Muslim women’s bodies are not spaces to fight people’s bigotry

Living in Johannesburg, I usually get to go to the beach once a year. When I swim in a public place I wear full-length leggings, a long-sleeved top, and either a hat or a scarf tied in a turban while I swim, to cover my hair (which is something I do all the time). I dress like this in accordance with the rules of hijab, a code of modesty and behaviour outlined for me by my religion. It is my choice to dress this way.

The woman identified on the French beach, known only as Siam, exercised her agency to do the same. And French police – the keepers of the justice system, the ones who preach “freedom, equality, brotherhood” – completely freaked out about it, and forced her to strip off her long-sleeved top and scarf on a public beach in front of strangers, humiliating her in front of her crying daughter.

Telling a certain group of women what they can or cannot wear on the beach is a form of imperialism. You wouldn’t tell a surfer not to wear a wetsuit, or ask a nun to remove her habit. So why the special attention on Muslim women?

Because gendered Islamophobia is a thing. You see, the French do not seem to have a problem with the clothing itself. They have a problem with the wearer, and the faith that she is so boldly practising by dressing in a certain way. This, of course, feeds into a long history of the French not quite being able to accept Muslim women by virtue of nothing other than the way that they’re dressed. Fanon wrote an entire chapter on the anxieties that covered-up Algerian women posed to French colonisers in their conquests of Algiers in the 19th century.

The French have a cognitive dissonance when it comes to Muslims. They are so preoccupied with promoting their idea of secularism that they cannot accept Islam and its somewhat conservative nature. They preach “freedom, equality, brotherhood,” but even though immigrants from North Africa make up a massive portion of their population, they are still too closed off to accept the reality of multiculturalism.

They refuse to acknowledge the legacies of colonialism which they continue to promulgate – the fact that they went into these countries, could not accept these people as they were there, displaced them so that they had no option but to come to France – and even there, continue to make it clear that they do not belong and cannot be accepted.

But France is not the only one guilty of treating Muslim women badly. Mainstream media is complicit in reinforcing a certain narrative of what a “Muslim woman” is – and find no issue with drawing their own reductionist conclusions. A 2010 research report by Michelle Byng found that “the media have represented Islam and Muslims as culturally incompatible with the values, norms, and interests of Western nations.” Also in 2010, Laura Navarro researched the links to sexism and Islamophobia and found, “The Western mass media tend to construct an image of Muslim women using a discourse dominated by the notions of passiveness and victimisation… in a minority of cases, also portray a seemingly positive image of “liberated Muslim women”, closely linked to their “Western-style clothes” and/or their economic success. This reductionist construction on the part of the mass media tends to erode the social, cultural and economic diversity of Muslim women…”.

When are we going to stop talking about Muslim women only through the archaic and Orientalist lens of the veil? Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod wrote in 2002 – post-9/11 – when the invasion of Afghanistan was justified as a mission to “save the women”: “We must take care not to reduce the diverse situations and attitudes of millions of Muslim women to a single item of clothing.”

To publicly observe hijab in 2016, it seems, has become a revolutionary act. But this is nothing more than structural oppression continuing to manifest itself – and for that to be the case in 2016 is ridiculous.

And on that note – when are white feminists going to see this, call it out, and stand in solidarity against it instead of siding with with an imperialist government with a patriarchal agenda, obsessed with controlling the way that women dress under the guise of “saving” or “rescuing” these women from their own religion?

Muslim women’s bodies are not spaces to fight people’s bigotry. The sooner we realise that, the better.

Featured image via Instagram

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10 Comments

  1. DifficultSituation says

    Although these actions by France are dangerously discriminatory, you have to understand the world does not revolve around you and your beliefs. For you wearing a veil is something that comes from your deeply held religious teachings that are the all-powerful word of God, the same entity that created the entire universe…

    …But if you aren’t a Muslim, it’s just the ramblings of Bronze Age desert men. Anytime a Muslim women says she wears a veil as a method to express her faith or draw closer to it, I , as a non Muslim, hear: “I’m wearing this because some desert men told me to.” That will never not be incredibly sexist. And that’s an important distinction you need to make, and it’s something in the day and age of secular reason religious people have to realize, religious beliefs do NOT deserve special privileges. Anytime you say “it’s my choice” to wear a veil and impose slut shaming archaic modesty rules, you should actually say “I’m making a choice heavily influenced by dogma I was indoctrinated to belief since childhood”. That is not choice, it is perpetuating a MAN made system that does hurt SOME women. Can you speak for all hijabis, across the world? What about those in Sharia enforced countries? What about the closeted apostates that wear it to keep face but despise it? Your whole argument seems to be “Look at me, I’m not oppressed! Ignore all those other women who are forced and focus on me who is free!” You’re literally the opposite extreme to those white saviours who think EVERY hijabi is secretly hating it.

