Sunday, July 18, 2004

Cover up

A little while ago, I read that Home Secretary David Blunkett – he of the National ID Card and charging innocent people for going to jail (more David goodness here) - wants to introduce legislation banning free speech that may be offensive to religious folk in particular.
Realizing that I may not have much time left as an outspoken atheist, I thought I’d finish this work in progress and post it before the storm troopers drag me off to the baptismal font.  

If you listen to the popular media and subscribe to all the PC BS out there, I must be the only remaining soul who is patently disturbed by seeing women bundled up in cloth from head to toe. I am, of course, referring to the Muslim traditional garb for women (the ‘hijab’ or ‘purdah’) – which varies in degree from a small scarf over the hair to a black sack over the entire body with a small slit for the eyes.
I was confronted with this baffling phenomenon comparatively rarely in Australia, yet here in London it’s a common sight. I always thought I’d get used to it, that the more of it I saw the more normal it would become to the point where I would barely notice it anymore. That’s not the case, however. In fact, my thoughts on seeing it are consistently negative – as if it’s very proliferation is an affront to something.
At first, I thought I was reacting to it negatively in the most primitive fashion – shunning something different only because it was different. So I decided to investigate the practice and find a reason for all this flesh covering that I could agree with.
So where to start? I thought back on my conversations with Muslims I’d studied with at University and those I had spoken to on other informal occasions. I suppose I had always been curious about the reasons for the hijab, because on recollection I found that I had received many varying answers over the years. I thought I’d go through each I’d heard and agree with it or reject it.
In Kuala Lumpur, a Muslim taxi driver told M and I that the practice started in the desert where it was important to shield one’s face from the sand and wind. It just somehow continued on from there.
Omitted from this explanation was why only women retained the facial garb and why on earth it was necessary in a city like KL where it was as likely that a woman would endure a sandstorm as a snowstorm.
As an aside, the Muslim taxi driver certainly availed himself of the opportunity to gaze at the Chinese girls on the street that favored western clothing to show off some rather stunning figures.
The second explanation centered around the notion that women are jewels to be protected from the wandering eyes, hands and intentions of any random, licentious man. That they are not inferior creatures at all – but ones with a mysterious ‘power’ over men that must be restrained by society.
Evaded carefully from this is the fact that the woman must abrogate her rights in order to protect herself from the ‘natural’ desire of men to harm her in some way when they see her.
This merely makes me think the religion doesn’t think much of the male gender. It portrays men as base, reactive, uncontrolled animals and women as unsuspecting prey (or bewitching temptresses) whose duty it is to look less appealing. Where is the call to the self-discipline of these men to withhold from perpetrating crime?
This is the kind of thinking that leads to the ‘She was asking for it by wearing such a short skirt’ mentality.
I would have to say that there IS legitimate reason for a human to be wary and make themselves less of a target sometimes. There is certainly one circumstance where the blame for an attack can rest on the victim or on unfortunate circumstance – where the attacker is something without a volitional consciousness – an animal.
Walking through a wild game park with bloodied steaks strapped to your thighs IS quite literally asking for it because the lion that attacks you isn’t making a moral choice, it’s just an animal acting on instinct.
Walking through the city in a skirt so short that it’s possible to see what you’ve had for breakfast may be asking for a couple of raised eyebrows, but certainly doesn’t sanction assault or rape. If another human decides to harm you in some way, it was still an independent decision, irrespective of the triggering events.
Another I’ve heard is that women choose to wear the hijab in order to prevent objectification in a sexist world. This implies to me that the male form is the norm - the standard to which women must aspire - and the only way to do that is to completely hide any physical differentiation with the aid of several yards of material. I completely reject the idea that one gender should hide it’s attributes from another in the attempt to receive equal rights.
Of course, there’s the argument that all this veiling is God’s will. I reject that one as I don’t believe in anything supernatural – fairies, ghostly specters or god.
A quick search on the internet revealed several well-written articles describing the reasons for wearing the veil from the Muslim woman’s point of view.
Sehmina Jaffer Chopra’s article ‘Liberation by the Veil’ states: 

“From an Islamic perspective, to view a woman as a sex symbol is to denigrate her. Islam believes that a woman is to be judged by her [virtuous] character and actions rather than by her looks or physical features" (Takim, 22).”

“Another benefit of adorning the veil is that it is a protection for women. Muslims believe that when women display their beauty to everybody, they degrade themselves by becoming objects of sexual desire and become vulnerable to men, who look at them as "gratification for the sexual urge"(Nadvi,8).

Interesting – rather an echo of today’s western feminists. What I see in the above statement is an automatic assumption that sex is something evil or dirty and that it is distasteful to be associated with in any way. To be a sex symbol is therefore not to be revered for one’s desirability, but to be dragged down to a level from which one’s virtue simply cannot recover.

Garbage. Sex is a wonderful, joyous, pleasurable experience. True, some people do drag it down to the basest levels – sleeping with either random strangers or people that they don’t particularly like. This doesn’t denigrate sex itself but denigrates the person choosing to use it in such a fashion. Either way, being associated with sex or being seen as sexy isn’t a denigration but a compliment.

“Muslims believe that God gave beauty to all women, but that her beauty is not be seen by the world, as if the women are meat on the shelf to be picked and looked over. When she covers herself she puts herself on a higher level and men will look at her with respect and she is noticed for her intellect, faith, and personality, not for her beauty. In many societies, especially in the West, women are taught from early childhood that their worth is proportional to their attractiveness and are compelled to follow the male standards of beauty and abstract notions of what is attractive, half realizing that such pursuit is futile and often humiliating (Mustafa).”

