Another one


Ophelia Benson of Butterflies and Wheels and Kausik Datta of Oh, The Humanity of It All point to yet another article (almost a carbon copy of the last one I poked with a stick)where a woman equates wearing the hijab with somehow being liberated from the constraints of patriarchy. The problem, of course, is that the game is rigged; whatever we do, we can’t win.  It’s a feature, not a bug.

Anyway, instead of eviscerating the entire article, since I have meadows of wildflowers to traipse through unburdened for a moment with the knowledge that I’m an oppressed member of the sex class whose rape by like five guys like right now would just be fucking hilarious, I just want to point out one line. It’s all the fail of this reasoning is distilled into one sentence:

I see hijab as the freedom to regard my body as my own concern and as a way to secure personal liberty in a world that objectifies women.

So you wrap cloth around your head. Then….???? Then you’ve secured personal liberty.

Then a miracle occurs!

To anyone who wants to argue that wrapping a scarf around your head to publically declare your obeisance to a seventh-century raging misogynist’s views on women ‘secures personal liberty’ that cannot be otherwise secured by those of us with bare heads, I say this to you: SHOW YOUR WORK. 

What has your mystical scarf of empowerment actually enabled to do that you could not do five minutes ago?

Then once you’ve actually ‘splained your reasoning, go think about how liberated women could possibly be if we have to take an extra step men don’t have to take in order to have the personal liberty men have axiomatically.

Tangent: The concept of objectification is widely misused and misunderstood.  To objectify someone does not mean “to acknowledge they are sexy.” It does not mean “to want to have sex with.” In fact, it has absolutely nothing to do with teh sexxxay, which is why it’s frequently (and accurately) modified with the word ‘sexual.’

To objectify someone means to treat or regard a person as if they were an object – a thing without feelings, without thoughts, without any sort of sentience.  So when a person says they can avoid objectification by changing how they dress, they’ve just demonstrated that they’re not actually clear on what the word means.  My clothes do not reach out and force other people to respect my internal life, nor do they entice men into treating me as an object.  This hypothesis that women can avoid objectification by hiding our bodies is just victim blaming in a fancy scarf.


Oh, I can’t resist.  MOAR critiquing!

The reason for that tangent is that victim blaming is exactly what Nusrat is doing, all while trying to play the victim of other people’s assumptions about Muslim women.  It’s as if she were actively trying to let the audience in on the meta-satire:

“I am also absolutely certain that the skewed perception of women’s equality as the right to bare our breasts in public only contributes to our own objectification.”

Oh, are you?  If that’s the case, then so does the hijab, my friend. None of us volunteer for oppression, and we can’t opt out of it by changing the way we dress, talk, walk, act, or live.  We can’t avoid rape by staying home and not drinking in public and having a male chaperone and dressing more modestly and saying ‘no’ with five more decibels.  Only through the acquisition of actual power can we change anything. Until then, we can only make whatever patriarchal bargains* we can to wrest as much privilege from the system for ourselves in exchange for our capitulation, but that’s not the same as liberation.

And it sure doesn’t make objectification our fault.  As with rape, the fault always lies with the objectifiers, not the objectified.  The idea that women’s bodies = sex is the problem, but Nusrat is laboring under the profoundly anti-feminist delusion that women having women’s bodies is the real problem.

Nusrat later writes:

“My reflection reminds me of the convictions that made me take up the hijab in first place — to work for a world where a woman isn’t judged by how she looks or what she wears, a world in which she needn’t defend the right to make decisions about her own body, in which she can be whoever she wants to be without ever having to choose between her religion and her rights. “

Yep. She’s got all these convictions to work for a world where a woman isn’t judged by what she wears and needn’t defend the decisions she makes about her own body and can be whoever she wants, as long as she keeps those breasts covered in public. Sorry. Not buying it. To paraphrase Henry Ford, Nusrat is reminded of her conviction that you should be able to wear any color you’d like, so long as it’s black.

