Saturday, 17 January 2009

Women like me embrace hijabs

Anjum has written an opinion piece for the Sydney Daily Telegraph (go Anjum!), which is now on-line: Women like me embrace hijabs. She has written about the lead-up to the opinion piece here.

17 comments:

Psycho Milt said...

I'm happy for women to wear whatever they want, and the right-wing blogosphere is full of annoying wankers just like Brisbane broadcaster Michael Smith, but having said that...

Non-Muslims often don't realise how liberating it is to not worry about your clothes, your hair, your make-up, your weight, your wrinkles, your bra size, your cellulite.

I can imagine it being tempting to escape the male gaze by just giving up and covering everything, but it doesn't strike me as "liberating." And it especially doesn't strike me as liberating when you consider the relative freedom of women in Western vs Muslim societies - it sure ain't liberating those women in any real sense.

There is often an assumption that the niqab is worn as a result of force. That may be true in a couple of countries overseas, and in those cases it is reprehensible, but it's unlikely to be that way in this country.

Really? The countries where niqab is common are generally the countries where honour killings happen. People from those countries have brought niqab with them to the West, and they've also brought honour killings. Frankly, I'm not convinced.

Some may see it as a symbol of the oppression of women, but in this country most women are choosing to dress this way because they believe neither their bodies nor their faces are public property.

Maybe. But in the countries where niqab is common (I lived in one for a while), women are dressing that way not because their bodies and faces aren't public property, so much as because their bodies and faces are their husband's property. You bet we in the West see niqab as a symbol of the oppression of women - because it so f*cking is one.

Bri said...

Both links go to the same url. Is that meant to be that way?

Deborah said...

Thanks, Bri. I've fixed the second link.

lauredhel said...

I'll believe all these white folks that it isn't about racism and religious intolerance when they start getting into an angry lather about headdresses worn by some Christian nuns.

Julie said...

Great article Anjum, and thanks Deborah for linking it.

When I was travelling we spent a little bit of time in UAE. I found Dubai very hard to take, because even though I was covered up (to my way of thinking - long pants, long-sleeved shirt, bucket hat, sunglasses) I was still stared at constantly. And there were hardly any other women around at all, which was disconcerting to say the least. If I was living somewhere like that I suspect I would find wearing the niqab or hijab a relief.

stargazer said...

back to the internet, finally! thanx so much deborah for putting this up.

psycho, you are lumping all "muslim societies" as one, when they are often vastly different.

honour killings don't just happen in the one country where niqab is compulsory (used to be 2 until the taliban were removed). and they don't just happen amonst muslims, in the geographic areas where they do happen.

and sorry, these women don't wear niqab because they are their husband's property. that's your interpretation of what you see. i've talked to plenty of women who wear niqab, saudi and western as well as others, and none of them think of themselves as anybody's property. that's why muslim women never changed their name after marriage: because their legal status hasn't change; their property never transferred to their husbands after marriage (as used to be the case in the west) etc.

when you decide you think you know better than them why they do what they do, you insult their intelligence and their ability to reason. i just find it really arrogant, and it's only after having some pretty heated debates with some of these women that i've learned to respect their choices and their right to assert those choices.

hijab is not just about avoiding the male gaze. it's about avoiding that constant pressure to be physically perfect and the consumerist culture that pushes you to spend, spend, spend just so you can feel good about yourself. but even if it was, i haven't seen a western solution to the male gaze that is working. in fact, if you look at advertising, music videos, film & tv, i'd say we're failing spectatularly. for some of us, covering up is a way to take control over our bodies. we don't particularly care whether you agree with us or not.

i'm not saying that there aren't huge problems to overcome in many countries, and i'm glad you used the word "relative" when you talked about freedom. but i'm so sick of the notion that just because women can wear miniskirts, they are somehow liberated. or that by forcing them to take off their niqab, we'll have done them any kind of favours. all we'll have done is to deny them their agency and their right to work through their issues in their own way. it's the old "whitey knows best", paternalistic colonialism model that has caused so much grief in so many countries around the world.

