Skip to content

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. Very insightful post. Thank you Taylor. (And congrats on being Freshly Pressed!) I find it incredibly unfortunate that many people do not consider the wearing of the hijab as a decision by the wearer, and not one based on some oppressive, totalitarian culture.

    What should also be noted is Graff’s rhetoric. She presents to the “Western” reader (presumably her audience) “our” media’s version of hyperbolic feminine oppression: namely, that of the “Orient”. She then attempts to surprise us by stating that what we initially conceive of as “rape culture” (a far away phenomena that only happens in countries with blatant oppression of women) happens here as well–the liberated, feminist, neo-liberal West. By doing this she gives no credence to the fact that many women who wear the hijab do so for reasons other than there own sexual oppression–a fact that you illuminated quite well in your post.

    But what also occurs is that she defines our choices for the imaginings of “rape culture” for us: the repressive, conservative, fundamentalist Orient, or the neo-liberal, consumerist, multicultural West. Both the West and the Orient are absolutist representations of an ideal, or ideology, or framework, or culture, etc. But most certainly an entire peoples, which is exactly Graff’s mistake right from the start.

    Also, I’ve gotta be that guy. You should check out Duke Universities “Next Wave: New Directions in Women’s Studies” if you are interested in this topic. There are some amazing texts published through Duke: http://www.dukeupress.edu/Catalog/ProductList.php?viewby=series&id=37

    January 8, 2013
    • As a woman, I find myself agreeing completely with you. Over-the-top feminist rheteric is how I would describe Graff. She’s the type of women who dismisses accomplished women who don’t have an ax to grind with men as brain-dead idiots. No, they’re the ones who have let go of the past so they can enjoy their present and are usually married to men who enjoy their wives’ success while also expecting to be treated with the same respect they give. Feminists like Graff can’t accept a world where men and women are comfortable in their own skin and not at odds with one another. In her world, men are evil. In my world, men are just different and I celebrate that difference.

      January 8, 2013
    • Thanks for the recommendation; I will be sure to check out the Duke texts you recommended. Thanks for the comment!

      January 8, 2013
  2. Women in Western culture are subject body-shaming that is relentless and every bit as oppressive. Every media outlet — many magazines edited by women — focuses attention on our dress, body size and shape, skin and hair color, the length of our nails, the length of our skirts, the height of our heels. Women think it’s normal, even desirable, to inject poison — aka Botox “cosmetic” into their faces so their facial lines, the ones created by (you know) having and expressing emotion — are controlled or erased. This is not some fresh hell!?

    I laugh at these sorts of culture-warped value judgments. American women earn less than men, don’t have paid maternity leave and can be demoted or fired at will. Powerful? Really? By what measures are American women truly powerful, veiled or not?

    January 8, 2013
    • Well said, broadsideblog. Totally agree with you on that. I also feel that lots of young women in Western societies are under pressure to wear clothes that expose more of their bodies. At least I felt like that when I was a teenager and I hated it as I hated when peopled were looking at my body instead of looking in my eyes. I prefered more modest clothing, but other women were always putting me down and teasing me for that, saying something like “stop wearing those ugly things” including my own mother and other women in my family etc. They always called me ‘ugly’ for that.

      January 9, 2013
  3. I think it’s sad that we only look outside our own society for rape cultures. If anyone watches politics, or even just Law & Order: SVU, they’ll see we’re living in a rape culture all our own.

    January 8, 2013
  4. What a well-written post. Thank you for sharing and congratulations on being Freshly Pressed for it!

    January 8, 2013
  5. You make a good point about their being a “right” article of clothing to wear everywhere women are blamed for being raped–regardless of what it is, whether it’s a pair of running shoes or a burqa. I tend to find typical Western views of veil-wearing as just silly. Why do people outside a culture, who have very little contact with that culture, and who have never spoken with a member of that culture about that particular marker know what a marker of culture means? And why is it so important to think that we know when we don’t?

