I started this post yesterday, feeling I should write one to commemorate the anniversary of this blog, which began a year ago on International Women’s Day.
On the same day 37 years ago today, I went on my first march for women’s liberation in central London. We demanded an end to discrimination in education and the workplace, as well as contraception, abortion and nursery places for all who needed them. We protested about the demeaning way women were presented by various media and we challenged the ideology that women were responsible for the hateful way we were perceived and portrayed and for the sexual harrassment and violence visited upon us. 37 years ago, if I’d looked this far into the future, I would have expected International Women’s Day 2010 to be a day of celebration.
This post isn’t going to be an analysis of the successes and failures of the women’s movement. Suffice to say that I feel as if I live in a very different world nowadays to the one of my childhood — a world where so many people thought it was a waste of time for girls to get A’ levels, never mind go to university; a world where girls were told to aspire to marriage for “security” and to “give the children a name”; a world where women who reported sex crimes to the police came away feeling as if they were the criminals.
Undoubtedly, the bit of the world that I inhabit is a better place for women nowadays and the credit ultimately lies with all of us who’ve embraced the liberal and democractic values that are the legacy of the Enlightenment. However, that the world is still an agonisingly brutal and barbaric place for women the world over puts a dampener on things. And the absolute pits is that so many women living in liberal democracies — and benefitting from the reforms we fought for and won on their behalf — are kowtowing to a pernicious ideology that denies women our humanity and autonomy: the ideology that says ‘honour is between the the legs of women’* and we should cover ourselves from head to foot so that men can control their dicks.
Because — let’s be honest — that’s all it’s about. In the eyes of misogynists, women exist to serve men and fulfil a primarily sexual function. Women need to be cowed and controlled. Making them feel vulnerable and ashamed (or just beating the crap out of them) if they’re not covered up is but one way to do it.
A commenter on one of my previous blogs, who calls himself “Kope”, invited me to look at his blog and read how “Islam will win the clash of civilization”. There he sums up the ancient spiritual wisdom of his worldview very succinctly:
Women must take responsibility for their dress standards.
Dress like sluts, get treated like sluts. Its only natural.
To me the hijab represents the biggest symbol of women’s oppression and the most hateful insult to every woman who has struggled for justice and equality in the developed world. I initially assumed the news that Tower Hamlets were planning to build some great monstrosity of a hijab-shaped arch at the end of Brick Lane was a tasteless wind-up — some April fool story I’d missed at the time, perhaps. Alas, it was for real and I express my heartfelt thanks to every one of the 158 residents of the borough who objected. Whatever were those morons on the council thinking??
Naturally, there are varying degrees of loathesomeness in respect of this garment. I recall a Saudi student of mine who, while she was in London, wore the smallest headscarf she could get away with. She would have loved not to wear one at all, she said, but didn’t dare. That’s one end of the loathesomeness spectrum. Women wearing headscarves have become a familiar sight but I still hate to see the bloody things just because of what they represent — and I don’t mean the commitment to Islam, I mean the obsequious deference to misogyny. At the other end of the spectrum are the full-face veils and long robes she had to wear back home in Saudi, the like of which I never saw on the streets of London when I was a child but which are now almost commonplace. For crying out loud, they even brought out a burkha-wearing Barbie doll!
Let me just say that I am not concerned with what the Qu’ran says or how Muslims interpret it. Any argument that women should cover themselves up because that’s what it says in some old book is going to be lost on an atheist like me, especially when a high profile Muslim like Yasmin Alibhai-Brown is so comprehensive in her condemnation of the veil. (Edit: See also Saira Khan in the Daily Fail, Why I, as a British Muslim woman, want the burkha banned…) As far as I’m concerned, if God expected women to cover themselve up, he wouldn’t have made sunlight so important for the production of vitamin D. I have Muslim friends and not one wears the hijab. Well, if they did, they wouldn’t be my friends. I don’t want to be friends with people who celebrate what I have agonised over and fought against all my life.
Just as any religious argument will be lost on me, I know my own argument will be lost on many hijab wearers reading this. Some of them have never even engaged their brain long enough to question the wearing of these odious garments for religious reasons; they do so because they’ve been indoctrinated from early childhood. Raising a child to believe that they must hide their hair, let alone their face, to be sure of avoiding “hellfire” is, in my opinion, a form of abuse. Yet that is what is happening in Muslim schools in Britain today, if the one featured on the Channel 4 TV series last year is anything to go by.
Then there was that episode of Wife Swap when the hijab-wearing mother, Nuzhat Ahmed, confessed that, yes, her hijab was hot but “hell is hotter”. For shame!
By the way, in keeping with my open-minded approach to life, I prefer to conduct empirical research and, to prove it, here’s a photo of me wearing a niqab purchased for a fiver on ebay together with the note I made when I first tried it on:
“As every specs wearer knows, seeing the frames of your glasses as you peer through them is something you get used to. I guess it would be the same for looking out from behind a niqab. At the moment everything has a thick black frame and it’s bugging the hell out of me. But the worst thing is not being able to breathe freely. I’m suffocating. And I can’t wear my glasses because they keep getting steamed up. I’ve been wearing it a mere 15 minutes and already I have a headache. It’s coming off.”
