I was living in Montreal, Canada in 2010 and attending a French class to improve my language skills. I remember the lively and diverse group of students I studied and conversed with. I also remember the hot days of that summer and the challenge of having to wear my headscarf and modest clothing in high temperatures. But bearing the sun’s heat was still more tolerable than dealing with the fiery comments from ignorant people about something they didn’t understand: my hijab.
“Why do you wear that thing on your head? (Pointing his finger at my head disgustingly) Isn’t it too hot?” asked a foolish young man.
I smiled. I ignored his comment, but I couldn’t disregard his foolishness. My female friend looked at me and apologetically said, “I want you to teach me how to wear the headscarf one day!” I appreciated her sweet gesture.
In that same year, I was traveling overseas, and as I sat at the Montréal International Airport waiting for my flight, I couldn’t help but be amused at the news. 31-year-old Corinne Theile arrived at the Los Angeles International Airport wearing a bikini in protest. She was objecting to the Transportation Security Administration pat-downs, so she decided to strip on a cold November day to prove a point. She soon became a media heroine.
Draw a comparison between the two scenarios and come to your own conclusions. But what is obvious is that according to the neoliberal mindset, freedom of choice is connected to the number of layers a woman decides to put on. The more covered she is, the less of a choice she should be given. Nudity is the prerequisite for liberty.
I neither wear the niqab nor advocate for it, but I still believe it is every woman’s right — Muslim or not — to choose a garment that makes her feel comfortable, whether it covers her face and entire body or her breasts and private areas only.
In the wake of the recent Canadian controversy over the niqab debate, I find myself confused about the contradictions in Western thinking. Human and women’s rights organizations, media reports, feminists and activists are always concerned for the “wellbeing” of Muslim women. They criticize Muslim communities for misogynistic practices and the lack of support or justice for women. But then when a Muslim woman freely and willingly chooses to exercise her rights in a Western society, the same people who advocate for her rights campaign against her and criticize and condemn her choices. Am I missing something here?
Paula Simons commented in the “Edmonton Journal” on the Canadian niqab controversy, stating that as a secular feminist, the historical symbolism of the niqab makes her deeply uncomfortable. But she admitted that “telling women to undress, to strip, to expose themselves, to betray their faith and shame themselves, simply for our cultural comfort, is grossly disrespectful. It’s a violation of their personal dignity as well as of their freedom of religion. It’s almost a kind of sexual assault.”
While I appreciate Simons’ sincerity, I must say that the niqab is not the only symbol of women’s oppression, sexism and discrimination. Today’s modern culture and standards of beauty — found on television and in advertisements, Hollywood movies, women’s magazines, and pornography — portray women as sex objects. Director Jennifer Siebel Newsom released the documentary Miss Representation in 2011, contesting the representation of gender in the media and the idea that “women and girls’ value lies in their youth, beauty and sexuality — and not in their capacity of leadership.”
In 2005, associate professor of political science at the University of Melbourne Sheila Jeffreys published her book Beauty and Misogyny: Harmful Cultural Practices in the West. Her feminist critique of beauty practices, ranging from lipstick to cosmetic surgery, argues against the liberal feminist and postmodern interpretations accepting such regimes. Jeffreys raises the question, “Should western beauty practices be included within the United Nations understandings of harmful traditional/cultural practices?” She says that they should because such practices are damaging the health of women, creating sexual difference, and enforcing female deference. “Beauty practices are not about women’s individual choice…but forces which maintain the subordination of women to men.”
Similarly, American author Naomi Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth that beauty is the “last, best belief system that keeps male dominance intact.” Her book documents societal pressure on women to conform to a standard form of beauty.
Muslim women are growing impatient with Western stereotyping and bias in defining freedom of religious choices. Instead of calling on women to abandon their veils, values and beliefs, I strongly urge western liberals to lift the veil of ignorance and contradiction from their minds. As a Muslim woman, I take pride in wearing my hijab, which embodies my identity, conviction and what I stand for. I choose to wear my hijab and others prefer the niqab. It is about time that the west accepts those choices and lives with them.
Written by Hasnaa Mokhtar
Image from Google