The hijab – is it oppressive or not?
The trouble with this debate is that when non-Muslim people are talking, it morphs into something else entirely. The need to end the requirement for hijab – which I think all reasonable feminists should agree upon – becomes the paternalistic need to force women not to wear a hijab; hence the new law in France. And the criticism of an aspect of a culture becomes an attack on the culture – which in turn starts to look suspiciously like racism and islamophobia.
What we are missing – and by “we” I mean non-Muslim people from European or Euro-descent cultures – is the willingness to turn around and to criticise our own culture equally much.
The Hijab Is Oppressive
My opinion, then, is this (and read to the end, okay?):
Yes. Hijab is oppressive. Why? Because if men are not required to cover up equally, we have a double standard. And behind that double standard we have a message. The message is that women’s bodies are inherently more sexual than those of men’s.
This reinforces the women as the object and men as the subject; it makes women the receivers of sexuality and not the instigators of it. It removes women’s sexual power. As well as this, if women’s bodies are inherently sexual, then it removes culpability from any men who want to victimise them sexually. They couldn’t help it, they saw a bit of their hair.
In reality, bodies are never inherently sexual. We sexualise them by the way we look at them. This is a choice. And naturally, what we do to act on that is doubly much a choice.
Western Culture Is Oppressive
Now, it’s not like there could be any double standards in Western culture too?
Whoops, there are. In the same way as women in Islamic cultures are expected to wear the hijab because their hair is seen as inherently sexual, women in Western cultures are expected to cover up their breasts because those are seen as inherently sexual.
But! You say. That’s not the same!
Yes it is. It’s 100% exactly the same, and you can’t see it because of your cultural blind spot. But if we’re criticising another culture, it’s pretty damn unfair to not be ready to criticise our own culture. Do both, or do neither.
So, boobs. It’s absolutely verifiable that women’s breasts are not inherently more sexual than men’s chests. First, any bisexual person with a similar level of preference to each sex will be able to tell you that they can find them equally distracting. Secondly, the ban on women’s breasts doesn’t exist in all cultures; in some cultures in Africa, breasts hang free. And while I’m sure those who find women attractive will appreciate them all the same, IN APPROPRIATE CONTEXTS; in the everyday context they are simply normal and unimportant.
The ban on breasts in Western culture is oppressive. It tells us that women’s bodies are inherently more sexual than those of men. It makes women into the object and men the subject. It gives an excuse to sexual violence by placing the onus on women to cover up and not the onus on men to choose not to sexualise women inappropriately.
The solution for all of our cultures is this: optional nudism.
Obviously not obligatory nudism. But optional nudism. Normalised nudism. The sort of cultural climate where no one bats an eye if you take off all your clothes just because it got a little hot.
A culture where being naked is accepted as appropriate, means a culture where the body is not given an inherently sexual meaning. It’s a culture where it’s accepted that the body becomes sexual when it is viewed sexually, and that is something that is done by an active choice. The blame for inappropriate sexuality is then always on the perpetrator and never on the victim for their clothing choices.
Naturally, this will specifically make things less unjust and less violent for women, even if men will benefit too. After all, sexual violence is perpetrated overwhelmingly by men, and mostly towards women. A cultural structure that places responsibility on people not to rape rather than responsibility on people to cover up breaks down the injustice towards those who are overwhelmingly being raped.
Now, I don’t think this is a realistic goal in the short term. And even if it is, there may be better things to campaign for right now. But that would be the ideal. And that’s why both Islamic and Christian cultures are sexist, and both of them need to change. The important thing is that we are criticising both, otherwise our criticism becomes dangerously close to xenophobia.