But — hey! — you can get used to anything, right?
For many hijab wearers in liberal democracies, hijab has become the badge of the club they belong to; a way to distinguish themselves and each other from members of other tribes. Just what we need in a multicultural society — let’s emphasise our differences, why don’t we?
Ed Hussain’s book, The Islamist, is illuminating:
To packed halls we brought speakers from different Islamist groups who explained why women must cover their hair, be different from non-Muslim women, and earn God’s approval. At the time there were a handful of young Muslim women at college who wore the hijab. This commanded my full support, but questions from teachers, and sometimes students, made the practice increasingly confrontational. We put pressure on unveiled Muslim women to join the ‘sisters’ who wore the hijab or risk being seen as un-Islamic rather than practising, proud Muslims. The resultant upsurge of hijab wearing took even us by surprise as scores of fashionable free-fllowing hairstyles disappeared from view.
…The sisters who wore the hijab put their mothers and older siblings to shame — the fact that young, educated, confident women at Tower Hamlets College wore the hijab sent a message to the wider community. They saw our sisters on buses, on the roads and at weddings, and slowly the hijab became a symbol of defiance of Western values and of a return to Islam.
And some of those sisters may even delude themselves that, as long as they are covered up, they won’t arouse the interest or star in the gross fantasies of men they don’t fancy. Let Ed Hussain disillusion you:
If the hijab was supposed to make a woman less attractive, then it clearly had not worked. Several society members commented to me that the women looked extraordinarily feminine and more desirable in the scarf than without. I shared that sentiment, but dared not express it.
…The craving to unclothe the excessively clothed was cruel.
Not that those hijab-wearers whose faces are unveiled but who wear a bucketload of make-up will be unaware of the effect the mixed message might be having but, in fairness, not all hijab wearers go around looking like that. At least some are consistent and go easy on the slap (and the beautiful ones look beautiful in spite of wearing hijab and the plain ones look plainer because of it — just my opinion).
Ask a lot of young women why they wear hijab and they will give an answer similar to a commenter on another blog of mine, who posted from Egypt.
I want to explain why we do wear that (Niqab)
First of all,I wear it as god demanded me
More over,you may noticed those who were niqab more than others ,but you didn’t any of their body details
as they didn’t expose them except for their husbands,not by force,but by love.
Women quality ;as no one can deny;is by her thoughts,beliefs and spirit.Not by her body.So what disturbs any body whether to see her body or not?!
when i am married ,i feel that no one has the right to see my beauty but him(and of course my father brother and those who don’t ever marry me)
In a nutshell, if women cover up, they will be judged on what they say and do, rather than on their looks. A woman’s beauty should be a gift of love to her husband. I suppose the same goes for a woman’s ugliness.
In other words, men are in thrall to their animal natures and can’t see past what women look like and it is women’s responsibility to protect men from themselves because asking them nicely not to rape us won’t work — they can’t help themselves, poor bastards. All of which might have been convincing had I lived in some earlier century before the shameless unveiled women of the world had gained the success, power and respect that so many have today.
Another deadly weapon in the hijab-defender’s armoury is to point to the dark side, the negative consequences of Western sex-obsessed culture. I can’t be bothered to list these — suffice to say I agree there is a dark side to Western sex-obsessed culture. That kind of even things up a bit, doesn’t it? But it’s a bit like homeopaths who defend the worthlessness of homeopathy by pointing to the problems of conventional medicine. The ugly side of my culture doesn’t make the ugly side of your culture — whether it be ‘honour killings’, genital mutilation, executing rape victims or any of the other atrocities committed against women for no good reason — any less ugly. Prostitution, it seems, takes place everywhere. But at least we don’t flog or execute our prostitutes.
Nor would I defend the raunchy dress and behaviour some young women adopt solely for the purpose of pleasing men but, as this tends to be a phase young girls grow out of, the suggestion that it typifies Western culture is just daft. Most women, young or old, don’t dress or behave like that but hijab-defending male commentators on Western culture seem oblivous to that fact, preferring instead to perve over pictures of naked female flesh and proclaim the superiority of a culture that would rather have women suffocating in hideous shrouds. Kope, whom I mentioned earlier, has helpfully provided plenty of pictures of nubile young women in various states of undress on his website, in order to illustrate “how Islam will win the clash of civilizations”. Here’s a typical caption:
The judeo-christian’s sodomites half naked on the beach because of christian’s god does not require dress code for women and men
It’s not clear how he thinks those pictures demonstrate the greater glory of Islam but so what? At least he gets to have a wank.
One final thing: in case, you think I’m building up to calling for a ban on the burkha in Britain, I’ll end by disabusing you of that notion. I agree with Andrew Copson on this one. I don’t defend liberal values one minute only to flush them down the pan the next. Even though it is repressive, divisive, insulting and intimidating, I would defend to their death the right of these women to flaunt their vicimtisation in any way they choose.
Just don’t expect me to get used to it.