Audre Lorde famously wrote that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”
In the last post, I examined several reasons why I, and a number of other North American converts I knew in the ’80’s and early ’90’s enthusiastically embraced hijab. We believed it was our religious obligation, we found identity and community through it, hijab allowed us to have a sense that we were actively participating in our religious communities, and it seemed to be a way of laying our issues with our bodies and sexualities to rest.
There is a less sunny side to all this, however.
If I were to try to sum up the darker side of hijab as I experienced it, I would say that while we often felt that we were taking on both the patriarchy of our Muslim communities as well as the patriarchy of the wider society and winning, carving out a place for ourselves to flourish as “believing women,” this was more illusion than reality. We were using the master’s tools, in the final analysis. And, not only did we run up against the limitations of the master’s tools again and again, but we began to slowly realize how our actions often negatively affected other women, who had made different choices—as well as our own children. In the end, I had to leave the confines of the master’s house, both as a matter of physical survival, as well as for reasons of integrity.
In the ’80’s, most of the religious rhetoric about hijab that I was exposed to stressed religious obligation, as well as women’s dignity. Supposedly, hijab would protect our dignity, by focusing (male) attention on us as believing women, rather than on us as female bodies. I don’t remember the word “choice” being used much, because the focus was on how believing women must obey God by putting on the hijab. Most of the authors of this type of the rhetoric on “Islam and women” (including of course how women should dress) in North America were conservative Muslim men, and occasionally conservative women (often though not always converts). Words such as “choice” and “empowerment” were often shunned in the circles I frequented, largely because it was feared that they would be “misunderstood” as implying that women can choose for themselves how to dress.
But by the early ’90’s, the rising star on the hijabi rhetorical scene was young, usually middle-class immigrant-descended Muslim women, often university undergrads. They increasingly attempted to harness overtly feminist terminology to the hijab debate, partly because they were trying to justify their own decisions to wear hijab to their fellow students, professors, and employers. They often presented hijab as a “choice” that “empowered” them.
At the time, I and many other converts I knew welcomed this new development. After years of reading depressing media stories that equated hijab with oppression (as well as even more depressing ultra-conservative Muslim pamphlets and books presenting the most virtuous woman as the one who entered her husband’s house as a bride and seldom if ever left it until her corpse was carried to the cemetery), this seemed like a breath of fresh air. Now at last we had a language to discuss hijab in what seemed to be a contemporary, woman-affirming and liberatory way. With it, we could both assert the legitimacy of our clothing in the face of the wider society, AND combat the often patronizing and sexist rhetoric on “women in Islam” of conservative Muslim leaders. Or so we thought.
But it is one thing to throw around words such as “choice”, “liberation”, “reclaiming,” and “empowerment,” and quite another for them to have traction in our lives, as we found out.
A very popular article of this type (which until today is all over the internet) is Naheed Mustafa’s “My Body is my own Business” (published in 1993 in The Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper). It is a good example of the type of rhetoric that I am talking about. Here, I am going to “speak back” and dialogue with it.
Mustafa begins the article by acknowledging that many people likely assume that she is either a terrorist, or a generic oppressed Muslim woman. But, she goes on, women today are “reclaiming the hijab, reinterpreting it in light of its original purpose to give back to women ultimate control of their own bodies.”
This article is actually less about the hijab per se, and more about a young woman of color’s struggle to define her own identity in a modern liberal society that is nonetheless racist and sexist. Which is entirely understandable. But her issues with identity do shape what she has to say about hijab in a number of crucial ways. The claim that hijab’s “original purpose” is to “give back to women ultimate control of their own bodies” is a statement that makes sense as an attempt to assert identity and agency, but it has little or no basis in the Qur’an, or in the hadith, or in Islamic law, or in any other source or religious pronouncement made by Muslim scholars past or even present.
Islamic law as it has historically been interpreted has most often been framed in ways that are intended to prevent girls or women from ever having “ultimate control” over their own bodies. To take but one example, North American conservative Muslim leaders of various stripes until today often understand a woman’s consent to marriage as permanent consent to sexual intercourse with her husband, so many continue to insist that marital rape is an impossibility. The point here is not that Mustafa is ill-informed, or misrepresenting “the truth about Muslim women”—I very much doubt that she was attempting to mislead anyone. Rather, it is a good illustration of the kind of double-think that we were mired in, that the rhetoric about “liberation” and “choice” helped to cloak.
Mustafa goes on to say that the Qur’an teaches that men and women are equal, and the only thing that distinguishes humans in relation to one another is their character. Likely, this is what she means by the claim that hijab was originally intended to give women control of their bodies, but this interpretation would find few conservative takers. For Muslim conservatives, the Qur’an’s statements that seem to present all humans on the same footing before God do not have any social ramifications in this world; simply because God might have a higher regard for X woman because she is more pious than her husband does not at all mean that she shouldn’t have to obey her husband. This is a good example of how we tended to take certain types of rhetorical claims–the alleged equality of all human beings before God—in literal, concrete ways, which conservatives would never agree to. (But the whole “soft patriarchy”/”hard patriarchy” thing is yet another post.)