That she can’t help but judge other women for how they look and dress, while simultaneously shaming the rest of us for daring to judge her for wearing a politicized garment,**  shows that this is naked propaganda for a religion that, had it any political power in the US, would most certainly not be in favor of women having the freedom to dress any way they choose.

She admits near the beginning that for her, the hijab is a propaganda vehicle, writing that: ” I realized that working for these causes while wearing the hijab can only contribute to breaking the misconception that Muslim women lack the strength, passion and power to strive for their own rights. ”

So. It’s not to liberate her. It’s not actually to liberate other women.  It’s to send the message that Muslim women have strength, passion and power.  And what – it was the feminists denying this?  Because I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the atheist feminists like me saying women are deficient in religion and intelligence.  Can’t put my finger on who said that though.

Finally, Nusrat outrageously says: ” I know many who portray the hijab as the placard for either forced silence or fundamentalist regimes; but personally I found it to be neither.”

Isn’t that lovely for you.  Your parade is in the mail.   Unfortunately I ran out of fucks to give for the first world problems of the hijabi baffled that anyone would associate their headscarf with forced silence of fundamentalist regimes when I was reading about the woman publically executed by the Taliban last week, or the heartbreaking post [DISTURBING IMAGE WARNING] Taslima put up on No Country for Women about one of the popular punishments for immodest women: acid attacks.

*And we all make these patriarchal bargains – having shorn hair is my patriarchal bargain; I free myself from a significant chunk of heterodudely attention in doing so. I also do it to say ‘fuck you’ to time-consuming beauty regimens.  But since having long hair doesn’t cause men to be intrusive dudebros, it’d be quite silly of me to say that long-haired girls are contributing to the objectification of women.  And at the end of the day, I’m still stuck in the same patriarchy I started in.  I’ve picked one of the many solutions on the sex class optimization curve, but it’s the curve itself that’s the problem.

**As commenter Chris astutely observed on Benson’s thread of the inherent inconsistency in the author’s argument, “The hijab is either just a piece of clothing, or it’s a statement. It can’t be a piece of clothing if anyone criticises it, but a statement if it is being promoted.”

Featured image is modesty propaganda from another Abrahamic religion that I’m also glad has no real power over my life.

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  1. I feel like we’ve been here before… =P

    Anyway, I’m curious: how do you define liberation? It seems to me that you are saying that liberation is an impossibility. Is that your position?

    Also, I find the comment cited your second footnote to be a false dichotomy. The hijab certainly can be both just a piece of cloth and a statement. It’s certainly a symbol in that many meanings are condensed into it, but it’s also just something some women wear in parts of the world like I wear jeans and a t-shirt. It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition.

    • Indeed we have, but I never pass up an opportunity to beat my favorite dead horse AND link to Ophelia Benson!

      Sure, a _scarf_ can be both. A piece of fabric can be both. But a hijab really can’t be, because a hijab is a scarf that is additionally a symbol (of many and sundry things, surely, but not relevant for this point). I’ve gone outside with my head wrapped in a scarf before, but I’ve never gone out in a hijab. Does that clarify things?

      The point the commenter was making is that she apparently wants to have it both ways: it’s a hijab when it’s symbolic in a way she intends (of Muslim women’s strength) and it’s just a ‘few yards of cloth’ when anyone points out all the other things it symbolizes (namely, brutal repression of women in Islamic theocracies).

      I have to admit I’m pretty skeptical of your point that women just wear hijabs the same way you prefer to wear pants and t-shirts. Can you elaborate on that? [edited to add] given my clarification above?

      • That’s also why I stick to responding to hijab-enthusiasts who publish their reasoning as Op-Eds. I don’t know why any given woman on the street is wearing a scarf. If they’re just wearing it like you enjoy t-shirts, you won’t ever find me writing a post about it.

        Unless your t-shirt said something like ‘kill all gay men.’ And you wrote about how you were wearing it as a statement that gay men are strong and can overcome any adversity, and how the current skewed perspective on gay rights as the right to wave your junk around in pride parades is contributing to homophobia. Then we might need to have a flamewar.

