For many in the West, head coverings of any kind are evidence that Muslim women are oppressed. Not so, says one writer. My headscarf is a defiant expression of my choice to be a woman on my own terms. By Shelina Janmohamed.
When I first published my blog about life as a Muslim woman in 2005, I thought carefully about how to make it accessible to readers who might bring with them notions of 'subjugated' Muslim females. The color black was firmly banished, therefore, as images of women dressed in long black cloaks, long black headscarves and long black veils are a Western shorthand for denoting our supposed oppression, and a lazy way to instil fear and pity about us in equal measure. So I created a friendly mini-me as the avatar for my website. She wears a pink headscarf, sparkly pink shoes and a cheeky smile. I sport those from time to time also.
But, I was forced to ask myself, was the color as liberating for me as I thought? It is also intimately associated with a limiting hyper-feminization as a result of which, from the fluffiest pale pink candyfloss to the raunchiest of hot pinks, women are disappearing from sight, or being judged for their physical presence rather than their behavior.
To me, this is no different to the sea of black cloth that makes many Muslim women anonymous. Let me be absolutely clear: I’m all for women wearing modest dress, even headscarves, as I do. I am not “subjugated”. I cover out of my own free choice; it is not something imposed on me. Modesty in dress is something I feel is an important social value. It is not something I can make private, because it’s something I think is important for society at large. It’s not a political or religious expression, as people often assume or like to portray it as. It is an outward manifestation of the values that I hold dear to me, and which I think are good for the people I live among.
While I do not wear a face veil and personally do not agree with it, I know women who have elected to wear it, exercising the agency that is theirs. Some women like to wear black all-over clothing specifically to become anonymous. This to me is like the widespread adoption of jeans as majority fashion wear for precisely the same reasons. But what worries me is that the ocean of black sometimes acts as a cultural mechanism to keep women’s individuality out of the public space, and turns this vibrant half of humanity into an undifferentiated impersonal mass.
And when photos are not even taken of women attending public events, their very existence is lost from the social record of contemporary history. This is exacerbated by Western media imagery: by almost exclusively choosing pictures of veiled faces to represent not just Muslim women, but Muslims as a whole, the complexity and diversity of the Muslim world is lost. It is an act that blocks rather than welcomes dialogue.
The narrow confines of both black and pink are equally limiting. Both are just as oppressive and anonymising. Both see women through a male gaze: pink packages women as candy for the gaze of men, while black packages women as temptresses who must be hidden. Both prioritize the male perspective and eliminate female agency. Neither, in my view, offer women their rightful respect from society. Both are also offensive to men, caricaturing them as weak beings entirely at the behest of their libidos.
The truth is that many issues affecting women around the world work in the same way. Take the horrible issue of 'honor' killings, where women are murdered for not obeying the codes men have set down. In the UK, two women each week are killed by their partners. Jealousy – another form of control – is a huge part of this. For me, these are two cultural manifestations of the same problem and women should fight them together, rather than turning 'honor' killings into an imperialist mission built on defining Muslims as 'barbaric' and then invading countries to “liberate” their women. And yes, I am speaking of Afghanistan, where a decade later the mission to free women from the Taliban has resulted in little or possibly negative improvement in safety for women.
What was so corrosive about that was the framing of Muslim women as needing to be 'saved', thereby removing our agency and infantilising us. When it comes to violence we’re fighting the same problems; let’s support each other and tackle them at the root – the disrespect for women and the cultures that allow these attitudes to flourish.
Instead of wasting our breath on debating and being distracted by the subject of whether there is a clash between western feminism and Muslim feminism, this should be a joint approach to find the kind of equality, liberty and freedom within the parameters that all women are searching for. This is about an innate sense – something Muslims call the fitrah, the inner conscience – that all men and women have to seek out justice, and to seek what will be beneficial to all.
We are being pulled behind because we are fighting each other to establish what is the 'best' way forward, but I don’t believe there is necessarily a universal 'one-size-fits-all' version of empowerment and dignity for women – I feel there are different 'bests' for different places. Instead, we need spaces where different ideas from different perspectives and different cultures and civilizations can come together to re-ignite the feminist passion and to re-ignite the cause for more equal societies where both men and women can prosper.
Shelina Janmohamed is a columnist for The National, Abu Dhabi, and the author of Love in a Headscarf, the Arabic edition of which has just been published. Her award-winning blog is at Spirit21.co.uk