Cross-CulturalismFeminismPolitics / ActivismReligion

It’s All About Choice

Two things prompted me to post this article. The first was episode 2.7 of the Godless Bitches podcast (I highly recommend this podcast!), where Beth, Jen, Tracie, and Tanya Smith from Atheist Alliance International discussed the banning of the burqa, and an interesting back-and-forth between Tracie and Tanya ensued. The second was Yessenia’s recent posts (see here and here) about women who claim to take up wearing the hijab as a form of feminist liberation. (I have had this post written since the end of March after hearing that GB podcast episode, but I’ve been sitting on it due to the nature of these types of topics on skeptical/atheist blogs as lightning rods.)

I don’t want to rehash the discussion that took place on the podcast episode, though I do feel that Tracie made a compelling case for the importance of being cautious about these types of laws. I, too, am concerned with criminalizing women for wearing certain types of clothing (or unclothing). I also don’t want to rehash the critiques made by Yessenia nor the discussions in the comments sections there. What I want to address is the idea (proposed by Tanya on that GB episode) that women are indoctrinated into wearing head coverings and therefore the choice to wear one is actually not a choice. I find this problematic on a number of levels.

Most social behavior is “indoctrinated”—a loaded term, to be sure. I prefer the terms socialized or enculturated. Much of what we do as enculturated beings is not conscious, and when it is conscious it is often an attempt either to fit expected social norms (and avoid stigma or punishment) or to challenge expected social norms. The reason I point this out is because criticizing someone’s enculturated behavior as being the result of “indoctrination” and therefore bad is myopic. The fact that people are enculturated to act, behave, eat, or dress their bodies in certain ways is not sufficient grounds for criticism of those things. In other words: enculturation alone is not enough to condemn or condone a behavior.

This line of thinking also assumes that women who wear a head covering for religious reasons are too stupid to know the true reasons that they are wearing them (of course, we know the truth, right?). Many Muslim women who wear head coverings understand and agree with the reasons for wearing them. To say that they have been indoctrinated so they cannot possibly make an informed choice seems quite presumptuous. Of course, not all women who wear head coverings choose to wear them or enjoy wearing them. Plenty of women do not make that choice but are forced to wear it, and I believe that is wrong because of the lack of choice.

This thinking also assumes that we know these women’s lives and minds better than they do, so we are better informed to make decisions on their behalf. This strips women of agency and takes the choice away from them completely. I fail to see how this is any different than forcing them to wear a head covering. I am extremely uncomfortable with forcing women to wear it, and I am extremely uncomfortable with forcing women to not wear it. It’s the force part—the part that removes the choice from them completely—that disturbs me most.

Lisa Valentine, arrested and jailed in Georgia, USA for refusing to remove hijab

These laws are not really passed with women’s equality as the most important aspect of the legislation. Police are not arresting women for wearing head coverings because they are trying to help the women out of oppression. Let’s be real: these laws have been passed as a reaction to cultural and demographic shifts and as an attempt to curb religious extremism and terrorism. Time will tell if they actually have that affect (I doubt it); in the meantime, women are being arrested, charged, jailed, and fined for expressing themselves through their clothing.

I have yet to hear a compelling case for the passage of such laws; in fact, the only argument I have seen boils down to “we don’t like what the head coverings represent to us.” Well, we don’t like a lot of forms of expression that go on in our own societies, but we tolerate them because it makes for a stronger society. Limiting a person’s freedom of expression is not something that should be done so easily. I remain unconvinced that banning head coverings will improve the lives of these women.

I am deeply concerned with the lack of nuanced perspective that accompanies this issue so often in skeptical and atheist circles. In my experience, people tend to view these types of issues in black-and-white, most often through the lens of their own culture. Please do not misunderstand me on this: I am not advocating an anything-goes position. What I am asking for is a bit of critical thought and for people to take a step back and consider the multiple angles from which to view this topic.

