It’s Complicated!

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The con­struc­tion of fem­i­nin­i­ty in the mod­ern world is vast­ly dif­fer­ent from pre-mod­ern, and the pol­i­tics of the hijab is right at the cen­tre of it. The recent height­ened focus on Mus­lim women’s cloth­ing in Rio 2016 and, near­er to home, in France and Cannes, comes in a long line of calls over the years to ban the hijab (head scarf) and niqab (face veil). Much of this is his­tor­i­cal Ori­en­tal­ist impres­sion or racism that some in the style of tabloid jour­nal­ism enter­tain to this day. Thank­ful­ly, West­ern soci­eties have gen­er­al­ly not suc­cumbed to such calls. But one thing is for sure, the pol­i­tics of it is com­pli­cat­ed for Mus­lims, non-Mus­lims and soci­ety at large.

From the moment Mus­lim women are seen wear­ing the hijab or niqab in pub­lic, there is often a pri­ma facie per­cep­tion that they are vic­tims of some kind of forced claus­tra­tion. If it’s not a case of patri­archy deny­ing women their free­doms, it’s because they’re some­how a threat to lib­er­al soci­ety. What­ev­er the case, the impli­ca­tion is that either they or soci­ety need ‘sav­ing.’ With that, every­thing about Mus­lim women – their hopes, anx­i­eties and expe­ri­ences, become reduced to a piece of cloth. But, time and again stud­ies have dis­proved such per­cep­tions.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, these per­cep­tions have deep root­ed foun­da­tions. The way many soci­eties across the world today expect women to dress pur­ports to have ‘noth­ing to do with pleas­ing men and every­thing to do with self-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and self-grat­i­fi­ca­tion.’ It’s not a secret that the female body is an object of fan­ta­sy for many men, and of course it’s a cen­tral ingre­di­ent in the com­mer­cial com­mit­ment to ‘looks sell.’ In turn, when some women feel the urge to mould them­selves to the desires of men—to be ‘sought after’—as per­haps implic­it when some feel the need to make them­selves ‘look good,’ mod­ern soci­ety often dis­guis­es this instinct as the out­come of female self-con­fi­dence and free­dom. In this sense, ‘women’s readi­ness to buy into the myths of sex­u­al desir­abil­i­ty’ is social­ly con­struct­ed as the “ulti­mate source of female poten­cy, as if for women the only pow­er they can wield is sex­u­al pow­er,” as some aca­d­e­mics argue.

This is not the only nar­ra­tive at play. Much like women (includ­ing Mus­lim women) gen­er­al­ly do in every­day con­ver­sa­tion, the media takes an inter­est with women’s bod­ies and cloth­ing. This is not sur­pris­ing giv­en that fash­ion is ‘a means of sym­bol­ic dis­play, a way of giv­ing exter­nal form to nar­ra­tives of self-iden­ti­ty.’ Thus, what celebri­ties and pub­lic fig­ures wear or don’t wear, or the size of their hip or oth­er body parts fills news­pa­pers and TV shows. Talk of what Mus­lim women wear, then, can be inter­pret­ed as a con­tin­u­a­tion of ‘things’ the media like to talk about.

How­ev­er, where it gets sin­is­ter is when talk of these ‘things’ lead to actu­al pro­pos­als to crim­i­nalise Mus­lim women’s cloth­ing. How that isn’t itself misog­y­nis­tic or author­i­tar­i­an is per­plex­ing; a point which many fem­i­nists, tabloid jour­nal­ists and aggres­sive lib­er­als have yet to come to terms with.‎ More­over, the claim that Mus­lim women need lib­er­at­ing sim­ply because they wear the hijab or niqab with­out first under­stand­ing Mus­lim women is evi­dent­ly a self-cen­tered posi­tion of supe­ri­or­i­ty.

Per­cep­tions and debates across dif­fer­ent coun­tries are far from uni­form, too. France, for exam­ple, has had a fetish-like fas­ci­na­tion with women’s cloth­ing for cen­turies, cul­mi­nat­ing in today’s haute cou­ture (‘high fash­ion’ – cus­tom fit cloth­ing) and prêt-à-porter (‘ready to wear’ cloth­ing). Coun­tries dif­fer in the bound­aries they set for state sec­u­lar­i­ty. Gov­ern­ments are under dif­fer­ent pres­sures from mod­ern ter­ror­ism and chang­ing def­i­n­i­tions of nation­al iden­ti­ty. The pub­lic also have dif­fer­ent under­stand­ing of Mus­lim cloth­ing and tol­er­ance for ‘oth­er­ness.’

