Late Comment on Hijaab

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I just came from a community cinema event in Philadelphia for an independent film called “Arusi Persian Wedding” directed by Marjan Tehrani. It’s a really beautiful film that follows an Iranian-American and his American wife who travel to Iran and have a traditional Persian wedding. I was not only in awe of how incredibly beautiful Iran is, but also at how I found myself relating to it. The Iranian-American expresses his pride for his Iranian roots, but also feels a distance because of his inability to fully understand the culture and language. It reminded me about how I sometimes struggle with finding my ethnic identity, no matter how much I’m proud of it.

After the screening, there was a guest panel that led an interesting discussion about the film and then took questions from the audience. My friend got a chance to chime in with a great question, while I decided to sit back and listen. I didn’t feel like I had much to contribute to the conversation since the event seemed to aim at breaking stereotypes about Iran, its people, and its culture. Although one of the panelists spoke very highly of her experience as a White woman in Iran, she admitted that “initially, I was frightened, as a feminist, when I learned I had to wear the veil…”

When I got home tonight, her words replayed in my mind over and over again. I really should have gotten up and said something, even though I just wanted to make a small comment. I think I’ll e-mail her after I write this, but what I wanted to point out is that it’s very important for us to not make an association between oppression and the hijaab, or veil. Her comment seemed to implicate that someone who wears the hijaab could not also be a feminist (I would have asked her to correct me if I was wrong). I’m sure this is not what she meant, but I believe it would have been important for one of the panelists to mention that forcing someone to dress a certain way is very different from someone choosing to dress a certain way. There are plenty of Muslim women in other parts of the world, especially in the West, who wear hijaab by choice; therefore it would be very inaccurate to say that Muslim women who wear hijaab cannot be feminists. I’m glad one of the Iranian panelists said that Iranian women still drive, work, and go to school, contrary to the stereotypes and misconceptions that they’re “so oppressed.”

The other thing I should have commented on was on their usage of the word “Islam” whenever discussing the “Islamic Revolution” in 1979 and the current “Islamic Laws.” The Qur’an clearly states that religion cannot be imposed on people. Doesn’t Allah teach us to use our logic and reasoning? What is so logical about forcing someone to believe a certain way? The true spiritual essence and beauty gets lost when someone is being forced to practice a religion. Spirituality and Faith is personal; it must be felt within. Reciting the Shahada (Islamic declaration of Faith) is simple, while believing in it is something deeper and entirely different altogether.

Later, someone asked a question about whether or not these were the dress codes for Muslim women in all Islamic countries, and one of two Iranian panelists said, “I’m not sure, but I would say ‘yes,’ they are universal.” A friend and I spoke about this later after the discussion and both agreed that we felt a strong anti-Islam vibe from her. I was glad that the other Iranian panelist jumped in and explained that these are not universal dress codes in Islamic countries since most Muslim countries don’t force women to wear hijaab or the burqah.

Anyway, my main point is that the hijaab should not be associated with oppression, and Muslim women who wear it shouldn’t be so quickly judged. Just because some feminists are not familiar with certain manners of dress doesn’t mean that it’s not compatible with feminism. I think it’s important for feminists to understand that feminist thought is very diverse rather than being limited to one group of people, one culture, and one skin color.

Peace

~Broken Mystic~

(Photo credit: davidChief via creative commons)

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9 Comments

  1. wolfshowl said,

    February 27, 2009 at 6:23 pm

    I’m sure many western women (myself included) are aware that wearing hijaab is a choice many Muslim women willfully make. However, the reasoning behind wearing it is what is offensive: “because Allah said to” [erm, ok] “because men find women’s hair to be a huge turn-on” [yes, and I find men's noses to be a huge turn-on, I don't expect that a good man will then decide to cover up his nose out of some sort of self-preservation or deference to me]. Women’s bodies, people’s bodies, are a beautiful thing. Covering up your body is to deny your physicality, to not embrace it.