It is easy to look outside of our own societies and see practices as oppressive, damaging, or horrific. But the complex sets of cultural processes, histories, and social structures are often lost or completely overlooked in discussions of Muslim head coverings, as are the actual lived experiences of the women about whom we are discussing.

We know from work such as Writing Women’s Worlds by anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod that women in many Muslim societies have rich and varied lives full of expressions of agency, even when they may appear to outsiders to be extremely oppressed and lacking agency. I am sure they are oppressed in many ways, as are most women around the world. But when we reduce these women to thoughtless, choiceless automatons who cannot even make choices about their own lives (even when they say they are doing so), we are venturing into dangerous territory that is no better than forcing them to cover.

Featured image found on multiple sources via Google Images.

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Will

Will

Will is the admin of Queereka, part of the Skepchick network. They are a cultural/medical anthropologist who works at the intersections of sex/gender, sexuality, health, and education. Their other interests include politics, science studies, popular culture, and public perceptions and understandings of anthropology. Follow them on Twitter at @anthrowill and Facebook at facebook.com/anthrowill.

9 Comments

  1. July 23, 2012 at 11:59 am —

    “I am extremely uncomfortable with forcing women to wear it, and I am extremely uncomfortable with forcing women to not wear it. It’s the force part—the part that removes the choice from them completely—that disturbs me most.”

    For me, that’s the hesrt of the matter. The government telling women what they can or can’t wear is not an improvement on their husbands or fathers telling them.

  2. July 23, 2012 at 12:17 pm —

    Without further clarification on what you mean by ‘head covering,’ I have a hard time commenting on the laws you’re alluding to (it’d be helpful to have links to the laws as well – not that I’m saying they don’t exist, but it’s good for everyone to be talking about the same thing).

    I think the hijab and the niqab, for instance, are very different ‘head coverings,’ and that the niqab should face further scrutiny for the same reason we don’t let people wear balaclavas while going through airport security or horse blinders while driving. Anything obscures your identity or your ability to see brings other considerations into play beyond religious liberty or personal choice. And that’s times a thousand when we’re talking about children.

    Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapper forced her to wear a burqa. When a police officer asked to see her face to verify whether she was that missing girl they were looking for, her kidnapper said, “Nope. Only her husband can see her face.” And the idiot cop shrugged his shoulders and thought, ‘religious liberty,’ and walked away, which meant she was a prisoner and a captive for nine months.

    The more extreme forms of these ‘head coverings’ have obvious capacities for enabling abusers, and the rights of women and girls in the thrall of these abusers to community protection absolutely has to be weighed against the rights of women not being abused to go about their business in disguise. And for the record, I hope no one will respond and say that I’m denying women ‘choice’ and ‘agency’ by saying that we have a collective responsibility to help women and children escape abusive situations. The rhetoric of ‘choice’ only goes so far.

    I don’t think anyone is saying Muslim women are uniquely incapable of making choices, but our choices are shaped and constrained by the cultures we live in. To suggest that Muslim women are uniquely exempt from that pressure is what bugs me. I mean, I have lots of ways to express myself, but I wasn’t raised around Chinese people, so none of the ways I express myself will involve speaking Chinese. I don’t think that someone is saying I’m a choiceless automaton with no agency for saying the biggest reason I speak English because everyone around me does.

    • July 23, 2012 at 1:04 pm —

      By ‘head coverings’ I mean any of them (hijab, niqab, burqa, etc.). I posted a picture (click the picture to go to the story) of a woman in the US named Lisa Valentine who was arrested for refusing to remove a hijab. A quick Google search will bring up lots of information about bans on the burqa in France (note the President’s reason for the ban: “It is a sign of enslavement.”) and the longstanding hijab bans (that are recently being challenged) in Turkey and the resulting protests that have gotten women arrested for wearing them in public.

      Again, I don’t think arresting women for voluntarily wearing items of clothing aids in removing oppression. In fact, I think it does the opposite.

      I think the hijab and the niqab, for instance, are very different ‘head coverings,’ and that the niqab should face further scrutiny for the same reason we don’t let people wear balaclavas while going through airport security or horse blinders while driving.