The sit­u­a­tion in Mus­lim coun­tries isn’t straight­for­ward either. From what I can see, there are long-stand­ing dif­fer­ences between schol­ars about the neces­si­ty of the niqab. Many women today choose not to wear the hijab, too, not because they don’t want to but because they feel they haven’t reached a cer­tain lev­el of reli­gious obser­vance, lack courage, or because of anx­i­eties about what oth­ers might say etc. A few gov­ern­ments pre­scribe pub­lic dress code, whilst oth­ers – the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty, leave it up to indi­vid­ual Mus­lims to decide for them­selves.

In the con­text of third gen­er­a­tion Mus­lims of the UK, the ques­tion of cul­tur­al self-asser­tion is also rel­e­vant. It is of course human nature that if you stand out in a crowd, the chances are, oth­ers will look at you. Usu­al­ly, this is noth­ing more than human per­cep­tu­al sens­es at work, reflect­ing curios­i­ty on the part of those per­ceiv­ing some­thing slight­ly out of the ordi­nary. Over time, as peo­ple get more used to things, they take less notice, until even­tu­al­ly it’s all part the same view. In the mean­time, how­ev­er, it can go bad­ly wrong when fair­ness, respect or a car­ing atti­tude is neglect­ed by onlook­ers.

It’s here that ‘Islam’s ancient cul­tur­al wis­dom’ should help. His­tor­i­cal­ly, Mus­lims tend­ed to adapt their cloth­ing to what­ev­er cul­tures they were part of. Like the saree, sal­war kameez or the African head wrap and blouse and skirt – all of which are indegi­nous to non-Arab peo­ples, they can be designed or worn with the require­ment for mod­esty intact. And so the expe­ri­ence of third gen­er­a­tion British Mus­lims can be inter­pret­ed as one of nego­ti­at­ing cloth­ing that mesh­es them into British soci­ety while still ful­fill­ing the require­ment for mod­esty. The so-called burki­ni is per­haps a more recent attempt, and oth­er exam­ples can be seen in the grow­ing Mus­lim women’s fash­ion indus­try. Where, the val­ue of Mus­lims women’s cloth­ing extends to more than mod­esty, as an anti­dote to the harms caused by objec­ti­fy­ing women.‎ Girls grow­ing up learn­ing that how they look is more impor­tant than how they feel or who they are. As for men, inde­pen­dent stud­ies have shown that sim­ply see­ing pic­tures of glam­or­ised skin­ny women on TV con­di­tions men’s attrac­tive­ness towards such forms. Even though, “With air­brush­ing and dig­i­tal manip­u­la­tion,” as the actress Emma Wat­son not­ed, we cre­ate “an unob­tain­able image that’s dan­ger­ous­ly unhealthy.

Thus, ongo­ing indi­g­e­niza­tion means that cloth­ing forms will evolve. In the mean­time, it’s nat­ur­al that some Mus­lims will feel let down when oth­ers com­plain that they don’t inte­grate more, and yet when they do join in for a swim it’s not right either, at least not in Cannes. Here, patience and con­tin­ued edu­ca­tion of the pub­lic is need­ed. Thank God for the emer­gence of some Mus­lim women who have begun to  com­pe­tent­ly argue the case for Mus­lim women. Though, I sense also the need to make friends with tabloid jour­nal­ists.

Last­ly, there are also gen­der imbal­ances spe­cif­ic to Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ties that need urgent atten­tion (as there are with soci­ety at large). Such issues are easy fod­der for stereo­types and per­cep­tions to be main­tained, not to men­tion the way they lim­it the poten­tial of Mus­lim women in soci­ety. Many caus­es can be cit­ed, some to do with eco­nom­ic dis­ad­van­tages, cul­tur­al taboos, lack of edu­ca­tion, nar­row inter­pre­ta­tions of reli­gious texts, lack of female schol­ar­ship etc.

Final­ly, it’s worth not­ing that the under­ly­ing prin­ci­ple for Mus­lim women’s cloth­ing is the con­cept of haya, which is to act out of mod­esty, self-respect, shy­ness, virtue and decen­cy. Haya con­di­tions people’s behav­iour with the antic­i­pa­tion of uneasy feel­ings of embar­rass­ment in act­ing out some­thing inde­cent or break­ing a com­mit­ment to a social stan­dard. The Prophet said in a hadith, “mod­esty is a part of faith.” The Prophet also said, “Every faith has an innate char­ac­ter. The char­ac­ter of Islam is mod­esty.” ‘Low­er­ing the gaze,’ then, is as emi­nent­ly a part of haya for men as it is for women to dress mod­est­ly. And mod­esty in dress is meant to move the focus both for men and women from the exter­nal to the inter­nal, “mak­ing the beau­ty of the inner self the most impor­tant focus.” That’s also part of the com­pli­ca­tion when it comes to Mus­lim women’s cloth­ing.