Unpacking “choice”, and the fish-trap effect

In discussions of hijab in North America, the issue of “choice” is often raised.

Women who wear hijab in North America (and elsewhere) often state that it is their “choice” to wear it. Muslim men who support this practice also often claim that “women choose” to wear it. And those who disapprove or of or oppose the wearing of hijab often try to cast doubt on whether or not women “really are free to choose” to wear it or not. While this never-ending debate has the potential to raise some important issues, it seldom manages to, in my experience.

Partly, because the word “choice” is being used to mean different things. Those who say that they “choose” to wear hijab might mean that they personally decided to wear a scarf today, because they felt like it, but they might not wear one tomorrow. Or, they might mean that they gave the issue of whether or not to hijab a lot of thought, read up about it, talked to their friends, and finally made the momentous decision that they will wear it, each and every day. Or, they might mean that they were raised with the expectation that they would wear it, and voluntarily went along with their parents’ wishes.

These are several different meanings of “choice” here: (1) choice on a daily, individual and ever-revisable basis, (2) choice that appears more “reasoned” and intended to be permanent, and (3) choice that seems to mean going with the flow rather than opposing it. Frankly, when we used to say that it was “our choice” to wear hijab, while what we meant was (2), we often knew that it would be misheard as (1)—and often, we were relieved that it was. Because for the wider society, only (1) really seemed to qualify as a free choice. Especially where women’s clothing was concerned.

Unfortunately, I don’t recall asking myself why exactly that is. Rather, what I remember is that we privately dismissed such apparently “frivolous” attitudes to choice. Because after all, as conservative Muslims, we were taught that the most important choice that humans ever make is whether to obey God. Choosing to obey God was equated with aspiring to live up to the highest levels of human potential, while choosing to disobey him was seen as choosing to do the opposite. Not only your salvation, but your worth as a human being hinged on making the “correct” choices. But at the same time, using words like “choice” came in handy in order to deflect unwelcome, nosy and condescending attention to our clothing.

All the same, words have a certain magic, a certain independence and weight of their own. We were using the word “choice” in a rather slippery way, in order to mean different things (depending on our audience), and somehow thought that we were in control of these words that we were using. Yet, at the same time, we had been raised in a society in which “choice” has certain well-known connotations of opening up possibilities of thought and action.

Meanwhile, we were making momentous “choices” of various kinds: to put on hijab, to convert to Islam, and to marry young, often to men we hardly knew who came from very different backgrounds.

A fish trap: At high tide, fish swim up this inlet, where they will be trapped when the tide goes out, due to the narrow, shallow “neck” of stones mid-way up… but to the unknowing eye, it just looks like lovely Scottish scenery. (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Looking back, I compare the process to an old-fashioned fish trap. The fish swim along, not noticing that the channel they are in is getting narrower and more shallow… until it’s too late.

As you make certain choices, other “choices” follow “naturally” in their wake. And then other “choices” in turn. Your ability to choose to change direction becomes gradually more and more restricted. But you don’t really notice. Or, you notice, but don’t think that this is a problem. Until things come to such a pass that you are forced to realize that you MUST begin doing things differently… and then you find out the hard way how little choice you now have. As teenagers from small-town North America, we did not and could not foresee how very momentous our initial “choices” would be.

And then, once your ability to make different choices is significantly limited, then the meaning of “choice” shifts. “Well, you chose this” means, “ok, you got yourself into this, so it’s your problem/responsibility now.” “Choice” is now a weapon intended to pin the blame on you, while letting all those who encouraged you, advised you, or guilted you into making certain “choices,” or profited by your having made them them, off the hook.

Looking back, what I notice most about so many of the “choices” that I and other female converts made was how they were designed to limit us, to a much greater extent than our male counterparts. But this was either not openly acknowledged at the time, or it was heavily downplayed, or it was rationalized away. But since the word “choice” was being used, we seldom noticed how our “choices” were in fact limiting us anyhow.

In her latest post, Saliha discusses a particularly sad example of this dynamic: Women choose to enter in religious marriages. In so doing, they are “choosing” to provide sex to their husbands whenever they (the husbands) desire it (with the exception of a few, narrowly defined and exceptional situations), because according to the jurists, this is the duty of the wife and the right of the husband. One fateful choice becomes a whole series of “choices.” Saying “yes” once is seen as an everlasting “yes”—for the wife, but not the husband, who can legally opt to ignore his wife, unilaterally divorce her for any (or no) reason at all, or take another wife in addition to her, whether or not she agrees. (this is a complex issue that is a post on its own)

But, having realized (with the advantage of 20/’20 hindsight) that the “choices” we made often foreclosed further “choice” rather than opened up more “choices,” I am wondering if things could have been any different.

I remember the concerns about “choice” that were sometimes raised by outsiders, who loudly wondered how “free” choice can be in conservative religious groups (or families). In previous posts, I have pointed out that the “choices” I and other converts I knew made were heavily conditioned by the types of information that were (and were not) available to us, in those pre-internet days. However, we did really believe that we had chosen freely, and were very offended by anyone who tried to imply that we hadn’t. That sort of argument does pretty much inevitably come across as condescending, and often alienates the people it supposedly is designed to help. After all (as we used to gleefully point out), nobody can make choices in isolation, and those who choose not to wear hijab aren’t making such a choice in a vacuum, without any social pressure on them whatsoever.

In my view, this emphasis on “choice” per se tends to be a red herring. In the end, nobody can know or measure how much “free choice” a given woman might have had. What is much more important is to shift the focus from the initial act of “choice” to its long-term consequences. Its long-term consequences for your life on this earth, as well as the lives of your children and relatives and friends, again, on this earth. And that is exactly what the conservative Muslim communities I was involved in would not deal with.

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  1. #1 by rosalindawijks on April 7, 2014 - 9:48 am

    Yes, “choice” also can mean anything and everything. Or as Mona Etahawy once eloquently put it: “What choice does a woman have when she is told she will burn in hell if she doesn’t cover every inch of her body?”

    Here is the link of the program on which she says that: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dtDzDXg2GQU

    I also remember reading Yusuf al Qardawys (who, as a Muslim brother, has the reputation of being “moderate”) Halal and Haram, which I found both laughable and depressing. (I read it during my early teens) And all the ranting and raving about “naked” Western women on beaches……..downright sexist, misogynistic AND of course, with a dirty mind.

    And then there was a horrible book of some ultra-reactionary Saudi mufti, who claimed that a woman should be covered in black from head to toe, with only one eye showing so that she wouldn’t trip or fall.

    And if people who are in favor of these rules, regulations and the ideology behind them, start talking about women’s “choice” or “agency”, I just can’t trust them. Or, as Mona Eltahawy (I admit it: I’m a fan) put it: “These people don’t believe in a womans right to do anything but to cover her face.” Spot on!

  2. #2 by rosalindawijks on April 7, 2014 - 9:51 am

    Oh yes, and then the “interpretation” of some people who claim that these rules are a compliment to women, because a woman has to be covered because she is beautiful and as “precious” as a diamond, of a pearl in a shell…….

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