Hugh said...

So Anjum, you would say that the hiqab is a solution to the male gaze that works?

stargazer said...

it works for me. i feel like i'm denying any male the opportunity to size me up or oggle me or judge me by my body shape (and any woman for that matter). i guess i couldn't hide if i was very much overweight, but it just takes the whole emphasis away from my physical make-up when people interact with me. they definitely talk to my face!

niqab is a different matter, and i don't defend it as such. what i defend is the women who want to dress that way. i think they deserve to be treated with as much respect as any other human being.

Hugh said...

I would say that it's hardly a solution because it's forcing women to expend considerable effort and resources that they wouldn't otherwise have to take. It's similar to the way that women feel they have to carry mace, take self-defense courses, not walk unaccompanied at night and so on in order to avoid violence (although obviously to a lesser degree). Men start the problem through their gaze, and women have to work to find the solution.

In other words, while the hiqab might allow the individual woman to escape the effects of the male gaze, it does nothing to actually solve the problem.

But having said all that I have more issues here. Stargazer, you've said that your talks with women who wear the niqab have led you to realise they don't see themselves as being forced or pressured to wear it, and to assume otherwise is to insult their intelligence. Don't you think the same would be true of western women who wear lipstick and miniskirts and other things you've identified as a product of consumer culture and/or patriarchy? Very few women would explicitly identify themselves as being subject to compulsion in their choices of what to wear, and if implying otherwise is a patronising insult to their intelligence, we must conclude that the vast majority of feminist thought about the female body image is similarly patronising, not an implication I imagine you want to make.

I should also point out that nobody, not here at least, is claiming that women should be forced to not wear the niqab, and Pyscho specifically stated he was happy for women to wear what they want. I think you're constructing something of a strawman, or at least not replying to those who are speaking to you, when you talk about forcing women to not wear them.

Psycho Milt said...

Julie: the Gulf states won't hesitate to tell you what you can and can't wear, and the cops will turn up quick if you're wearing something that offends the locals. The significant difference between Brisbane and a Gulf state is that in Brisbane, most people will just call Michael Smith a wanker and ignore him.

Stargazer: I don't think I lump all Muslim countries into one. I'm well aware my experience is with one conservative Gulf Arab state - but it was one where the niqab was common and honour killings, although illegal, were regular news stories.

I also have to add that the niqab-wearing may not consider themselves their husbands' property, but their husbands I met certainly did...

stargazer said...

I would say that it's hardly a solution because it's forcing women to expend considerable effort and resources that they wouldn't otherwise have to take.

huh? i spend no money on makeup or beauty products (except a facial scrub for about $10 every couple of months); i never buy the latest fashions cos i don't feel the need to be fashionable, so my clothes are relatively cheap; i don't spend money on hairstyles and hair colouring; i've never spent money on plastic surgery. the only extra expense is headscarves & scarf pins. if i do the sums, i'm saving way more money by wearing hijab.

i'm also saving stress, by really not having to worry about any of those things.

I should also point out that nobody, not here at least, is claiming that women should be forced to not wear the niqab

i didn't say that anyone here said that. what i said is that i'm sick of hearing it, and others do say that a lot. france went ahead and banned the headscarf. so yes, it's an issue for me and a lot of other muslim women, and i put it out there. i also object to you thinking i should limit my comments in any way on my own blog post.

In other words, while the hiqab might allow the individual woman to escape the effects of the male gaze, it does nothing to actually solve the problem.

fine, so provide us with some solutions please. solutions which involve women having to do nothing and not having to take any responsibility for the problem at all. and then let's see you or anyone else implement them. it should be all done and dusted by next tuesday, i would think?

the qur'an actually requires men to lower their gaze when they're talking to women (and vice versa), which puts a control on the male gaze as well. the fact that many asshole males in predominantly muslim countries don't follow the injunction is another issue altogether. i can assure you that i've had exactly the same experience in delhi, walking past males who were definitely not muslim, and who stare at you deliberately and constantly as you walk past. i think many women here in nz have had similar experiences, including the catcalls and the wolfwhistles. assholes are assholes quite consistently everywhere around the world.

and as i said, hijab is more than just about the male gaze; this is just one aspect. it's also about de-emphasising the physical aspect and putting more attention to our personality and behaviour.

by the way, it's hijab with a "j". i think you're confusing the spelling of hijab and niqab.