    January 8, 2013
  6. I really appreciated this blog post- it really bothers me when people automatically categorize the hijab or burka as oppressive, and talk about how we must “free the poor women” from wearing these garments..without thinking first that a woman might want to be wearing it. This kind of thinking demonstrates a cultural ignorance. Thanks for sharing!

    January 8, 2013
  7. I just recentlyl. reblogged a post from a feminist blogger on Tumblr. about feminism and racism in which I address similar issues to leaving out the voices of Minority and Third World Women. The example I used was female circumcision though, nicely written.

    January 8, 2013
  8. Thank you for providing a different perspective on rape culture and remind us of the largely ignored attitudes towards women in our own society. Sexual trafficking and rape is actually still very prominent in the U.S., but because of our ignorance and desire to point to others, many are unaware of this fact.I think it’s time to reexamine our own issues in our country before criticizing and stereotyping others. Thanks again for sharing!

    January 8, 2013
    • How right you are! There is actually a very public case in my area right now (you might be familiar with it, the Stuebenville, OH case of a teenage girl being raped by two H.S. football players). Ironically, and sadly, the larger questions from the immediate public have not involved the motives of the suspects. Instead, the questions, as many do in American (and I assume Western) culture, involve the vicitm. What was she wearing? How was she “behaving”? And, for god’s sake, what was such a young girl doing at a “senior” party?
      The way this case is publicized (and the fact that the young girl, traumatized enough already if her allegations are correct, is receiving death threats for possibly ruining the team’s chances at a championship!) is demoralizing for rape victims of either sex, embarrassing for society (men in general), and an atrocious way to treat what is a legitimate problem in this nation.
      The last time I checked, books on etiquette — the proper female behavior — finished appearing on shelves in the 50s or 60s — though much can be said about the sex appeal portrayed by Cosmo, Vogue, and other “15 Ways to Please Your Man” magazines.
      The larger question here is: in a largely patriarchal society where men still generally “make the rules,” how can we overcome the social norm that women are “asking for it?” Or, to be more specific, how can we get men to genuinely believe that a sexual relationship with a woman is a privilege, and something that must be earned through respect, mutual consent, and an understanding that women are not, for lack of a better term, Ken’s best friend?

      January 8, 2013
      • In response to your question, I personally believe that the best way for our society to teach men to believe that their relationships with women are a privilege is to restore the sanctity of the marriage relationship.

        January 9, 2013
  9. Great post!

    January 8, 2013
  10. Matthew Chiglinsky #

    What’s wrong with slut shaming as long as it’s not sexist? Sex is a bad idea, and people who advertise sex corrupt us all.

    I used to watch porn. It’s not healthy. Whenever I see a woman in revealing clothing, I’m tempted to watch again. Don’t pretend like a sexually loose culture is better than a sexually repressed one. True spirituality is what’s missing from both of them.

    January 8, 2013
    • Melissa #

      So you are saying it is OK to shame and chastise people who “tempt” you? The general populace of the world around you needs to modify their choices and behavior because it may be a trigger for your personal weaknesses?
      Have you ever considered that maybe your inability to resist temptation and personal choices regarding pornography are your own and the world does not owe you anything?

      January 9, 2013
  11. Matthew Chiglinsky #

    It’s not just women who should cover up. Men shouldn’t wear revealing clothing either. A guy who has his shirt open to reveal his chest hair is tempting women just as much as a woman might tempt a man.

    January 8, 2013
  12. Wonderful post, I agree with it very much.
    A few years ago they were discussing an outright ban on burqas, it was ridiculous.

    January 8, 2013
  13. Mahfooz #

    Some very credible arguments. One thing we must also explore is the role of the media in oppressing women, both directly and indirectly. They play a significant role in demonising and alienating people of the “Orient”. The tone with which many media outlets covered the case of gang-rape in India is a perfect example of this.