After discussing the often condescending and exoticizing ways that “mainstream” (presumably white) Canadians perceive and interact with her, Mustafa asserts that wearing hijab “gives me freedom” because girls are taught that “their worth is proportional to their attractiveness.” She sets up a polarizing dichotomy: either girls and women buy into media notions of beauty, spending money on cosmetics and trying (and failing) to make their bodies conform to the latest fashionable notion of what is attractive, or they refuse to use cosmetics, shave their legs, or wear revealing clothes, attracting “ridicule and contempt.” There seems to be no middle way possible; girls and women are apparently forced to choose between the devil (poor self-esteem, internalized self-hatred, eating disorders) and the deep blue sea (scorn, social marginalization).
But wait! Islam has the solution—put on hijab, and force people to deal with you as an intelligent human being with ideas. Because no one can see your hair, or your body, or your stretch-marks, nobody will be concerned with these things when they interact with you.
Mustafa highlights some serious and pervasive social problems. Poor self-esteem, self-hatred, and eating disorders are realities, as is the misogyny and homophobia implied in the all-too-common distaste for women who won’t play the “beauty” game,at least not by “mainstream” rules (She doesn’t shave her legs?! Is she a lesbian, or what?). But issues with self-esteem, self-hatred, and eating disorders also are problems faced by hijab-wearing women, as are misogyny and homophobia. Putting on hijab doesn’t actually take the onus off girls and women to conform to either Muslim cultural OR wider societal ideals of “appropriate” femininity.
As converts, some of us were quite shocked to discover this, especially once we gave birth to daughters. The emphasis on my daughters’ looks, and speculations about their future marriage prospects began when they were still babies. (The conservative Muslims who surrounded me didn’t have the same inhibitionsthat many middle-class non-Muslims did about picking apart a child’s looks in their hearing…) The community’s concern with what they were wearing had little if anything to do with treating them as people rather than objects, and much with trying to limit their abilities to make “wrong” decisions. (But the impact of hijab on our daughters is yet another post.)
As married women, the community pressure on us to “make ourselves attractive for our husbands” was intense. I got lectured by other women on how I did my hair, and what I wore at home. We were expected to keep slim and trim, and to wear cosmetics, jewelry and fashionable clothes in order to please our husbands. We were repeatedly warned (and we read) that if we failed to do this, we were failing in our wifely duties, God would not be pleased with us, and it would not be surprising if our husbands looked elsewhere for sexual pleasure. Talk about being objectified and reduced to our bodies—and in the name of God, no less.
But because hijab (and all the rules that went with it) were marketed to us as our salvation from either self-destruction or societal rejection, it was much harder for us to see that we hadn’t managed to escape these problems—that in fact, the ideas we were being taught about our bodies and sexualities were exacerbating them. Because, if the thing that was supposed to be our only way out of these problems was itself part of the problem, then where could we turn?? Especially since it had the name of God on it?
Finally, Mustafa states that “Women are not going to achieve equality with the right to bare their breasts in public… That would only make us party to our own objectification.” Rather, she says, women will be equal when “women don’t need to display themselves to get attention and won’t need to defend their decision to keep their bodies to themselves.”
As a mother who breast-fed her children, I think that the common squeamishness in North American “mainstream” culture about women’s breast-feeding is not only objectifying, but makes breast-feeding moms’ lives unnecessarily difficult. Laws preventing women from baring their breasts are often used today in order to banish nursing mothers to washrooms in order to feed their babies—in some cases, even if the mother’s breast is not visible to onlookers. I don’t think that breast-feeding in public (which I often did, discretely) made me a party to my own objectification.
And while in conservative North American Muslim sub-cultures today breasts and breast-feeding are often sexualized, this does not reflect the situation in all Muslim cultures worldwide, even today. I still remember my surprise at seeing a mother openly breast-feeding her baby in a family gathering, with men who were not her unmarriageable relatives present. It was explained to me that the onus was on the men to look away. This was not a liberal family, nor did they come from anything like a liberal society. What this brought home to me is how different cultures construct women’s bodies differently. They didn’t think that a woman feeding her baby is a sexually charged act. If we do, that is not “natural” or “inevitable,” that is cultural.
From the experience of breast-feeding (and dealing with some prudish Muslims’ responses to it), I came to the realization that issues of sexual response, questions of what types of “exposure” are or are not sexual, sexual temptation, our own senses of what is or is not sexual… are cultural. We learned them. They are not graven in stone.
As for the need to “get attention” by “displaying” oneself, unfortunately, hijab does not prevent self-display. Hijab can be self-display in a different mode. Hijabis can be attention-seeking, even exhibitionist in attempting ever-more demanding feats of modesty. Hijabis can also seek attention by being fashionable. And so on. Hijab in my experience was often the entry-ticket needed in order to be taken seriously by conservative Muslims. Women who refused to wear hijab, or who questioned its necessity were often treated as lesser Muslims. While wearing hijab gave some of us a sense of belonging and community, this feeling of being “in” depended on some (the non-hijabis) being “out.”
And finally, the whole notion of hijab as empowering seemed to rest on an implicit contempt for the female body. Empowerment was somehow equated with hiding your body, which meant presenting oneself as a believing woman who supposedly puts spiritual things first. Female spirituality became ethereality. Except when you were being judged in relation to your role as a wife, when your ability to be sexually attractive to your husband was first and foremost.
Finally, I should note that Mustafa dehijabed several years ago at least. But this old article of hers is still being actively circulated on the internet by Muslims. While she has evidently moved on, these ideas still have cachet in the minds of some, apparently.