Women (and men) are judged on many different levels by the opposite sex, physical attractiveness is but one. Some people don’t go beyond the superficial as is their prerogative. Others are intelligent enough to realize that the most interesting things about another human are revealed after they open their mouths.

Hiding one’s physical attributes doesn’t suddenly switch off other human’s innate valuing and judging processes, it simply means that you’ll never score highly on the ‘Hot or Not’ section of the scorecard.

This argument also seeks to nullify the validity of physical attractiveness in the selection of a partner. I really have to ask: Why? Is there really something morally wrong in wishing to have a physically desirable partner? Is there something wrong with enjoying someone else’s physical appearance? I tend to think not.

On reflection, it seemed to be a bit of ‘Booty Socialism’, as the only women it could benefit are those that don’t have much beauty to add to their ‘intellect, faith and personality’. If two women of equal mental capabilities but unequal looks are not veiled, men will naturally tend to be more attracted to the beautiful woman. Where the women are veiled, this distinction (which is still there under the veil, yet now hidden in pretense of its lack of importance) is blurred if not completely hidden - to the disadvantage of the beautiful woman and to the advantage of the homely one.

Again, this comes back to expecting women to make up for a perceived shortcoming in men. Why do women need to cover the thing that men aren’t supposed to judge them on? Why not just teach men not to judge women on that thing? It seems a little like a teacher blotting out some of the choices in a multiple choice test to help a particularly dull class along.

Life isn’t fair – never has been, never will be. Genetics didn’t bestow upon me the looks of a model, yet somehow I have attracted a partner without wearing a gauzy film over my imperfections. My husband likes my mind first and foremost – so it’s still possible to do when a woman isn’t covered.

Chopra concedes that some Muslims misread the true reasons for the hijab and use it “…as a means of keeping many Muslim women away from society, with the misconception that it signifies isolation and weakness.” She sees women returning to the ‘untainted and true Islam’ choosing to wear the veil for the reasons she outlines, citing this as proof that the veil is not a tool or symbol of oppression.

Well, after reading her reasons for veiling, I can’t say I felt particularly overjoyed for those women who willingly choose to don the veil. Convincing women to be ashamed or disturbed by their sexuality to the point where they will cover themselves is as oppressive as legally obliging them to wear the scarf. Telling a human that their exposed body is somehow a powerful magnet for evil isn’t a liberating thing, it simply imposes the expectation for this human to somehow mitigate the effects of this ‘natural evil’ that their body produces. It’s a burden, not a freedom.

Naheed Mustafa’s short but sweet essay ‘My Body is My Own Business’ states:

“Women are taught from early childhood that their worth is proportional to their attractiveness. We feel compelled to pursue abstract notions of beauty, half realizing that such a pursuit is futile.”

It all depends on what you pursue and whether or not it’s realistic. For most of us, the looks of a supermodel are futile. This is no reason to throw the mascara and high heels out the window. Every woman can look feminine and attractive with some minimal effort.

“In the Western world, the hijab has come to symbolize either forced silence or radical, unconscionable militancy. Actually, it's neither. It is simply a woman's assertion that judgment of her physical person is to play no role whatsoever in social interaction.”

A woman can assert it at the top of her lungs, it doesn’t make it so. As I said, men will still judge (at least partially) based on what they see as well as what they hear. If they see a woman who doesn’t groom her face, who doesn’t wear makeup or jewelry, who doesn’t allow her hair to enhance the appearance of her face and who seemingly has no distinguishable feminine figure – they’re simply going to give ‘nil points’ on all physical factors, not discount that area completely.

“Wearing the hijab has given me freedom from constant attention to my physical self. Because my appearance is not subjected to public scrutiny, my beauty, or perhaps lack of it, has been removed from the realm of what can legitimately be discussed.

No one knows whether my hair looks as if I just stepped out of a salon, whether or not I can pinch an inch, or even if I have unsightly stretch marks. And because no one knows, no one cares.

Feeling that one has to meet the impossible male standards of beauty is tiring and often humiliating. I should know, I spent my entire teenage years trying to do it. It was a borderline bulimic and spent a lot of money I didn't have on potions and lotions in hopes of becoming the next Cindy Crawford.”

Reading between the lines, all I see is someone absolving themselves of the need for personal grooming and care. I don’t see an empowered woman, I see one who has relegated a certain aspect of herself to the ‘too hard’ basket and expects the world to pretend it’s not there at all.

Then there’s the doublespeak of ‘The Question of Hijab: Suppression or Liberation?’  stating:

“A woman who covers herself is concealing her sexuality but allowing her femininity to be brought out.”

How one can divorce the concept of femininity from that of sexuality is somewhat of a mystery to me. Femininity, derived from the attributes of the female gender – is a sexual distinction. To be feminine is to be sexual insofar as it is to embrace one’s gender and enhance its attributes. How does one embraces one’s gender whilst ignoring the fact that gender distinctions are sexual?

I, for one, am glad that I can expose my shoulders in the summer or feel the sun on my legs when I wear a skirt. I love wearing my hair out and enhancing my face with makeup for special occasions. I find the attentions of men pleasant on the whole even though they can sometimes be expressed in an irksome way. I don’t consider my femininity a burden to be hidden away in some attempt to become equal to the male gender, I am equal in any way that matters legally. That doesn’t mean I’m the same as a man, far from it, I revel in the differences – they’re a part of what makes life interesting.
So I come to the end of my investigations and find that although I have heard many explanations that try to make veiling seem good, rational, normal or somehow equal to the freedom I am granted, I cannot endorse it or agree with it. So far, I haven’t found a single argument that makes me think veiling is a positive or life-affirming practice.
It isn’t my intent to offend people, nor to force others to my line of thinking. If anyone has anything to add to the cauldron, feel free, I would be most interested in hearing any arguments for the other side.


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