  2. February 27, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    I’ve thought about the association between the hijaab, oppression and religion too. I’m quite ambivalent about it, and here’re my random thoughts:

    1. in eastern europe, older women and women in rural areas often wear a scarf covering their head. it has religious (or rather, it used to have) connotations, as married women ‘had to’ cover their head in public or in church, but these connotations faded away (well, more or less). nobody would think of labeling them as ‘oppressed’ because of the scarf. yet, at the same time, they do something because this is the mainstream norm. it’s a choice, but a choice informed by a tradition, even if it may appear rationalized in different ways (in everyday life, they might they’re cold, or that they feel more comfy or protected with a scarf on).

    to complicate things even more, there’s definitely a class and an urban/rural dimension here: it would be an exception to meet an urban woman (from any class) wearing a scarf. i’ve been told this class and urban/rural perspective is also present in places like Turkey or Egypt.

    2. although women may make a choice, the link between hijaab, religion and power relations cannot be ignored. the hijaab is political at all times (not because it has some inner political qualities, but because it has been made so). now, it may be more political for the Western gaze. but I am sure it is political for atheists feminists living in non-Western environments. and probably it is political for religious feminists who oppose patriarchal structures, but not religious precepts. complicated, i’d say.

    for someone like myself, raised within a Western worldview, the hijaab has been translated as a matter of choice (and even more, of patriarchal religions). the way Westerners read the hijaab is within the ‘freedom of choice’ paradigm, with an add-on of feminism. from other worldviews, i’m sure the hijaab has different readings.

  3. Sammer Z. said,

    February 28, 2009 at 12:02 am

    I can say I relate to you and the Irani-American in the video- bring proud of my ethnic heritage but still clashing with it at times because I don’t fully understand or embrace it. I found myself angrily saying, I hate brown people, when a friend reminded me…your kids are gonna be brown too, ya know?

    Anyhow, its an interesting question and I hope you do contact that woman- hijabis can be and are feminists. I’m on a whole panel of them at muslimahsource.org. We don’t take the bra-burning and abstinence from shaving stance on things, but we are firmly and adamantly for women’s rights, respect and dignity. The fact that we believe our religion grants this to us, doesn’t mean we are less committed to it…in fact we are even more so. We don’t expect men to grant us this or to fight them for it, God has already given it to us.

    wolfshowl, I’m glad you can see the hijab as a choice. However, I’d have to disagree with the simplistic reasoning of “men find hair attractive.” You’re right with the because “God said so,” part. As our committment to Him, when He says so, we believe in His wisdom after creating us, and His infinite justice, it is an action showing our faith and trust in Him and His judgement.

    I embrace my physicality and I don’t believe covering it up makes it less beautiful. Covering it up makes it more exclusively enjoyed. ;)

  4. brokenmystic said,

    February 28, 2009 at 12:14 am

    Thanks for your comments, everyone. I wrote this comment earlier this morning but didn’t get a chance to finish it because I was a rush to leave the house. Anyway, here it is:

    Wolfshowl: With all due respect, I believe you’re generalizing about Muslim women who wear the hijaab. I also think your comments are quite condescending, especially when you seem to be making a mockery of responses that some Muslim women may or may not have said. But this comes to no surprise to me since I’ve noticed that some Western feminists are peculiarly antagonistic towards Muslim feminists (I even had to write a blog post about it, just click on “Feminism” on the left side bar). It’s strange because I’ve always felt that feminists were about creating more understanding and dispelling stereotypes, but when I hear some of them try to dictate how women should dress (particularly Muslim women), then I find that very contradictory to what feminism is all about.

    It is important for feminists to be competent in multiculturalism, otherwise stereotypical and ignorant remarks will persist. No one can point to a Muslim woman who wears hijaab and say that is she is being oppressed. The hijaab itself does not oppress anyone. The *act* of *forcing* someone to wear it is oppression. And the prevailing stereotype is that the hijaab is what oppresses people; it’s not the other way around, otherwise there would no reason to speak out about it.

    All these questions and stereotypes about the veil are a result of two things: (1) Orientalism, and (2) the Western Gaze. When you turn on the news, look at Times Magazine article, or even just look at the book overs in the Islamic section, you’ll see an obsession with portraying women in headscarves and face veils. As a Muslim feminist, Asra Nomani, once wrote in her article, “Why Do Western Publishers Have a Veil Fetish,” these images paint a very limited picture of Muslims, Islam, and Muslim countries.

