The Hijab and Western Feminism
Myopic Feminists and the Hijab
In 1929 a cartoon appeared in Aussie magazine that showed a young woman stepping off a gutter. As she raised her skirts she realised with pleasure that she had drawn the attention of everyone on the street. The cartoon was captioned, ‘How she got the notion to shorten her skirts’ and it highlighted that women’s public visibility was becoming central to their sense of being liberated and therefore modern.
Without dress reform women could not take up the pleasures of new forms of mobility and independence. Raising one’s skirts meant women could stride about the streets without fear of tangling themselves up in voluminous material, nor of collecting disease-dealing dirt in their hems. Dress liberation was so called because it meant women could mount bicycles, ride trams to work and yes, flash their ankles.
The one great step forward for womankind was undoubtedly across the domestic threshold and feminists have defended our right to unchaperoned mobility and visibility ever since. Women dismissed warnings about bicycle riding disturbing their reproductive organs. They defied council regulations around Melbourne’s bay by displaying ‘bare limbs’ on our beaches. They resisted harassment and assaults through self-defense training and lobbying to reform rape laws.
Public presence and the visibility that goes with it means an awful lot to western women. It represents our economic independence, sexual agency and political participation. If all women weren’t convinced by feminist marches to ‘reclaim the streets’ they literally bought into the association of public visibility with freedom from domestic constraint, through advertising for sanitary napkins, pantihose, and all manner of women’s sundries. Running a distracted man up a lamp post became a vindication of women’s sexual power and freedom. Celebrity is the pinnacle of cultural legitimacy.
But after a century of struggle for freedom of expression that included discarding the bra, western women have called for banning the hijab in schools. They have developed, it would seem, a rather delimited view of what public visibility might mean to different women. The hijab is a challenge to the view of liberated visibility and freedom of self-expression unfettered by ‘the male gaze’. The possibility that covering up is not necessarily a backward step almost fails to compute.
I’m not in a position to speculate on what it might mean to wear the hijab. Apart from wrapping my head in a veil as an undergraduate, purely for glamour, I have not worn the veil as a religious observance and therefore have no understanding of its associations and experiences. I can only guess that while it may have its origins in deflecting men’s lust, it has come to mean a whole lot more for Muslim women.
Lipstick is obviously a very different matter to the duty of a religious observance such as wearing the veil. Yet it was also once said to defer to men’s desire. Within the community of women I’m part of, lipstick can represent stepping out together, work paint, self-expression, or making a mark. Like lots of women, I feel more comfortable, even paradoxically more myself, in lipstick. It’s my public face, my morning ritual, my mark-of-Mummy at school assembly. I may have inadvertently eaten kilos of the toxic stuff, but I negotiate all kinds of contradictory aspects of lipstick with my own desires and needs. That’s because I’m human. And lipstick may have any number of associations for different men, but frankly, that’s not my problem.
As a western feminist who grew up under the Australian ideal of the outdoors girl, with her exposed sun-kissed skin and wind-swept locks, I respond to the hijab in contradictory ways. I’ve actively campaigned to debunk myths around rape that hold women’s sexual provocation responsible for men’s violence. But I also found it a relief to hit my later 30s and come out from under the scrutinizing gaze that many men level at young women in public. I live in an explicit culture that uses images of women to draw constant attention to men’s sexual needs, their expression, satisfaction or control. With two little girls now in tow I get resentful for them. And I sometimes wonder if the male psyche isn’t just a little infantilised by the reminders of their sexual responses having to wallpaper every cultural surface. Oooh, oooh, it all seems to say, this is about my penis, it’s very important, don’t let it out of your mind for one second.
Any cultural or religious practice that seems to give all care and take all responsibility for men’s sexual responses raises my hackles. I stopped being a catholic because the Marionite myth of sexual purity seemed an untenable moral burden on women – and nobody ever asked of the immaculate conception, How was it for you God?
But even if the insistent and constant reminder of male sexual needs could be traced to cultural practices as contradictory as page three girls and covering up for modesty, that would not account for the understandings that Muslim women have created for themselves, amongst themselves about the hijab. Anymore than it can account for why women like myself adopted lipstick, once the stigmata of the bimbo, into our daily appearance.
As for my own responses to the hijab, they are certain to have their origin in longstanding and deeply held beliefs about women’s public visibility and its associated freedoms, and about male sexuality and its continued failure to take responsibility for itself—oh, and until I’m listening to Muslim women, my responses have their origin in ignorance. Frankly that should not be Muslim women’s problem.