    Religion, particularly the Abrahamic ones (Christianity, Islam, Judaism), are inherently patriarchal. No amount of mental gymnastics can ever change that, and the violence, and the slavery, and the homophobia, and the flat out illogical nonsense. Thus having the view that the veil is sexist is quite frankly completely justified, as it is from a patriachial institution. To lump any animosity or criticism of religion or associated practices under the banner of Islamophobia is quite frankly denying others agency, and seems to be ordering others to do just as you did: blankly accept everything you were taught as a child and believe all the scriptures at face value.

    However, despite all this, France is getting it terribly wrong. You can criticize, debate, and argue about practices all day, and even if you are a secular country, you CANNOT FORCE people to lose their freedom of belief. As much as I’m against religion, we need to be for freedom of speech, and practice, and dress. That is a basic human right, especially concerning women considering we do still live in an incredibly patriarchal world.

    So believe the veil is liberating. Believe the veil is sexist. But NEVER FORCE THE OTHER TO COMPLY WITH YOUR VIEWS. France is no better than a Hell hole like Saudi Arabia and its Sharia bullshit if it continues like this. So perhaps instead of only latching onto the “discriminatory Western media view” of Muslims as a persecuted and insular minority, also focus on the actions of Islam in countries where it has the majority and power, and see how it discriminates just as badly.

    1. Gabba says

      Wow very well written. Agree 100%

    2. Neurotic Knight says

      Yup, disagreement with Islamic expressionism being reduced to mere racism is disingenuous. There are Hindus from and Chinese immigrants in huge number and they never are in conflict with the society. Putting religion 1st in a society that suffered huge historical oppression from religion is basically saying a big fuck you to all of them. Muslim women have the right to wear what they please as of any of us. However they are not immune to criticism for their choice of clothing and that is my freedom of speech.

  2. JJames says

    I find the title of this article interesting considering the idea of covering women up aka being so-called “modest” is a form of bigotry against women’s bodies.

  3. Nabila says

    I grew up within the Muslim community and just wanted to add my two cents. Many Muslim women wear hijabs for religious reasons, but that doesn’t imply that they all look down upon those who don’t. Some of my best friends are in hijab and they have no issues with the fact that I wear bikinis or short shorts (no archaic sluts shaming). It was a lesson i had to learn as someone who also had preconceived notions of what girls in hijab are like.
    Secondly, hijab isn’t always a religious thing. Most girls do wear it for religious purposes but there are also those who choose to wear it as a political statement or as a form of cultural identity or even just because they look pretty, and I personally know individual’s from all of above so it’s not just as black and white as one might imagine. I agree it’s forced upon many women across the world and one cannot defend those laws but that doesn’t mean that that people with the freedom to choose need to be apologetic for exercising that choice.

    1. DifficultSituation says

      “I agree it’s forced upon many women across the world and one cannot defend those laws but…”:

      See that’s literally the beginning and end of the conversation, adding a “but” after that is incredibly problematic. Even if you took the most liberal Muslim women who had complete free agency the fact remains they are perpetuating a system that is still used to hurt some. If they decided to not “be apologetic” that’s throwing others under the bus to say “Hey don’t make me feel uncomfortable about my beliefs.”
      It just sucks to read stuff like this on Daily Vox who is so on point with calling out privilege, but when it comes to religion, particularly Islam, all of a sudden they turn into straight white men and “can’t see the problem.”

      It’s like “Racism is institutionalized, call out white privilege!” Yay! “Sexism is institutionalized, call out the patriarchy! “Yass!” “Religion is institutionalized! Call out the suffering it causes!” Wait woah woah woah, religion is perfect bro that problematic verse is out of context/ mistranslated/ could never ever be wrong / are you an islamophobe?

      It’s like you could be the most Woke white person and fight day and night against all forms of institutionalized racism but you would STILL benefit from White Privilege. That blood can never leave your hands, in the same way no matter how liberal you try and make wearing hijab you are still part of that system that is hurting others. And I know how hard it is for normal people going about their lives to start thinking about this, but it’s a difficult and necessary conversation to have.