        [Edited to add] ” It seems to me that you are saying that liberation is an impossibility.”

        Not impossible (I hope), just significantly harder than a quick wardrobe change.

      • You didn’t even answer my main question! =P

        I said that wearing a hijab could be considered just another piece of clothing in other parts of the world. It’s not a symbol in the same way everywhere. To say that a hijab cannot be both just a piece of cloth (or, just a piece of clothing) and a symbol seems to me to be attempting to compartmentalize it into a meaning/no meaning binary. I don’t think it’s that easy. A t-shirt can be both just a piece of cloth and a symbol simultaneously, no? Does that not depend upon who is wearing/perceiving the shirt/hijab?

        Your interpretation of their comment about not having it both ways, however, makes sense to me and I agree. It is certainly not possible for her to extract symbolism that other people apply out of the hijab when it doesn’t suit her views.

        • I added an edit (see below). Yea, I didn’t mean to overlook that.

          I don’t think we really disagree. My position is that when it’s just a piece of clothing, it’s not a hijab, and it’s disingenuous of the author to talk about how silly anyone is to think that a “few yards of cloth” could threaten women’s education.

          Scarves worn round the head was a common fashion in the US in the 60s, but those scarves were not hijabs (and that is probably the one thing I and Nusrat would agree on). I’m not using the term that loosely.

          So that’s why I was so surprised to see that comparison. I just don’t think you can point me to a place where the hijab is commonly worn as just another article of clothing. Everyone I’ve encountered whose worn it does so either/both from family pressure to conform to Islam or out of a personal (and daily) commitment to their God, and other writers, like Maryam Namazie, talk of how it’s also worn to avoid harassment, legal or otherwise, from the local theocrats.

          • Not impossible (I hope), just significantly harder than a quick wardrobe change.


            I guess what I’m trying to get at is that even if people are pressured to wear the hijab (we are pressured to wear clothes, no?), it can still be “just a piece of clothing” to people who buy into the hegemony–who make a patriarchal bargain. The hijab could be viewed as “just something that women wear” and not always been seen as this über-politicized garment that always makes a political statement. Of course the hijab is imbued with symbolism, but that symbolism is not static and not always as strong as many people (especially Westerners) make it out to be.

          • I’m not sure I’d agree without an example that there are societies where the hijab is both ubiquitous and not tied in the minds of the wearers and the non-wearers to a political and/or religious ideology about where women stand in relation to men. I think it’s frankly insulting to the wearers to suggest there’s whole societies where they wake up and unthinkingly put on a hijab every day, since it suggests they take that religious commitment lightly. On the flip side, it’s dismissive of the women who aren’t Muslim or don’t agree with it, but have to put it on every day because otherwise they’ll face sexual harassment or criticism for their immodesty.

            But regardless, let’s grant for the sake of argument that such societies exist. Are the women in those societies thereby liberated? That’s enough to disprove Nusrat’s thesis.

          • I’ve been out of town and didn’t see this comment until just now. 😉

            Let me use an analogy. Many Christians wear a cross necklace. The cross is also imbued with an array of symbolism. However, there are many people who put on a cross and think of it as a piece of jewelry. Sure, it might be part of their identity and they are likely aware of some or most of the symbolism associated with it, but that doesn’t mean that each and every time they put it on that it is an intentionally political act.

            I think it could be the same with the hijab. Sure, women are likely aware of some or most of the symbolism of the hijab, but that doesn’t mean that every time they don it that they are trying to make a political statement. It is quite possible that it becomes a part of their everyday routine to put it on and they just don’t think about it in the same way that you or I might think about it.

            Do I have specific examples that this happens? No, I haven’t gone searching for it. It would likely be in the ethnographic record if it were, and I’ll be happy to look through some of the scholars that I’m familiar with who have done ethnographic work in Muslim communities to see if I can find you a specific example.

            All that being said…

            let’s grant for the sake of argument that such societies exist. Are the women in those societies thereby liberated? That’s enough to disprove Nusrat’s thesis.

