Sunday, July 7, 2013

Headscarves, banning the burqa, Islam, "Femen" and Feminism

A number of European countries have now banned the wearing of the burqa, saying that it is against European and Western values, and is a sign of the female oppression.

While this may be true in some cases, it's also true that many Muslim women wear the headscarf (or the burqa) of their own free will. Some Muslim women in France therefore make the counter-argument that banning the wearing of the burqa is a step against the rights of women's choice, let alone a piece of cultural authoritarianism.
What's interesting in this logic is the use of Feminist ideology. Women who wear a hijab or burqa are, according to these women, practising their own form of Feminism; they argue that the veil is simply a Muslim woman's method of displaying her femininity. Whereas in the West, Feminists like the group "Femen" display their ideology by displaying their body nakedly to challenge society's aversion to nudity, Muslim "Feminists" display their Feminism in the opposite way, by controlling how little of their body society can see.

Feminism and sexuality

This logic is worth thinking about more carefully, and the differing approaches to Feminism that "Femen" and a veil-wearing Muslim woman has. What do these two approaches to Feminism really say?

The crucial difference here is the relationship that a Western Feminist and Muslim Feminist has to her body. In the West, "extremist" Feminists like "Femen" see no shame in hiding their bodies; indeed, they display their body to provoke and to challenge social stereotypes.
Socrates once argued that men and women should walk together naked in order to remove any sexual stigma that the human body has: his point being that the human body in itself is not inherently sexual; sexuality comes from how you use your body. Femen seems to come from that line of thinking: what is sexual about the body? Nothing. This is the point they are making with their nude protests. Western Feminists like "Femen" challenge the view that women should need be "modest" or careful about how they display their bodies in public, to avoid attention from men. After the shocking gang rape case in India recently, one protester wrote a sign that stated: "Don't tell us (women) what to wear; teach men not to rape women".

The point the Indian protester makes is clear: the problem is with men, not with women. Therefore, why should women have to feel restricted in their choices simply because the other half of society cannot implement self-control?
When a Western woman makes the choice to wear what she wants (and as little as she wants) without thinking about the social consequences, this is also a sign that she displays trust and openness towards society. The more of her body she displays in public, the more trust she shows in society; this is also a point that "Femen" are making. Apart from challenging social norms, feeling comfortable with displaying your body in public is a sign of how relaxed you are towards others. It assumes that you trust others not to take advantage of you; you are giving an outward sign that you are living in a civilised country where people's body's are respected. 

In other words, by feeling comfortable to display your body in public, you are encouraging a positive view of society and human nature. And the more this is done, the more this positive view (and mutual respect) will be reciprocated.
I can back this up even with anecdotal evidence. In Azerbaijan, until recently, very few women (or men for that matter!) wore shorts in summer, as it was not considered socially-acceptable. "Shorts" had a certain stigma, and that if you wore them, others made unsavoury assumptions about you; in the past, this had led to unpleasant remarks towards women from men, and ridiculing remarks towards men wearing shorts even from other men. These days, however, as the trend towards wearing shorts has become much more common in the summer, those remarks (or open stares) have disappeared.
Thus society in Azerbaijan has become more tolerant and less judgemental than before, to the benefit of everyone: people are generally more laid-back and carefree.

Muslim Feminism

While Western Feminists like "Femen" address this issue by trying to tackle it head-on, Muslim veil-wearing "Feminists" address this issue in the opposite way.
By choosing to wear a veil and hide their body (or hair) from public view, a Muslim "Feminist" therefore gives the message that she does not trust society, and men in particular. She chooses to cover her body to avoid attention from men; but this also makes negative assumptions about men in general. Rather than trying to challenge those negative assumptions (and behaviour), she instead reinforces them. This Muslim "Feminism" is not a force for the purpose of positively changing social interaction, but a force that restricts an opportunity for positively changing social interactions.#

Even if you assume that a woman is wearing a hijab or burqa or her own free will, anyone who sees her will assume that she does so to avoid attention, and this gives the underlying view that "I don't trust you". The use of the veil also inadvertently sexualises all parts of the female body. By covering a woman's hair, that automatically attaches a sexual stigma to hair; it assumes that men somehow find a woman's hair innately sexually-attractive (i.e. that men will become sexually aroused). The same with a Muslim woman who even just wears clothes that cover over her elbows and knees: it implies that somehow seeing a woman's elbows or knees is sexually-arousing to men!

This attitude of attaching sexual value to parts of the body therefore has the opposite effect; by hiding some part of the body from society, it automatically gives it an added sexual value, because it suggests that if it is hidden, it is hidden because it must be worth hiding. When you are open with society about your body, you are saying I have nothing to hide, and there is no extra sexual value to be attached to my body. Therefore, the body loses any extra sexual value to society (or men), and becomes something that can be judged without sexual thought.
This explains why conservative Muslim society displays an attitude of inherent distrust towards each other, and why conservative Muslim society is sexually repressed, and consequently, a disproportionate amount of it is sexually perverted. It is no coincidence that Saudi men have such an appalling reputation towards women, especially foreign women; or that Afghanistan has a massive problem with under-age male prostitution.

Islam, Children and False Modesty

Worse than that is when Muslim "Feminists" teach their own pre-pubescent daughters to wear a veil. For what purpose? If the purpose of wearing a veil is to protect a woman's modesty, then why does a pre-pubescent girl need to protect her modesty? From whom? If a Muslim "Feminist" wears a veil because, inherently, she doesn't trust men, then what attitude is she giving her pre-pubescent daughter who has to wear it? It suggests that all men are paedophiles. 
Worse than that, is that it actually makes the poor "hijab-wearing" girl more sexualised. It draws more attention from men towards the girl, because the act of wearing the veil suggests that the girl has something of sexual value that is worth covering up! In other words, it counter-intuitively could make men sexually interested in the veil-wearing girl (i.e. generate paedophile thoughts), simply because she is wearing a veil. By making the pre-pubescent girl wear a veil, her mother is inherently teaching her daughter about sex, and making her daughter a sexual object.

Lastly, there is the "false modesty" that some veil-wearing Muslim "Feminists" display: those that wear their veils elaborately, and/or with excessive make-up (a common sight in the Gulf States, for example). They may be covering their hair and body, but everything else about them screams sexuality. As said before, sexuality comes from how you use your body, not just how much or little of your body you display.

In that respect, although women who wear burqas may show a complete distrust for society, at least there is a kind of consistency there (even if it is counter-productive).

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