I don't think I lump all Muslim countries into one. I'm well aware my experience is with one conservative Gulf Arab state

well, it would have been nice if you had couched your original comments in those terms & talked of your experience of one arab state, instead of talking about "Western vs Muslim societies"
thereby including everyone.

and if everyone in sydney was ignoring mr smith, he wouldn't have been in all the papers and the radio and tv. and hew wouldnt have been supported by the retail association. and i would not have been asked to write an op-ed piece in response. the publicity has a negative impact on a minority community. effects like women wearing niqab having acid thrown at their faces, & being physically and/or verbally abused in public places to the extent that some of them are afraid to even go shopping for groceries. it is not without cost.

what you mean to say is that he would be killed or sent to jail for it; and in that regard i'd agree with you and do find it reprehensible that people in any country would be made to suffer physically for statements of this kind.

i haven't yet heard of a case of honour killing in australia or nz, though there may have been. in the only case i've heard of in america, the daughter in question was not in the habit of even wearing hijab, let alone niqab. they killed her because she had a black boyfriend, not because of what she wore or didn't wear. what women wear or don't wear is not going to be protecting them from being killed by abusive families. this cultural concept of family honour has nothing to do with clothing.

Hugh said...

Stargazer, the fact that you could be expending more resources/effort than you currently are doesn't mean you're not expending any. The fact is, if a woman is deciding what to wear, and she makes that decision based on the need to avoid being ogled by men rather than what she wants to wear to best enjoy the day ahead, she's been forced into a defensive mindset. This is not, in my opinion, a good thing.

I'm sorry if I implied that you should limit your comments on your own post. I'm also sorry for my mispelling - you're right about my confusion, I admit these aren't terms that are familiar to me, in fact this whole thread has been something of an education.

fine, so provide us with some solutions please. solutions which involve women having to do nothing and not having to take any responsibility for the problem at all. and then let's see you or anyone else implement them. it should be all done and dusted by next tuesday, i would think?

I wouldn't think so myself. I realise I'm being idealistic here, but I think the real solution would be for the male gaze to become a non-threatening thing for women. I like to think I do what I can myself, but obviously I'm not going to implement this through my own personal effort. I realise this would require nothing less than the end of patriarchy as we currently experience it. This is obviously not going to happen overnight, but to me, part of engaging with feminist thought involves thinking about solutions that won't be done and dusted next Tuesday, or next year, or possibly even in a hundred years. Obviously women here and now need coping mechanisms, and the hiqab may well be a valid one. But at the same time we shouldn't get caught up in viewing these coping mechanisms as a solution, because they're not.

the qur'an actually requires men to lower their gaze when they're talking to women (and vice versa), which puts a control on the male gaze as well.

Interesting, I didn't know that. I presume by implication that men looking at other men and women looking at other women is considered acceptable? You've mentioned a lot of men don't follow this - do women usually do so? Are there any areas of the world where it is widely observed? And following on from that, would you regard a society where men and women usually don't look at one another while talking as one you'd like to live in?

Julie said...