            I don’t know if they are liberated or not, and that wasn’t really my initial point (my initial point was just to point out what appears to me as a bit of ethnocentrism). I also still am not sure how you define liberation, only that you think it is difficult to achieve. When you ask me if they are liberated, what are you asking, exactly?

            I’m not trying to prove or disprove her thesis. If she feels liberated by putting on the hijab, who am I to tell her any different? That being said, I certainly support pointing out the problematics of her assertions (which you do very well).

          • Well, since the word liberate was her word (The hijab is “the most liberating experience ever”), not mine, it’d be useful to see how she uses it. And actually, she doesn’t even try to support the claim that the hijab liberates you. Of the two uses, the first is the quote in the last sentence, and the second is the assertion that the hijab liberates her, followed by a statement that “personally” she has found that the hijab to be “neither” “placard for either forced silence or fundamentalist regimes.”

            So it would seem that her definition of “liberate” is a peculiar one that’s essentially “does not actively oppress me.” And sure, in the context of a secular democracy where she has the choice to wear it or not wear it, then I can see how that would be true.

            But I prefer the actual definition of liberate: to be set free, as from oppression, control or a foreign power. So in what way would wearing hte hijab set a woman free from oppression, confinement or foreign control? That’s what she’s not explaining. That’s what I’m saying will not happen. Sure, some women may put on the hijab every day as part of their routine – but if that’s the routine for all the women in their society, they’re certainly not freed from oppression by capitulating to it. Once, a Muslim feminist I know argued with me that women wear the hijab to reduce the amount of sexual harassment they face in their day to day lives.

            So I suppose in that way, one could argue that by embracing one form of confinement – a literal one inside those ‘few yards of cloth’ – you might, might experience ‘liberation’ from sexual harassment in that the harassers would target someone who didn’t take as great pains to announce that they were already under the coverture of their father or husband. But they are not liberated from oppression as women qua women – they’e merely made another patriarchal bargain. The system where men can freely harass the ‘bad’ women remains intact.

            Nusrat writes: “I see hijab as the freedom to regard my body as my own concern and as a way to secure personal liberty in a world that objectifies women. ” Again, no real attempt to show HOW she’s secured personal liberty by wrapping her head in ‘a few yards of cloth’ – just the assertion that this is so. But if she’s not able to regard her body as her own concern without a hijab, then how has the hijab liberated her as a woman living in a patriarchy especially when she thinks other women regarding THEIR bodies as their own concern, other women who assert their personal liberty to bare their breasts in public, are part of the problem.

            That, more than anything else in the piece, shows that we’re not talking about liberating women qua women from the oppression of being rated “according to our looks or the clothes we wear.” We’re talking about accepting that we’ll always be judged for our looks and for the clothes we wear and trying to find the best outfit to communicate to men that we’d really like to be treated like humans, pretty pretty please.

            That’s not liberation. If we have to take extra steps men don’t have to take to try and get what men take for granted, we’re not liberated relative to men. We’re not free relative to men. We’re controlled, and our choices constrained, relative to men.

            Also, if putting on the hijab is not a political act, why don’t the men do it? 😉

  2. I feel it should be pointed out that in many (probably most) societies there are several forms of clothing that serve the explicit purpose of objectifying the wearer. Uniforms come to mind. Police don’t wear uniforms because they look snazzy in yellow stripes (that’s just a happy side effect) they wear them to signify that they’re not to be treated as special human beings with hopes and dreams, but rather a tool for law enforcement.

  3. Will,

    Yeah, pretty much what Yessinia said. My comment was in response to a quote from Nusrat in the original article, the issue being the inconsistency.

    I’m not actually anti-hijab. My general attitude is ‘whatever works for you’. I just get uncomfortable with some of the justifications for it.

    • Yea, I feel the same way. Sure, I think the hijab sends an absolutely abhorrent message, and reading these incoherent pseudo-feminist defenses of it make my eyes bleed, but it’s a form of speech AND a form of religious expression, and as an atheist I know how important protecting those two rights are. No one should construe my criticism of her as an attack on her human right to be an idiot.

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