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.
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.