      And yes, there is undeniably immense bigotry out there against Muslims from white, predominately Western people. And a lot of well meaning allies are gratefully calling that out, but instead of attacking the bigotry…they defend Islam. I’ll say that again. Instead of attacking the bigotry, they DEFEND ISLAM. You can’t defend such a powerful institution that still hurts people, this is a difficult situation that requires a lot of nuance.

      Atheism and agnosticism has the same problem as feminism, and it is a whiteness problem. We need intersectional atheists who will speak from a POC perspective such as myself. White atheism is a problem. We aren’t Dawkins, or Hitchens, and all those Western white men, our communities have our own complications and we have to start calling out this bullshit we see in the dogma we have forced into our lives and communities.

      Religious privilege is real, and hopefully when all these people who are supposedly “so woke” on every other form or discrimination wake up and realize that the Vox will start to not feel like such a ball of hypocrisy. Facing your privilege is incredibly difficult, it requires taking a deep look at your identity and asking, “But what if I’m wrong?”.

      We need that in society, so, so badly.

      1. Neurotic Knight says

        There is whiteness problem in atheism and feminism because in non white societies it is often punished by government.

  4. Fazil says

    Aaisha, Heard you this morning on 702. Your response to Faizal (Mayfair)should have been more circumspect. This guy is a well known Atheist and Islamophobe, due to his own personal experiences in life.
    He certainly does not represent Muslim thought in any form!

  5. Faiza says

    Great piece! And thank you for been the Muslim women talking about the issues of Muslim women. Heard you on SA fm.

    I feel that context is very important with regards to this ban, for it alienates an an already very marginalized community.

  6. L S M says

    Personally I find it offensive, as a woman, to have to be faced with someone wearing a garment that 1. Suggests or supports a view that the female body is a liability or a commodity that needs protecting and 2. Indicates that it’s the responsibility of the female to protect her body from violence.
    I would argue that this garment does promote harm in a longterm sense and is immediately destructive to the women and girls present (particularly the children and their adult mindset in later life) , in that we are all shaped intellectually and emotionally by the cultural stimuli that we are subjected to.

    I would find someone wearing swastikas or white supremacist regalia as intellectually and emotionally destructive; although it could be argued that that person would have a right to express whatever view they like. While one couldn’t ethically stop that person holding or expressing that view one can protect others from the insidious effects of it by mandating that it is not displayed in certain public spaces.
    I think there is a widely held fallacy that freedom of religion offers protection from ethical scrutiny and that the details of the religions in question are irrelevant. This is not so, at least not if we adhere to a rational worldview.

    We can’t ignore context . If a practice or custom associated with a particular religion is entrenched in oppressive ideological standpoints within that religion (from a universal perspective of working in opposition to maximising flourishing and happiness of the population encompassed by that religion) , then there is an ethical duty to challenge that practice.

    Alleging that this garment affords freedom is a classic case of displaying “the soft bigotry of low expectations ” toward Muslims in the Western World . Freedom for Muslim women would surely be more constructively represented by pushing for the reform of customs that demand female modesty and violently punish perceived lack thereof.

    The perceived choice those Muslim women in Western societies feel they have comes from the reformed expression of Islam that is a function of their residence in said societies.
    I know several women from countries that impose Sharia law that feel entirely contrary to what your friends feel. A choice where one outcome is detrimental to the chooser is not a true choice.
    Furthermore the feeling of relief, liberation, or empowerment is, to my mind a reflexive response to the thuggish misogyny resultant from the patriarchal backbone of the communities most of these women live in. If not wearing the veil will subject one to groping, assault, degradation, ostracisation, leering, lewd remarks, slut shaming, is it any wonder covering up brings a sense of relief. It is, however treating a symptom and not a cause.

    The point is that individual interpretations or subjective emotional responses to faith practice don’t necessarily have much bearing in isolation on the universal evaluation of the harm or benefit those practices cause.

    Back to the FGM example, most Kurdish and Somali women choose it for their daughters, because it is normalised and even glorified in their cultural environment. Why do we ban it then?
    Because by objective and universal weighting in terms of the ratio of benefit to harm it is deemed harmful on average, or as being predicated on beliefs about women which are harmful to them as a population sector on average .

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