    Emer O’Toole wrote in the Guardian about this, and how the average person takes exactly what the media spoon-feeds them – http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/jan/01/delhi-rape-damini

    January 8, 2013
  14. Rape culture, female disenfranchisement, and female empowerment are not solely played out in the artefacts we choose to represent ourselves. While it may be easy to use the choice in clothing (and non-clothing), cosmetics, accessories and such as markers of societal beliefs and practices, we sometimes forget the individual who comprises of that society. It is the individuals who built the institution and the values they promulgate. Wearing the burqa doesn’t necessarily mean female oppression; wearing the bikini doesn’t necessary mean female liberation. Fashion choices are individual freedoms, influenced by social mores. It is my personal choice to view my clothes as symbols of my individual and feminine power.

    January 8, 2013
  15. Very well articulated! What bothers me is the way in which Western people or governments target wearing the veil as injustice; whereas, they should focus on issues of violence or loss of personal freedom. Banning the burqa in government buildings, for example, means that a subset of women don’t have the same access to services as everyone else. That is injustice!

    January 8, 2013
    • Exactly. If you’re interested I wrote about France’s veil ban in public spaces when the law was passed in 2010: http://bit.ly/UzPRFf
      Thanks for the comment!

      January 8, 2013
  16. Opression is live and “unwell” in the US.

    January 8, 2013
  17. K. C. Mead #

    This was an incredibly written blog — so succinct and eloquent. Thank you for sharing your thoughts — I am greatly looking forward to your next post.

    January 8, 2013
  18. Very insightful and well written. Thank you!

    January 8, 2013
  19. Really thought provoking and articulate post. I’ve begun a few writings on a similar topic myself so am pleased to see that there are others, like yourself and your commenters here, who are onto the way society/societies deceive themselves on this point. And we’re not talking about minority group discrimation…women are half the population of the world. Thank you for giving me more food for thought … and the inspiration to go ahead and finish and post my own writings over the next few days. (I have been slammed on a previous blog, no longer active, for daring such thoughts. The slamming came from Western men, by the way…no surprises there! ) It’s high time consciousness was raised on this overwhelming world problem. Thank you for your contribution. Love and light.

    January 8, 2013
  20. I’m a big believer that discourse itself can be a powerful tool of oppression. Thank you for posting this.

    January 8, 2013
  21. Reblogged this on shell108op.

    January 8, 2013
  22. Spot on. You can read my piece too. http://thedayisgreen.wordpress.com/2012/02/27/not-in-a-piece-of-cloth/

    January 8, 2013
  23. Reblogged this on xOXo.

    January 8, 2013
  24. As others have said, very insightful post. I agree with Graff that ‘rape culture’ is everywhere women are forced to behave a certain way so as to curtail their likelihood of being victimized.

    You make an important point about the West being quick to say “them, not us,” but I think the best point may be in the image halfway through the post. Wherever we are in the world, women (and men) can only choose anything freely if they’re educated. Definitions of “educated” will vary, of course, and here’s my own cultural imperialism peeking through the veil: societies must liberalize in the classic sense before they can be free in any sense.

    January 8, 2013
  25. You got me with this post. I’m a Muslim woman who doesn’t wear the hijab; I’m not proud of it nor am I ashamed. But I what I am proud of is that my Muslim parents understand and allow their daughters to make the decisions themselves, the decision to wear the hijab, and the reason behind wanting to wear it. Somewhat like a personal calling. They do believe in modesty and I don’t wear sleeveless tops and anything that ends above the knee but that’s because I share their views on modesty, even if not for the sake of Islam. Every Muslim lady is an individual and each can have their own reasons for covering up, so I’m really glad for your last few lines.

    January 8, 2013
  26. Very good post. Thanks for sharing it. Loved the image used with this post. Can’t understand why some Western feminists are getting so obsessed with the freedom to ‘uncover’ their bodies and are trying to impose that on other cultures without understanding of environment that other cultures evolved in and without understanding the complexities around issues of violence. I had a post published on that yesterday at http://otrazhenie.wordpress.com/2013/01/08/fighting-misogyny-and-misandry-with-positive-empowerment/ I also published a brief post on the Indian story, mention in your post: http://otrazhenie.wordpress.com/2013/01/06/say-no-to-violence/

    Glad that I cam across such a like-minded blogger as you are 🙂

    January 8, 2013
  27. Great post .Good read

    January 8, 2013
  28. Thanks for posting this, I found it very insightful.