      This is confusing to me. In the most recent comment thread on your post about the hijab, you took the position that the hijab is not just any old piece of clothing because it is wrapped up in religious and political symbolism. And now you want to make a comparison with ski masks and horse blinders? Those things most certainly do not have the same sort of identity symbolism wrapped up in them, and they don’t arise out of people’s religious beliefs.

      There are ways of checking people through airport security without forcing them to remove their hijabs or niqabs or burqas. Do you really think that these head coverings are inherently dangerous such that they must be completely removed and examined (and, thus, judged appropriate or inappropriate to wear) by people who likely are not a member of that person’s community or religion?

      Elizabeth Smart’s kidnapper forced her to wear a burqa.

      I think I made it pretty clear how I feel about forcing people to wear things in the OP. That’s not what this discussion is about. It’s about women who say they are choosing to don these articles of clothing and states punishing them for doing so. It’s also about howe Euroamerican feminists are claiming that these women are being forced and that even when they make a choice it’s not actually a choice.

      The more extreme forms of these ‘head coverings’ have obvious capacities for enabling abusers, and the rights of women and girls in the thrall of these abusers to community protection absolutely has to be weighed against the rights of women not being abused to go about their business in disguise. And for the record, I hope no one will respond and say that I’m denying women ‘choice’ and ‘agency’ by saying that we have a collective responsibility to help women and children escape abusive situations. The rhetoric of ‘choice’ only goes so far.

      This seems like a straw argument to me. I never argued that we should allow abuse. What I am arguing is that when women say they are choosing to wear these items of clothing, we should accept their word and not make paternalistic assumptions about their abilities to exercise their agency. And I’m sorry but I do feel that when you reduce their lives to be all about their being clothed a certain way, you are objectifying them and removing agency from them. If your argument is that the rhetoric of choice only goes so far, and this post goes beyond it, then we will have to respectfully disagree.

      I don’t think anyone is saying Muslim women are uniquely incapable of making choices

      Actually, it seemed to me that’s exactly what the guest on that episode of GB was saying. That they live in such patriarchal societies that they are not capable of making choices about their lives. Even when they live in France.

      but our choices are shaped and constrained by the cultures we live in.

      Of course. But that fact in and of itself is not enough to condone or condemn a behavior.

      To suggest that Muslim women are uniquely exempt from that pressure is what bugs me.

      That’s not what I’m saying at all, and in fact the opposite of that is exactly what many people say about Muslim women–that they are incapable of making a decision to wear a head covering due to their culture. I’m arguing that we are all embedded in our cultures and we all do things that may appear to lack choice or agency to outsiders. But that doesn’t mean that there is no agency being exercised simply because outsiders cannot recognize it as such. I’m arguing that the decisions that they make are not so easily categorized in the “choice/no choice” binary that we have constructed because of exactly what you said about how culture shapes and constrains our decisions. In that sense, they’re no different from us, and that’s ultimately my point. It’s just harder to see it when we’re embedded in it–the fish don’t notice the water.

      I mean, I have lots of ways to express myself, but I wasn’t raised around Chinese people, so none of the ways I express myself will involve speaking Chinese. I don’t think that someone is saying I’m a choiceless automaton with no agency for saying the biggest reason I speak English because everyone around me does.

      No, but if people started condemning you because you speak English, that is the equivalent of what the guest on GB was doing. Enculturation alone is not enough to condemn or condone a behavior or to determine whether or not there is agency involved. All it tells us is how a person learned to behave and think in certain ways.

      • July 23, 2012 at 1:38 pm —

        This is confusing to me. In the most recent comment thread on your post about the hijab, you took the position that the hijab is not just any old piece of clothing because it is wrapped up in religious and political symbolism. And now you want to make a comparison with ski masks and horse blinders? Those things most certainly do not have the same sort of identity symbolism wrapped up in them, and they don’t arise out of people’s religious beliefs.

