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Agency is Agency, No Matter What It Wears

By Taylor Marvin

At The American Prospect E.J, Graff has a thought-provoking piece on rape culture in the US and abroad. If Americans are tempted to view the horrific torture, rape, and murder of a New Delhi woman as evidence that rape culture is endemic only to foreign societies, they’re wrong; in Graff’s words, rape culture “lives anywhere that has a ‘traditional’ vision of women’s sexuality.” This, of course, includes the US, where slut-shaming is epidemic, politicians restrict their sympathy for survivors of “legitimate” rape, and all too many people continue to blame rape survivors for being the victim of crimes.

Graff makes her argument in graphic detail, and her piece is well worth reading. However, one troubling line jumps out:

“A culture in which women must cover up or be threatened is a rape culture. You’re thinking of hijab and burquas, right? Think also of the now well-known SlutWalks, which were launched after a Toronto police officer told young women that they could avoid rape by not dressing like ‘sluts.'”

Graff’s point is that the coerced covering of female bodies in the West is just as indicative of rape culture as in the Muslim world. The reference to hijabs and burquas is evoked to emphasize this point: if Canadian police telling women not to dress like “sluts” is comparable to Muslim head and body coverings it must be oppressive, because the veil is a perfect synonym for patriarchy. Here the Muslim world is the alien other, identified only by definitional oppression. There’s the threat — if we, the West, don’t change our ways we’ll be like them.

This is a troublingly Orientalist view of the female experience in the Muslim world. This isn’t to say that Muslim societies are not crippled by widespread misogyny and sexual violence; they clearly are, and the costs of patriarchy are arguably higher in these societies than anywhere else. This also doesn’t suggest that hijabs and other female religious garments are not a product of patriarchy. In an alternative reality where Islam — and of course Christianity — arose in egalitarian, rather than patriarchal, societies, it’s difficult to believe that these religious traditions would stress concealing clothing for women and not men. But assuming that the veil always represents a denial of female freedom is a condescending and simplistic dismissal of a complex tradition, and denies agency to the millions of Muslim women who chose to wear the garment.

Artist unknown; please contact me if you know.

Artist unknown; please contact me if you know.

Are many women forced to wear clothing they otherwise would not, on the justification of religious tradition? Of course. But assuming that all women wear the hijab because they are forced to compresses millions of Muslim women’s varied experiences into a single condemnation of their culture. In this view, Western women’s choices are valid, while Muslim women’s are not. It is difficult to imagine a more condescending narrative, because this story of oppressed, subservient Muslim women denies them the agency to choose. Reza Aslan ably explains this distinction in his history of Islam, No god but God:

‘The fact is that the traditional colonial image of the veiled Muslim woman as the sheltered, docile sexual property of her husband is just as misleading and simpleminded as the postmodernist image of the veil as the emblem of female freedom and empowerment from Western cultural hegemony. The veil may be neither or both of these things, but that is up to Muslim women to decide for themselves. [p. 73]“

To Westerners, the narrative of the veil as a tool of oppression is both satisfying and comforting: satisfying because it reaffirms the West’s cultural superiority, and comforting because it simplifies a bewildering variety of religious and cultural traditions into a simple narrative of backwardness. Again, this does not mean that patriarchy is absent from the practice — as Aslan notes, reading the veil as empowering freedom from the male gaze is just as simplistic as understanding it solely as patriarchal barbarism. But lumping all women who wear the veil into the category of pitied victims reflects an inherent narrative of cultural superiority. It is up to individual Muslim women, not non-Muslim observers, to decide whether the practice is oppressive. The veil is not incompatible with feminism; only the lack of female agency is.

99 Comments Post a comment
  1. Xed #

    As someone who wore the ‘hijab’ and who took it off, it has, and will always be about ‘my choice. Thank you for pointing this out so eloquently. I do not need to saved, or released from oppression or even shown that I am being controlled by the sex-crazed male of the species.

    I can choose to wear a bikini or a burqa. In the end it is about what I want and my body. It has nothing to do with what I want you to do to me or want I’m inviting onto myself. As a self proclaimed feminist, it galled me equally that when I was in a swim-suit I was the epitome of freedom but when I was covered head to toe I was subservient and being oppressed.

    January 9, 2013
    • Thanks for the lovely comment. I think what’s important about this aspect of feminism is freeing people from gendered mandates – whether they’re for more or less clothing.

      January 9, 2013
  2. Reblogged this on Generation: Handmaid and commented:
    With the kidnapping and rape of young girls here and abroad, we need to examine how patriarchy vs. our own decisions really affects us as women.

    January 9, 2013
    • Patriarchy, of course, purveys nearly all aspects of our society. We clearly do need to reexamine its consequences.

      January 13, 2013
  3. Reblogged this on ♥••••Clearhaven••••♥ and commented:
    An excellent piece reblogged from Smoke and Stir. Aptly describes the negative view of the hijab by some non-muslims.

    January 9, 2013
  4. You write passionately about a subject you know well. On a broader level, I think an informed dialogue on the value of modest dress (for men and women) is a conversation worth having. Yet, it is also worth noting that rape is not primarily about sex. It is about power. A rapist attempts to control his victim, no matter what she is wearing.

