There are certain topics that are incredibly uncomfortable for me, as a feminist, to address. Muslim women’s attire is one of them. When I was asked to write a piece on French rapper Diam’s conversion to Islam and recent public TV appearance sporting the hijab, I was worried. What could I, as a Western non-Muslim woman, have to offer? But then I realized that modesty, sexuality and objectification are issues women of all faiths and cultures have to deal with.
Before 9/11, the West knew little of Islam. Americans especially seemed to view it as a quaint old religion existing somewhere in faraway lands. We imagined its male followers donning turbans and looking like Alibaba and its women as mysterious ninjas or sexy harem girls. The ancient religion and its followers seemed harmless and almost romantic. Our views have since changed.
Westerners have become obsessed and fearful of Islam and its followers. Nothing represents our fear more than a Muslim woman covered in the veil. France in particular has cracked down on Muslim women’s attire. In April 2011, it banned both the burqa and nijab calling them "a new form of enslavement that the republic cannot accept on its soil." If a woman is caught wearing one in public, the offense could cost her a year in prison or a €15,000 ($19,000) fine. Although French rapper Diam was wearing only a hijab or head/neck scarf when she made her public appearance, her decision is still a brave one.
“I see it as a divine order or a divine advice, this brings joy to my heart and for me this is enough,” she said in an interview with French TV station TF1.
The reasons why Muslim women choose to wear the headscarf or nijab are many. Some feel protected and empowered while others feel it is their duty to God. As mechanical engineer Hebah Ahmed points out in her interview with former CNN anchor Eliot Spitzer, for some women covering up is empowering:
“I want people to know that when I choose to cover this way it is because I am fighting against a systematic oppression against women in which women’s bodies are being sexualized and objectified.
This is a different perspective and a different form of empowerment in which I think when I am in public, my sexuality is in my control and people have to deal with my brain and who I really am and not judge me by my body.”
As much as I hate to admit it, Ahmed’s words ring true. As a former cocktail server and bartender at a Hooter’s-like establishment, my body was the source of constant disrespect and harassment. I’d pretend it didn’t bother me, but at the end of the day all I wanted to do was cover up.
The Quran does not actually command women to cover their faces. It does, however, tell them to “draw their khimar (veils) over their bosoms and not display their zeenah (beauty, charm) except to their husbands.” Likewise, it commands Muslim men to “lower their gaze and guard their modesty.” (24:31-32)
Besides sexual purity and keeping men from temptation, the veil seems to have another important purpose in the Quran and that is to protect women from harassment.
The reason the Quran tells women to cover up is the same reason the Bible tells women to be modest and cover their heads. Religions, like all patriarchal ideologies, are concerned and almost obsessed with women’s bodies and sexuality. Whether it is to protect the woman from molestation or the man from temptation, the woman’s attire seems to be both the problem and solution. Perhaps that is the problem.