Hijab

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

The hijab is the veil typically worn by women belonging to the Islamic culture. There are many ways of understanding it: for some people it is just an item of clothing, for others it has a deep religious meaning. For certain women it is an obnoxious imposition, for others it represents the free vindication of Islamic identity in islamophobic contexts.

In this letter I would like to address the feminist interpretation of hijab. The position I am going to defend is that the hijab can’t be considered a feminist symbol with respect to the western conception of feminism. This doesn’t mean that feminism and hijab-culture are incompatible. I think indeed that quite the contrary is the case. Still, I believe that people interpreting the role of hijab as quintessentially feminist are mistaken, and I’ll try to show why.

Attending a course on cultural anthropology some years ago, I learned about the following phenomenon: certain women belonging to the Islamic culture intentionally wear hijab as a symbol of emancipation. The reason why they do so, is that they don’t want to be seen by men as sexual objects, but rather want to be valued for their intelligence, personality and willpower. In this sense, hijab assumes the meaning of “protection” against the lustful gazes of men.

Although I strongly appreciate the efforts of these women to tackle their chauvinist societies, and I believe that individual choices are best seen by individuals in their practical contexts rather than by outside observers, I think that this meaning, theoretically understood, can’t be straightforwardly called feminist.

The reason is that feminism attempts to become a general theory of society and not a code of advices about how women should best behave. Feminism tries to talk to and about everyone: from children to adults, from women to men. This means that, even if hijab can work as a practical help in certain circumstances, and a symbol of female emancipation, it is far from being straightforwardly feminist. Feminism would require men to stop objectifying women in the first place, so that women are free to wear hijab at their will, and not because otherwise they would be objectified. To put it differently, feminist theory can’t come to terms with chauvinist blackmailing.

Another reason not to accept this meaning of hijab as feminist is the central role of the human body in western feminism. Women have fought under the motto “my body, my choice”, which is a vindication of the woman to be the ultimate judge about how she administers her body. In the above mentioned case, women are covering their bodies not because of a positive conception of it, but as a response to the objectification of men. They strive to be considered as thinkers, but in this struggle they set aside that they are also sensitive beings, sexual beings and material beings. Again: their efforts might be even necessary, given their conditions, but their sensible practical decisions can’t be theoretically understood as straightforwardly feminist.

Another example of the attempt to link hijab to feminism is less demanding. Certain women defend the claim that wearing hijab symbolizes the feminist freedom of women to wear what they want – especially in western societies. But from this claim they usually go as far as concluding that hijab (and their conception of Islam) is feminist. In my opinion, this is a confusion about a priority of meanings: the fact that feminism allows you to wear what you want, doesn’t yet entail that what you want to wear has a feminist meaning. A hijab remains often related to the Islamic culture, and all that feminism does is letting women intentionally adhere to it. From a feminist perspective, feminism must be prior to the meanings of hijab, otherwise we risk to say that, for instance, religious codes of behavior are feminist, which would be utterly ridiculous.

Western, modern feminism is compatible with Islamic culture insofar as it stands for the emancipation and empowerment of women of every culture. On the other hand, it clashes with Islamic and other cultures, whenever they oppress women and force on them their symbols of oppression. These symbols can be reinterpreted and can even be helpful in constituting one’s personal identity at different levels and with different meanings. But to forget that feminism is the condition for this to happen rather than religion or something else, is to step away from feminism and to take a step closer to connivance with the status quo of a world still extensively ruled by men.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

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Niqab

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Frau Geist is a real person. I don’t know her personally, but a friend of mine (D) told me about her. I met D on the oriental pillows of the Weltcafe near the University. We had not seen each other for a while. Now he works for a cooperative with the purpose of integrating people with “particular” behaviors into a non-medicalized social context. Some of them need also psychiatric support, whereas others are more independent and join the cooperative for having a good time and good conversations with the friendly staff.

Frau Geist could be considered a case in-between. She is not a strongly impaired “patient”, but she couldn’t be considered very independent either. Frau Geist thinks that there are hidden cameras in her bathroom, ready to spy her whenever she walks in. No matter how many times D and his co-workers have showed her that there is nothing to fear. They simply haven’t checked enough. Mechanical eyes are always there, waiting for no one but her to take her clothes off in the bathroom.

This “cameras conspiracy” leads to the unpleasant consequence that poor Frau Geist has not been taking a shower for a while. But hygiene is not the only issue here at stake. As a matter of fact, Frau Geist is so scared of espionage, that she hardly walks outside her apartment. For this reason, she wraps herself in a bed sheet with two holes in correspondence of the eyes to get to the cooperative’s place, which is situated in the same building downstairs. A wandering ghost, occasionally fleeing from her demimonde. Unsurprisingly, D has started calling her “Frau Geist” (literally, from German, “Madame Spirit”).

As you can imagine, it is not easy for the cooperative to figure out a way to help her enjoy life outside the building. D told me that they even thought of giving her a Niqab as a present. Even so, she is definitely not going unnoticed, and suspicious glances could give her the final proof that indeed she is being spied. Let alone that, as things stand now, people are going to notice her with their eyes only after having noticed her with their noses.

At any rate, I told D that the Niqab sounds like a wonderful idea. I tried to imagine Frau Geist wrapped in a colorful fabric, taking the subway with the excitement of an unexperienced 007. Then having a walk in a city park, now that summer has started blooming. She inhales slowly, watching the sunrays being fractured by the dark leaves of the imposing chestnuts. She is safe: the Niqab protects her from the indiscreet cameras.

Would you call it freedom? Why not? After all, you can imagine her relaxed joy, when breathing in the open air. She can be like ourselves, and do the things we all do. Someone could claim that she is just crazy. But would it be worth it to lock her up in a hospital room, wasting the precious time of a walk in the park? Doesn’t she deserve to be happy, in her own way, because of her own story?

Next time I am encountering a woman in a Niqab, before thinking about any symbolism or general social phenomenon, I will ask myself if that woman has no better reasons for dressing like that than Frau Geist. For sure, my imagination, however fervid, won’t help me understand the complexity of the life of that person, and of the difficulty of making certain choices.

I think it is out of question that oppression of women can very well be established by means of cultural and religious symbolism. But sometimes, we just think in too general terms to criticize the individual case. And the next woman we see in Niqab could be just like Frau Geist. Free to be outdoor, and happy.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha