.
When talking about feminism and Islam, self-proclaimed liberal voices have increasingly allowed a trend of vacuous relativism, false rationalisation and redundant apologism to overtake a more intellectually rigorous response and outlook. It’s time that we seriously re-assessed this for the damage that it has done and continues to do. Otherwise, in our attempts to defend the oppressed, we will end up supporting the oppressors.