        You’re right, they don’t. That’s because I’m not comparing them along the axis of identity symbolism. I’m saying other concerns – specifically, identity obfuscation and vision impairment – are relevant in some contexts. It’s hard to drive in a burqa because it obstructs your field of vision. It’s hard to use an ID in a niqab because no one can tell if you’re the person in the photo. It has nothing to do with my thoughts about how they’re wretched symbols – just that these are practical considerations involved with niqabs and burqas that aren’t there with hijabs or cross necklaces. Religious liberty and freedom of choice are important, it’s just not a trump card that always wins.

        • July 23, 2012 at 2:08 pm —

          Sure, except that’s not the stated reason for banning them. I’m not arguing “religious liberty therefore absolute freedom.” I don’t see it in such Manichaean terms.

          There are other ways to get around safety concerns that don’t involve outright bans on items of clothing used to express identity. Is it really that women who wear burqas are causing all sorts of car accidents such that there must be state intervention to ban them in all situations? As far as I can tell, the women who were arrested for protesting in France were not driving at the time, nor were they trying to get through airport security.

          When they do need to go through airport security, there can be culturally sensitive ways to get that done, such as having the women go into a private area with another woman to check that the person under the clothing is the same person as on the ID.

          You seem to be advocating for regulation in certain situations, which is something I think is appropriate as long as it’s done in culturally sensitive ways. But that’s not what I’m arguing in the OP–I’m talking about outright bans based on thinking of these things as “wretched symbols” and state-sponsored white knighting.

          • July 23, 2012 at 3:03 pm

            Oh, I don’t disagree. I think a ban is killing the proverbial fly on the window with a brick. It’s obviously targeting a religious group and a form of religious speech and expression; if the Klan gets to wear their hoods, which are much, much more wretched in their symbolism and hostility and associations with sundown towns and murder, then in what universe would it make sense to ban a hijab? It’d be like banning yellow stars sewn into clothing (first Godwin of the thread!); I don’t know why the hell someone would wear that, and I think the last thing it does is liberate anyone from anti-semitism, but you can’t ban speech based on the content.

            I’m not arguing that there’s some huge problem of burqa-caused accidents, but I am in favor of having the same set of rules and reasonable restrictions for everyone regardless of their religion.

            For instance, about a year ago, a group of Muslim women were at a theme park and attempted to board a ride. The theme park had an entirely reasonable non-discriminatory policy that you can’t be wearing anything loose that can be caught in the tracks and turn you into a modern day Isadora Duncan. So what did they do? They got into a literal brawl because of the ‘Islamophobia’ of it!

            Yes, there are culturally sensitive ways of checking ID, but at the same time, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that you don’t need a license to wear a burqa or a niqab. The question I have is: to what extent does the state have the right to be able to see your face? I mean I’m not claiming to have the answer; it just seems to me that anything that covers your face that’s worn, well, everywhere, is in a special category that should lead to special scrutiny. That’s why I asked you to be more specific when you said head coverings.

          • July 23, 2012 at 3:22 pm

            An amusement park is not public property or government-operated. If they say that safety precludes the wearing of anything on the head, that’s certainly within their purview. But the story you linked seems to me to be the opposite of cultural sensitivity–at least the reports of police reactions to the women becoming angry.

            The question I have is: to what extent does the state have the right to be able to see your face?

            It depends on why they want to see your face. To what extent do people have the right to go about their lives without being subjected to constant government surveillance? Again, the reason behind the burqa ban in France is not a safety issue–it’s an anti-Muslim issue. The example you gave above is a safety issue that has nothing to do with the government identifying people, and the example of Lisa Valentine wearing a hijab has nothing to do with the government not being able to identify her.

          • July 23, 2012 at 3:29 pm

            I’m…just really not sure where we’re disagreeing, lol.

  3. July 23, 2012 at 11:32 pm —

    Great post Will, and I completely agree.

    Freedom of choice is always what will come first for me in situations like these, and even though we have to acknowledge the fact that no choices ever occur in a void, in the end it’s up to the individual to choose.

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