The Freedom to Wear a Hijab

This is kind of a random topic given the usual theme of the blog, but I thought it would be interesting to write about.  It is also slightly more personal.  My inspiration comes from an engaging conversation I was having with my Muslim-American, fellow Pakistani-American friend, who personally chose to don the hijab as part of her religious practice.  She was telling me that the most patronizing attitudes she experienced were from Westerners – specifically both white men and women – who seemed to assume that she was, in her words, “like an oppressed, uneducated Muslim woman.”

I admit that I, too, once had Western-centric views about the hijab, despite being born into a Muslim family.  I denounced religion around the same time my friend chose to wear the hijab.  I thought that the hijab was an inherently oppressive cultural practice in Muslim societies, and just another aspect of what was wrong with organized religion (my view.)  However, my own hang-ups about religion aside, I realized what was wrong with this thinking when my friend brought up this observation.

When thinking about the agency of Muslim women – a popular discussion topic in mainstream media and cultural dialogue, the hijab automatically becomes central to this discussion.  However, it is not as simple as: hijab = oppression; hair = freedom.  It is about what wearing a hijab means for the woman.

Hijabi women in Western countries are generally not that different from any of the other women in those countries.  They go to school/university, drive, work, and a lot of them have professional careers.  (My said friend is currently in medical school.)  They also go to the movies, go to the grocery store, and go on dates.  I know many in my community who have very egalitarian marriages and family lives.  Unlike, say, the women who live in Saudi Arabia, these women whole-heartedly choose to don the hijab as integral to their religious practice.

Ironically, given a lot of Western feminist issues regarding the sexual objectification of women and scrutiny of female bodies, women who choose to cover and dress modestly may actually be exercising more agency.  Of course, you don’t have to wear a hijab to dress modestly.  But from what I hear, this is part of the pride with which a lot of Muslim-American women wear the hijab.  They refuse to take part in the race to flaunt their figures and peacock for men.  They want to be in control of their own sexuality.  On the other hand, for women in Saudi Arabia, freedom would be equivalent to the freedom to show their hair.  Women keep covered, but don’t necessarily have the sexual agency to the extent that Muslim women in the U.S. can enjoy.  What matters is whether women are doing the choosing, and making their own sexual decisions.

Objectification is rife everywhere

I’m going to deviate a little, but try to shed light on a bigger problem: women – no matter their cultural background or sexual decisions – tend to be commodified.  In the U.S. and some other Western cultures, non-white women are fetishized as exotic fantasies, such as the submissive Asian woman and the Middle-Eastern belly-dancer.  Now, let’s travel over to the South-Asian and Middle-Eastern regions.  There is a disturbing trend among some attitudes regarding white women in these countries.  It is, in fact, reverse-Orientalism.  Knowing that Western cultures tend to be more open about sexual practices compared to the strict standards in countries like Pakistan, white women are also fetishized.  A lot of men, who are already raised largely separate from the female demographic, are quick to label them as “more slutty than our women.”  While shaming women in their own cultures if they deviate from the standards, they are more than ready to exploit white women for their sexual desires.  One of the most obvious ways this is apparent is in the way white women are currently featured in Bollywood movies.

Ridiculous double standards of white and non-white women – whatever they happen to be – have something in common: they are exploited for the male gaze in mainstream culture.  Women’s personal decisions about their body – whether they choose to be modest or be sexually liberal, are always under scrutiny, and ready for exploitation.  A woman may choose to have multiple partners, or cover her hair, but these characteristics are not all that define the woman.

I have come to realize that even well-meaning women, such as myself, have (or had) weird cultural attitudes about the hijab and other Muslim practices.  In the current scrutiny of a lot of Middle-Eastern political regimes, we had thrown a lot of Muslim women under the bus – those who go about life making their own, dignified choices, and have forgotten to respect their exercise of agency.  All cultures are very nuanced, and there is no one Muslim culture from which the women need to be saved.

Real Women Have Lives

Recently, I came across an interesting blog article titled, “Hey, Not All Real Women Have Curves”, to which I say: true dat.

Of course, this resonated with me because I, too, am of the tall, lanky variety.  While I am thankful for the activism that has come into full force against the prevalence of starving models and unattainable beauty standards, I am sick of the crap that came with it: “Real women have curves” (So I’m imaginary??), “Eat a cheeseburger” (What if I’m a vegetarian/pescatarian/Hindu?), “Get off the scale!” (Who are you???), and “There is nothing sexy about toothpick legs.” (Ouch…)

Now, I’m not saying that thin women have it harder than not-so-thin women.  It’s just that we don’t really get a pass on the flippant body-snarking, either.  People think that I work out/eat fruits and salad and nutritious meals because I am constantly watching calories – not because doing these things actually make me feel good.  I don’t diet or count calories because I never had to.  I exercise because it reduces anxiety and releases endorphins.  I eat nutritious stuff with antioxidants to protect my immune system and be less vulnerable to the cold/flu.  Also, my dietary choices are none of your damn business!  I am also tired of too many people telling me that my inherited body type should determine my career path. 

Nowadays, I see a lot of headlines like, “I’m bigger than a size 6 and still feel confident enough to model in a bikini!” as celebrations of female empowerment.  While women of any size should definitely feel comfortable to wear whatever the hell they want, we are still, at the end of the day, much more than our body shapes.  Mainstream feminism has become whittled down to “Dove” feminism: advocacy for expensive designers to just continue making more clothes; inclusion in beauty pageants; and celebrating pears, apples, hourglasses, and tubes without realizing that we are identifying ourselves as pears, apples, hourglasses, and tubes!

When a guy says that he would rather bang an hourglass than a skeleton any day, what are we celebrating, exactly?  Objectification of a greater diversity of women?  Maybe that is a small improvement in the realm of South-Beach hook-ups, but this is some warped feminism, if you ask me.  Our lives are more than just what shape we are.  We have interests, hobbies, goals, loves, memories, a variety of experiences, and our own, individual sense of purpose.  I think it is some people’s inability to realize this about women that leads to objectification in the first place.

A giant leap for womenkind, or just Dove feminism? Tell me what you think!

However, I am not saying that we should halt the celebrations of physique-diversity that are going on.  This became necessary because the world got to the point where mainstream movies and TV shows stopped featuring protagonists above a size 2, and when they did, it was in a “look how tolerant we are!” kind of way.  I shouldn’t automatically be considered privileged because I was born thin, and media productions shouldn’t have to feature >size 6 figures in a conspicuous, apologetic manner.  The point is, focusing too much on body type just perpetuates female obsession with their appearance, and doesn’t do much for feminism in the long run.  It is an obsession that is also very easy for commercial industries to exploit (hence ‘Dove feminism’.)  The mainstream discussions about weight nowadays makes everyone – thin, fat, and anything in between – hyper-aware of their figures, and that can’t be too healthy.  There is much more to life, and it’s about time we focus on bigger and better things.

Strongly Recommended Awesome Article You Should Read: Hey Dove, Don’t ‘Redefine’ Beauty, Just Stop Talking About It

Reverse Sexism vs. Things That Just Suck

So a common concern among the feminist community is that some of us, when trying to denounce sexism, end up practicing it by simply denouncing things that are traditionally feminine (for example, wearing dresses, or being sensitive.)  I think this is a valid point in a lot of cases.  While I don’t believe in gendering character traits, I believe we should embrace what are usually considered feminine (nurturing, empathetic, peaceful) along with strength, independence, and intelligence.  However, there are a couple of “traditionally feminine” things that I never spare in my feminist criticisms:

1.) Over-emphasis on fashion/shopping/make-up as a sub-culture for females.

There is nothing wrong with grooming and taking care of one’s appearance.  Both women and men do it.  However, you will never see a film or TV show featuring a male character who worships his hair-gel or shoe collection.  However, there are countless chick flicks, TV shows, and of course, advertisements, targeted at women that center on fashion, clothes, and looks-based products.  We have two levels of this.  First, we have a bunch of films and shows for female audiences whose main themes are fashion: Sex and the City, Gossip Girl, Legally Blonde, Confessions of a Shopaholic, Pretty Woman, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Clueless, Mean Girls, 27 Dresses, 13 Going on 30, She’s All That, Bride Wars…*stops for breath.*  Then, we have the rest of media made for women where most of the female characters (not necessarily the protagonist) – without a doubt – love shopping, and are hyper-aware of their fashion-brand and beauty product choices (any Disney Channel/Nickelodeon sitcom, HBO sitcom, ABC drama, anything starring the latest teen celeb, Julia Roberts, etc.)

Let me get the obvious justifications out of the way:

(i) What’s witda hate?!  A lil’ bi’o’ fashion never hurt anyone!

and (ii) But there ARE women who actively and voluntarily take part in this sub-culture.  Movie industries are just catering to the existing culture.

To which I answer (to myself):

(i) A LIL’ fashion never hurt anyone, but Hollywood blows it out of proportion.  Obviously, there are pragmatic reasons for this, coughcough*productplacement*coughcough*advertisementrevenues*cough.  But what are its implications?  We are sending the message to girls (especially young girls) that they should care way too much about superficial, shallow, and materialistic things like their engagement ring, purse, or lipstick brand.  One cruel aspect of our mainstream culture is that on one hand, we aggressively market fashion and beauty products to women, and then turn around and mock them for being shallow, shoe-obsessed bimbos.  If people really wanted to see young women evolve to care about substantial things, then they would market themes like character-development, compassion, social-consciousness, healthy relationships, ambition, hard-work, intelligence, and the like.  But instead, we get a slew of reality TV crap and films like Bad Teacher (a film about a gold-digging drugged up idiot) over and over again!  I can assure you that little girls will not be learning anything worthwhile (from their T.V.)

This should definitely go without saying, but for a lot of women, there is much, much more to life than clothes and hats.  Yes, seriously.  Making the majority of female characters in entertainment media all about fashion and materialism is astronomically offensive, and insulting.

and (ii) Yes, shopping-obsessed, materialistic women exist in real-life.  However, the proportion of the real-life females they represent do not even amount to the proportion of shopping-obsessed, materialistic female characters in mainstream media – which is almost ALL of them!  I personally do not know a single woman who is obsessed to the point of worship with Gucci brand shoes/purses.  Even for the girls I know who ARE fashion-conscious, they are still not as obsessed as their counterparts are portrayed in media, and they are still concerned with issues other than fashion.  On top of that, we also have to consider how many women become fashion-conscious as a result of the influence of the media they consume.  Like I mentioned, if we really want girls to develop values other than materialism, then we need to move past this dominant theme in movies and television shows.

*Note: I primarily focus on movies and television in my discussion, but I also spit on the women’s/fashion-magazine industry, i.e. Cosmopolitan, Seventeen, Glamour, etc. 

**Yet another note: I respect fashion/fashion design as a creative/artistic pursuit.  However, this is not the way they are usually portrayed in the films mentioned above.  Most of the time, it is just about the woman being overly-conscious of her appearance and spending a reckless amount of money.

2.) Romantic comedies/chick-flicks

First of all, I will get a caveat out of the way: there ARE some (SOME) chick-flicks that feature empowering female role models.  Or at least have some elements of them.  Also, no I am not a cold-hearted, bitter robot who hates romance.  I love romance!  But here is the thing about romantic comedies:

A typical romantic comedy features romance between a heterosexual couple (aka, between a man and a woman.)  This means the central characters in a romcom are a WOMAN AND a MAN.  I want to paraphrase a quote from the documentary “Miss Representation” that says it best: Movies for male audiences revolve around men; and movies for female audiences also tend to revolve around men.  This statement perfectly explains why there is a problem with the fact that romantic comedies are synonymous with ‘women’s entertainment’ and ‘chick flicks’.  In addition, I feel that romcoms promote romance in the worst, most superficial way possible – but that is for an entirely separate blogpost.

When I was younger, I thoroughly enjoyed a lot of the films aimed at kids.  I got to enjoy films like Matilda, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Mulan, and the Harry Potter films – all of which have inspiring female characters.  The fun in watching movies ended when I entered high school, and I had to transition to more “mature” films such as  Pretty Woman and Sex and the City.  There ended all the adventures, magic, and action and mystery I got to enjoy with my childhood fictional friends.  In came the excessive self-consciousness with looks and unpleasant romantic drama.  I say, it is about time we reintroduce other themes into ‘women’s entertainment’.  Romance is a big part of life, but it definitely isn’t the only part of life.  And it is definitely more than kissing in the rain, sappy dialogue, and flowers and diamonds. 

One of the saddest films aimed at women I ever endured on an airplane. A film about an insecure, already-skinny woman who hates her figure, and finds her only solace in shoes.