Actually that's interesting about people talking to your face Anjum. I've met you in person twice now and I have a very strong recollection of your face, but not really anything else physical about you. I hope that is not a sort of TMI comment? Anyway, I never used to have much trouble with people talking to my breasts, but during my pregnancy I really really noticed it. I didn't know how to respond to people who did that and felt incredibly uncomfortable.

stargazer said...

hugh, i think the problem i have with you framing the male gaze as something that feminists need to talk about and work on is that it makes it a woman's problem and women's responsibility. we never seem to move away from that.

re the lowering gaze thing, nobody does it here because it's seen as a sign of disrespect in the wider culture if you don't look at the person you're talking to. i understand that in pasifika cultures, it's considered polite not to look at an older person when talking to them, and i think that's the case for others.

i personally wouldn't have a problem with the lowering gaze thing, if it was practiced consistently all around. it may not seem to you as the ideal, but for me who has several times changed seats in a restaurant because of a male consistently staring at me, or have found it difficult to interact in some situations, or have hated having to walk past a particular group of men (or even single male); then yes, i'd actually prefer it that way.

i've had muslim men having a conversation with me while lowering there gaze, and it actually makes me feel very comfortable and more relaxed in the interaction. but that's just me.

and wearing hijab, for me, does make me feel happy and ready to enjoy the day ahead. i'm happy that i'm free in this country to dress how i please, i'm happy that i'm asserting my identity, i'm happy that i'm living my religious and political beliefs. it means something extremely deep and valuable to me, so when i hear mr smith & others who have jumped on the current bandwagon calling for the banning of hijab or niqab, i find it deeply offensive. hence the title of my previous post on this subject.

Hugh said...

The reason I ask about the face thing is fairly personal. When I was small I never looked at people's faces when I spoke to them. My parents and teachers identified it as a problem and eventually, after quite a lot of effort and assistance, I managed to stop doing it. Until now I've never really considered that this might not have been a good thing.

hugh, i think the problem i have with you framing the male gaze as something that feminists need to talk about and work on is that it makes it a woman's problem and women's responsibility. we never seem to move away from that.

Anjum, that's exactly the opposite of what I'm saying. I see a society where women decide how to dress based on a need to avoid the male gaze as one where dealing with it has become a woman's responsibility.

What I actually said was "but to me, part of engaging with feminist thought involves thinking about solutions...". In other words for me, as a man, what I can get out of feminism is mostly ways to change my behaviour (hence asking about the looking people in the eye), in the long as well as the short term.

I will say though that talking about the male gaze is something that feminist thinkers seem comfortable doing. While I'm no expert, it seems that women are more qualified to identify problems in male behaviour than men are, since men are rarely the victims of those problems. That's not to absolve men from the responsibility of examining their behaviour, but ultimately a man has to defer his interpretation of whether or not his behaviour is offensive to a woman's interpretation. Again, this is not a responsibility of the women, but the fact that many of them seem to have done it without male encouragement (indeed, often with very strong male discouragement, including beatings and being locked up) seems to me a strong implication that it's considered a necessary reaction to patriarchy.

stargazer said...

actually, the gaze thing reminds me of an incident at the hamilton mosque quite some years ago. i remember feeling really uncomfortable walking through the carpark to get into the mosque, because all the men there would tend to stare. so i complained to our sheikh (who was a very rigid conservative and pissed me off completely on so many issues), but he totally took care of it and we've not had that problem anymore.

so back to an earlier question of yours, no muslim men in muslim countries very often don't follow the qur'anic injunction, but they know they should. what pisses me off is that the sheikhs/leadership there make absolutely no effort to enforce this requirement (by persuasion like our local sheikh did, not force - i'm opposed to force) but seem to expend a lot of energy on how women dress and behave. isn't that just so typical! so in line with julie's post today about drinkeez for the ladeez...

Jenny said...

I find it fascinating how Smith et. al. are claiming that the way to deal with "muslim men telling women what to wear" is... by telling women what to wear.

There is nothing a woman can wear that isn't considered some kind of statement, some kind of reflection on who she is. Show too much of your body and you're unprofessional; show to little and you're unfashionable and/or repressed. If you wear the niqab you're accepting the rules made by Muslim men; if you don't, you're accepting the rules made by Smith et.al.

Obviously your choice to wear the niqab isn't a completely free one - just as my choice of wearing a short skirt some days isn't a completely free one. We're shaped by the society we live in and we make the choices we make in order to live as well as we can in it. But it's so much easier for Western men to point out the patriarchal structures in Muslim countries than to take a sharp look at their own views and treatment of women.