    The reality is that you will only see women required to wear hijaab in Iran, and required to wear the burqah in Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. The majority of Muslim countries don’t require women to dress in this manner. If you go to Pakistan, for example, you’ll see women either wearing hijaab or not.

    These Orientalist depictions of Muslim women perpetuate the stereotypes and misconceptions; so much so that we immediately associate the hijaab with oppression. This is where the Western Gaze comes into play — we react with a certain set of ideas and perceptions whenever we see the hijaab. Unfortunately, the Western Gaze also sees whatever it wants to see.

    Anyway, bottom line here is that feminism is not limited to one group of people, one culture, one race, etc. Muslim feminists are diverse themselves; some wear hijaab and some don’t, but we should never make judgments about them being “oppressed.” You cannot impose Western feminism on all women, especially when they’re people of color. You cannot judge another woman just because she dresses in a different way than you, or believes in something that you don’t agree with. So instead of saying what they “should” do, I think it’s important to try to understand them better from their own point of view. After all, that’s why we have dialogue, right? So that we can understand each other better.

  5. brokenmystic said,

    February 28, 2009 at 12:26 am

    Sammer Z.,

    Thank you for your comment! I’m really glad you shared your thoughts here :) The film is really beautiful. I don’t know if you can watch some clips of it online, but if you ever get a chance, it’s worth watching. I embrace my Pakistani roots, I’m not really “anti-culture” because I believe culture is not rigid, but rather flexible and adaptive. There are certain cultural practices that I abhor, but there are positive aspects as well, and I think a lot of people overlook those. Anyway, I could go on for hours about this, lol.

    I guess most of it is due to the fact that I grew up in a predominately White conservative suburban town and I never had a close Muslim friend until I went to college! There were hardly any Desi or Muslim people in my area, so when I started going to college, I became more conscious of how distant I was from my community.

    I think Muslim feminists are working very hard to get their voices out there and unfortunately, we don’t hear enough about them in mainstream discourses. I took a “Psychology of Gender” class last semester, and although everyone was really open-minded, they had a very limited and stereotypical understanding of Muslim women. It’s important for people to break those associations between the hijaab and oppression. Even in Iran, the media sensationalizes the fact that women are required to wear hijaab; so much so that we ignore the fact that women can drive, work, and go to school. And the majority of people who attend college in Iran are women too! Anyway, thanks again for your comments. I hope people visit your link too :)

  6. brookeakaummbadier said,

    February 28, 2009 at 8:21 pm

    Because the white-American-feminist chose to go to Iran knowing the dress code that would entail, than she has made a mighty privileged choice to wear the scarf. Of course I believe there is no compulsion in religion, and I recognize that many women who may not choose to wear hijab are stuck in countries where they do not have a choice. But when women who can readily fly in and out of borders come anywhere close to calling themselves oppressed–no, no, no!
    Love and Peace

  7. brokenmystic said,

    March 1, 2009 at 8:33 am

    brookeakaummbadier: “Of course I believe there is no compulsion in religion, and I recognize that many women who may not choose to wear hijab are stuck in countries where they do not have a choice. But when women who can readily fly in and out of borders come anywhere close to calling themselves oppressed–no, no, no!”

    Great point! I heartily agree :)

  8. Tracey said,

    March 1, 2009 at 9:41 pm

    First off, I read your “300” critique on Racialicious. Excellence and beyond.

    The as a feminist quote is bothersome. While I do think it is wrong women are forced to wear the hijab in Iran, I do not think there is anything anti-feminist about wearing the hijab. She doesn’t frame it a manner of choice/no-choice but of feminism/patriarchy. This especially annoys me when feminist groups don’t stand up for the rights of women to wear the hijab if they choose. For instance France. It’s also kinda ironic that they use the argument “Women shouldn’t be allowed to wear hijabs at school b/c it is forced on them” and counter with “we should force them not to be able too wear hijabs at school.” There are so many assumptions made about wearers of the hijab in the name of feminism. Feminism has often been criticized for marginalization of non-middle/upper class white women, I think this is a continuation of that.

  9. RaiulBaztepo said,

    March 28, 2009 at 11:53 pm

    Hello!
    Very Interesting post! Thank you for such interesting resource!
    PS: Sorry for my bad english, I’v just started to learn this language ;)
    See you!
    Your, Raiul Baztepo


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