    January 9, 2013
  5. As an educated, liberal young woman who chooses to wear a scarf, I am so happy to have stumbled across your post. Thank you for highlighting that not all women wear a scarf because they are oppressed. Thank you for making us more than a symbol of oppression or a symbol of stupidity. Your post treats us like humans – capable of choice.

    I’ve used an excerpt from your post in a post I had previously written about the topic, simply to add more flavor. Don’t worry, I’ve linked back to your blog twice – no plagiarism or funny business there. I think you’ve written an excellent post, and I applaud you for it.

    If you’re interested in checking out my post, it’s titled Breathing Through The Veil.

    January 9, 2013
    • Thank you for linking to your piece, which I greatly enjoyed.

      January 9, 2013
  6. LailahMonte #

    This. Is. Beautiful. Thank you.

    January 9, 2013
  7. Reblogged this on sopiyanaminstmikpringsewu.

    January 9, 2013
  8. Chapeau!

    January 10, 2013
  9. Ash #

    I agree this is a well written piece. I do feel however, that it would be more appropriate to quote one of these women who through their own agency, as you say, choose to wear the burqa rather than quoting from another man writing on the issue. I would be interested in learning the reasons as to why women make these decisions when they are not compelled to do so. I think your article is a great introduction to the issue and would love to see a follow-up with women’s own voices next.

    January 10, 2013
  10. Colum McCaffery #

    A veil doesn’t always represent a denial of freedom but to say that it a reflection of complex tradition and beyond comment or that it is merely a fashion choice is equally simplistic. You are on ground similar to mine when you talk of agency, of choosing to wear the veil. The veil in many cases is expression and it seems sensible to treat it as such: http://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/08/26/islamic-dress-as-public-argument/

    January 10, 2013
  11. Reblogged this on Brite Light Ent.

    January 10, 2013
  12. cftc10 #

    Reblogged this on cftc10.

    January 10, 2013
  13. LetSdeG #

    First, Thank you for filling up my afternoon reading time with this insightful post. I think what disturbs me the most is that the oppressive rhetoric in the West comes from females, who are themselves still oppressed in many ways: financially, socially, commercially. We live in glass houses and dare turn on each other, simply because a few thousand miles separate us from these ‘other’ types of women. Frankly I find the veil, when NOT imposed, a beautiful thing that refocuses our worth on our internal assets: our intelligence, our wit, our kindness, etc.

    Excellent post.

    January 10, 2013
  14. Reblogged this on Jaggi.

    January 10, 2013
  15. exactly….i appreciate your thots

    January 11, 2013
  16. Reblogged this on Keatha's Blog and commented:
    Great piece of writing about choice

    January 11, 2013
  17. Reblogged this on Oyia Brown.

    January 11, 2013
  18. well done, Sir…

    As a muslim, I really appreciate your post…

    January 11, 2013
  19. kassiastclair #

    Very interesting and a very good point well made.

    kassia x

    January 12, 2013
  20. Reblogged this on Veir aryana and commented:
    okay! now how can we define illiterate mind? can anybody tell me please?

    January 13, 2013
  21. Reblogged this on Gold Fish.

    January 13, 2013
  22. kaymillaz #

    Reblogged this on Noor In The North.

    January 13, 2013
  23. Reblogged this on All About Me.

    January 14, 2013
  24. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that Graf was probably referring to those women who are forced to wear hijab/burqa, as I’m pretty sure she would probably agree that of course there are women who choose to cover up, but for her arguments sake she tried to be as concise/few-worded as possible and ended up looking like she viewed all hijabs and burqas as forced. I must admit, I was pretty surprised to see two hijab-related articles here on Freshly Pressed, seeing that FP likes pretty pictures and less-political fare, so congrats.

    Also, can I just point out that even in a more ‘liberal’ culture, wearing hijab/covering up is still demanded by society whether or not it is iron law or not. Case in point: whenever I’ve been in Egypt and it’s been hot out, I was told that I should cover up so people wouldn’t stare at me. So even though a girl might not be forced by her parents in Egypt to wear a hijab, she might end up wearing it anyway (or at least wearing long sleeves/pants all the time in that summer heat) because if she doesn’t she will quite likely be harassed on the street. So while yes, hijab might be a choice for some, it’s kind of implicitly the only answer to a otherwise male-dominated society which can’t handle a woman’s hair or skin.

    January 15, 2013
    • Excellent point raised :D and yes, this article definitely sheds some light into issues…

      January 19, 2013
  25. Reblogged this on Fringe of the Ummah.

    January 19, 2013
  26. Reblogged this on SecretlyDivine.

    January 20, 2013
  27. Reblogged this on Matt Warrell.

    January 21, 2013
  28. Reblogged this on Reflections of a rising humanist and commented:
    Fascinating blog post written on the agency and autonomy of women, with references to the veil and the Delhi gang rape:

    January 27, 2013

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Can we talk about Islamophobia now please? | Not Dead Words
  2. Islam, Christianity & Feminism | Zainab Khawaja's Blog
  3. Surprises and 17th Century Knowledge | Smoke & Stir
  4. Deep Inside The Sluts | Intentious
  5. Can we talk about Islamophobia now please? | Orla-Jo's Not Dead
  6. Breathing Through The Veil | Zainab Khawaja's Blog

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