Modesty: A Feminist Defence of the Hijab

Art by: Areeba Siddique for Rookie Mag

Peoples’ definitions of modesty vary widely, but head covering is a very popular expression of modesty across almost every religion and culture. Christian nuns wear habits, married Jewish Orthodox women cover their hair – sometimes with wigs, and some muslim women choose to wear the hijab. Likewise, men practice a modified version of head covering: the Jewish Kippah, the Muslim Taqiyah, and the Sikh turban.

Modesty is not threatening – it is in fact an attempt to be less threatening or even less visible. And yet, certain forms of head covering have been deemed a threat to “Western” values, and even to “Western” security. Setting aside the fact that “Western” is just a euphemism for “white”, and that the degree of threat that a head covering poses to “Western” is apparently closely related to the skin tone of the person wearing it, people have come up with pretences for their objections that I think are worth addressing. In particular, these pretences need to be addressed because they are co-opting feminism to further oppress religious and racialized minorities.

I’ve had a lot of conversations with men who apparently don’t see the irony in legislating what a woman cannot wear in the name of empowering women. Although these men seem to recognize that there is a problem with women being forced in some instances to wear a head covering, they seem perfectly comfortable with forcing women to not wear one. At the root of the cognitive dissonance is a total dismissal of women’s agency: the conviction that a woman would never choose, of her own free will, to wear a hijab, a burkha, or a niqab. Therefore, the problem in their mind is the head covering itself, and not the need to support and empower women in asserting their agency.

I’ve had a lot of conversations with women who believe that feminism means the freedom for women to behave the way that they believe women should behave. This brand of feminism, which can also be called “white feminism”, like the patriarchy, creates a range of acceptable behaviour that largely precludes religious and racialized minorities. Again, at the root of this philosophy, is a total dismissal of agency – but this time the agency of marginalized people.

That kind of cultural paternalism is called “orientalism”: the belief that a particular cultural behaviour is objectively wrong, and that the mere introduction of a Western cultural behaviour should suffice to convert everyone to the Western way of doing things. The assertion that a failure to conform is because that person or group is too weak or stupid to reform on their own.

Where does all of this leave us? Does it mean that we can’t have an opinion about head coverings?

For example: some people make a distinction between head covering and face covering, because they believe that there is no explanation for face-covering than dehumanization. But on what basis has that opinion been formed? A masters degree in religious sociology? Extensive field work within diverse communities in which women wear a variety of head-coverings, and interviews with women who presently and previously resided in those communities? More likely, our opinion is based on our own prejudice against people who don’t look like us; the same way that we have historically dehumanized racialized people and people with disabilities.

And what if our opinion is in fact correct? Does it mean that we can’t legislate again wearing certain head coverings?

For example: Quebec has decided to deny public services to people wearing face-coverings. An editorial published in the Toronto Sun states “Quebec’s niqab ban is a chance for women to embrace Western freedom”. I first note the semantic shift from “ban” to “a chance”, as though a ban is an opportunity instead of a mandate. And, in that semantic shift, we see the cognitive dissonance whereby we deny that legislating against wearing the niqab is any less oppressive than whatever cultural pressure one believes led the woman to wear the niqab in the first place. Why are we not satisfied with promoting the empowerment of women through access to education and access to social welfare programs? Why do we feel entitled to legislate certain behaviours with which we don’t agree, while permitting without condoning others? I suggest that the answer comes back again to Western society’s historical sense of entitlement to control religious and racialized minorities.

Here’s the long and short of the matter: you will never be able to socially engineer the best way for women to assert their equality, because the ONLY way to affirm a woman’s equality is to empower her to make her own fuckinging decisions. Feminism is nothing if women are not free, even if you perceive the choices that they make to be in error.

So, repeat it after me: “Fuck white feminism, because if your feminism isn’t intersectional then it’s bullshit.”

Posted in: Faith, Progress

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