    January 8, 2013
  29. A reblogué ceci sur Per♥le and commented:
    Add your thoughts here… (optional)

    January 9, 2013
  30. Reblogged this on rainszettira.

    January 9, 2013
  31. Reblogged this on GoodOleWoody's Blog and Website.

    January 9, 2013
  32. Loved the article~

    January 9, 2013
  33. very insightful and etches out the true dismal picture…very well written…way to go!!!

    January 9, 2013
  34. Nancy #

    Reblogged this on Sorrows To Joy and commented:
    Amen!!! This is an awesome statement! Thank you~

    January 9, 2013
  35. Excellent post!

    January 9, 2013
  36. Reblogged this on doro1k1z and commented:
    A great insightful piece!!!

    January 9, 2013
  37. Well said! I quite agree, if one want to help depressed women it should be quite enought to forbid the forcing of wearing surtain clothes, for example a veil. Once one forbid the acctual veil, one becomes one of “the depressing”. As little as you should be aloud to make someone waere a veil as little should you be aloud to forbid her to wear it, it should be every persons own choice!

    January 9, 2013
  38. Sadiyya Absalom #

    Thank you for the great post Taylor! I am a married muslim woman living in South Africa. And I choose not to adorn the hijab as yet. This is not something that my husband would force me to do. I understand the the religious aspect of the hijab, and will wear it when I am ready to submit myself to the Almighty. It’s is ridiclous that people from first world countries still believe that islamic attire is oppressive.

    January 9, 2013
  39. Sadiyya Absalom #

    Reblogged this on My World In Colour and commented:
    Great post by Taylor Marvin

    January 9, 2013
  40. Reblogged this on Ajoobacats Blog.

    January 9, 2013
  41. Reblogged this thought provoking post. Thank you

    January 9, 2013
  42. I couldn’t agree more. Being an Asian and having spent long enough in both Sri Lanka and India, I’m only too aware of society’s quiet acceptance that if anything untoward happens to a woman, it’s her responsibility by default.

    I’m not overtly familiar about Western attitudes in this regard but your piece achieves a commendable comparison of the similarities between the two cultures when it comes to the rape blame-game.

    Great post. Very well written!

    January 9, 2013
  43. Reblogged this on LenaX.

    January 9, 2013
  44. Reblogged this on nobeebernal.

    January 9, 2013
  45. northernmalewhite #

    excellent yes. thanks.

    January 9, 2013
  46. Very insightful piece, as more of an anti feminist I find these sorts of posts to always be interesting as well as often times pleasantly surprising myself with how similar views can be; almost like the Party platforms in the ’80s { to the non – Americans or Americans that are too young to understand I apologize}. I look forward to reading more of your work in the future.

    January 9, 2013
  47. This was excellently written. Honestly, for some reason I hadn’t thought of the burqa in this manner, and appreciate the perspective. Congratulations on Freshly Pressed. You bring up very good points in a concise, clear manner.

    January 9, 2013
  48. Most religions and societies are patriarchal – so no wonder the belief system is gender biased. Having grown up around a few traditional societies, the core issue I see is inability of the religious mind to come in line with the current times. In the 21st century, religion in many societies seriously hampers intellectual and professional growth of women. I disagree with the comment in the article that some women may wear the hijab by choice. It is not our business to decide whether they wear the hijab by choice or not – it is our business to ensure that the environment around them is conducive enough (no religious police) to allow them to make the decision on their own. The West has its issues related to gender parity and these have to be resolved, but that does not justify fundamentalism against women in the Eastern and Islamic societies. Religious edicts belong to the medieval times and have to be re-evaluated within the environment in the 21st century.

    January 9, 2013
  49. A reblogué ceci sur chibiroua and commented:
    very well written Article

    January 9, 2013

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Can we talk about Islamophobia now please? | Not Dead Words

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: