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.