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.
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.