Some time ago I received a request to write something about wearing the Hijab (Hi there,Islamic Feminist). I have procrastinating writing blog posts a bit since. Many white people have written about about other cultures then their own and messed up royally. They have made assumptions without checking facts, they have colored their texts with blind ignorance and have proven that they could only think in stereotypes.
This is of course not true for all white writers. I have read enough texts that treated other cultures with respect and were carefully researched. However, such writings are far and few in between much of the damaging, hateful and ignorant works out there. Since becoming a feminist, I am all too aware of the damage that has been done and is still being done today by inaccurate literature.
This makes me hesitant, as a white feminist, to write about cultures that I did not grow up with and have little to no personal experience with. There is, in my opinion, one thing more damaging than lies and stereotypes, and that is silence. So I have decided to write something after all, but I will do that from my own perspective and experience and with the acknowledgement that I do not know more about Muslim culture than Muslim women do and that I can only give an opinion about what I have observed.
I will start with a personal story that I am still ashamed off:
It was a lovely spring day and I was sitting on the edge of a fountain, eating ice-cream. People were walking by and a woman with a child drew my attention. I didn’t mean to stare. There was absolutely nothing different about this woman. She was getting her groceries and strolling along, like everyone else on the marketplace. What caught my attention was her outfit. She was wearing a long flowing dress and she wearing a scarf on her head.
A thought formed in my head that she must be a Muslim woman wearing a Hijab and I was immediately ashamed of the assumption. I had no way of knowing if she even had a religion. My second thought was that she was forced to wear that. I had no way of knowing that either. Not unless I asked her personally. Here I have to think back to a picture in a newspaper days after the bombings in London. It was a picture in a train-station and woman was walking there, wearing a long dark dress and a dark scarf on her head. People were staring after her like she was a walking bomb.
As a feminist, I know better. I spend a great deal of time educating myself about the myths of stereotypes, especially those regarding women and yet I still have a tendency to judge women by their appearances. Despite my awareness of what society has taught me, I constantly have to work on not thinking along these stereotypes. I know how damaging these stereotypes can be. I know that the more people believe these stereotypes, the less chances women have. The result of inequality has directly lead to the deaths of a lot of women in the past and is still putting many women in danger every day. I am still looking for ways to fight the stereotypes, both around me as well as in my own head.
The image of an empowered woman, according to western society, is a white, thin, younger and “pretty” woman. She performs certain beauty rituals on a daily basis, because she “takes care of herself”, she “doesn’t let herself go” and she wants to be a “healthy size”. This is what we learn from a very early age. (Take Barbie for example, a doll that was created for girls to mirror their future adults selves in).
When we (white) westerners look at a woman who doesn’t fit this image, when she wears for example a Hijab, we have a tendency to feel pity and afterwards distrust for her. Without knowing or even caring why a woman makes certain clothing choices we make assumptions like we have the right to know the reasons for every woman’s appearance.
We have created “images of empowerment” and when a woman fits that image we don’t feel the need to look further. However, when a woman does not fit that image “there is a problem”. All of a sudden it becomes harder to pigeonhole her. So what do we do? Ridicule is a frequently used tool to shame women into conformity to the “comfortable, safe image” of what western society thinks a woman should look like. Often oppressive tactics are used to force women to hide the perceived signs of oppression.
In 2004 France outlawed the “display of religious affiliation” from public schools. This was followed after a debate about girls wearing the Hijab, though not because there were children wearing crucifixes around their necks.
In The Netherlands, during the recent European elections, a newly founded right-wing party has been gaining in popularity. Their main political agenda is to send “foreigners back to where they came from”. Here I am paraphrasing, cause they wouldn’t dare put it so bluntly. However they have “expressed their concerns about the “Islamizing” of dutch culture”. It basically comes down to stopping the Islamic religion from gaining anymore members in The Netherlands.
I am still wondering what they are so afraid of. That Dutch Muslims will take up arms and force (white) Dutch people to join their religion? They claim that they are “helping” Muslim women by “putting a stop to oppressive rituals” such as sex-segregation, because “we don’t do that here” (yeah right). Of course none of the members of their extremely small party has actually bothered to talk to Muslim women and ask them what it is that they want, yet all the members are convinced that they are doing these women a favor and are surprised that anyone could question their motives or their actions.
And yet, other cultures prove that the image of the “ideal, happy woman” is completely artificial and has nothing to do with “health”. In Mauritania the image of empowerment is that of a fat woman. Girls are force-fed beyond the point of vomiting. Women buy illegal drugs in order to gain as much weight as possible (which is completely the opposite of western society, where women often go to unhealthy lengths to lose as much weight as possible). “A fat woman makes a home” the saying goes. A man testifies to the advantages of having a fat wife:
“A fat woman is a woman who is well treated by her husband. She is well cared for.”
So it basically doesn’t matter if she is mistreated, as long as other people can’t see that it is all OK.
Whether women starve themselves or eat, sometimes almost literally, to the point bursting the result is the same. She gets weaker and society applauds her “success”. She “looks healthy” so that is all that matters. When we can see “empowerment” on the outside we can relax.
So with laws we can make women take of their head-scarfs, shame them into either losing or gaining weight and “dress-codes” can force women to adhere to other “beauty” mandates as well. All that combined doesn’t imply much freedom, but seeking out freedom for ourselves as women can come at heavy costs, such as harassment, sexual assault, job and wage discrimination and being ostracized in communities. All this seems to send one basic message almost everywhere in the world “comply!”
Comply with rules that make you physically and emotionally weaker, rules that keep you distracted from powerful and “dangerous” ambitions such as a sense of self-worth and making things better for the next generation of women in the world.
Please tell me what the difference is between telling women to wear the Hijab and telling them they can’t wear it? Who is oppressing (Muslim) women now?