The niqab hokey-cokey: how women are too free and not free enough, and it’s all their fault.

Before I start this I want to make one thing clear: if a woman doesn’t want to wear a hijab or niqab – and there are plenty who don’t and plenty who have been forced into it – I completely support her. But if she does, I completely support her. I’m not discussing women who are forced, against their will, to wear either, in this post.

There are massive reasons for a woman to fight against wearing both. But there are massive reasons to feel proud to wear either. Those two contradictory statements live side by side, both are valid, and the degree to which either has an impact on her decision varies from woman to woman. If you can’t understand that, you’re probably better off not participating in any discussions on this topic.

Also, if you’re a man who feels that hijab or niqab are purely instruments of oppression, you may feel free to express your opinion on them, once you have spent a week wearing nothing but skirts. Throw off the tyranny of trousers! Poor souls, crammed into them day after day, forced to sit with your knees at quarter to three on public transport. What? You like trousers? Trousers are a badge of your place in society, as a man? You’d feel really socially uncomfortable in a skirt around your peer group? Trousers have cultural implications about who you are? You are PROUD to wear trousers?

You poor, brainwashed little victim. Let me liberate you.

There are a lot of pieces in the papers at the moment about hijab and niqab. The one that’s annoyed me most (and it’s a question of degree, if I’m honest), is Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s beefspiel in the Inde.

I’ve always had a tinge of envy for women who wear the hijab or niqab. However those garments came to be, it would be nice to escape, for a time, from the tyranny of patriarchy’s opinions of you. Patriarchy is a system full of opinions about how we should be, how we should look, how we should dress, what our appearance means about us. This applies to both men and women. But it applies in a great deal more detail to women than to men, and the appearance of women is policed minutely and enthusiastically by both men and women.

So how about we try leaving women’s appearance out of it, hey? How about relating to us as human beings? And therein lies (for me) the appeal of hijab and niqab (I have in the past received untold rubbish attention from men because of my hair, to the point where tying it back hard or covering it with a hat before using public transport was a habit so ingrained I wasn’t really aware of doing it – what’s the practical difference between this and hijab?). Likewise the more full covering of niqab, which forces the person interacting with its wearer to relate to a human being rather than a set of features and expressions, a gender pantomime, a cipher. It means the thousand rules governing what a woman is allowed to do with her face in conversation with a man no longer apply. A woman doesn’t have to be smiley and ingratiating. She can be unfathomable. Deal with THAT, patriarchy.

Oh, but patriarchy doesn’t want to deal with it. Patriarchy is throwing its rattle out of its pram, again, and – again – it is throwing it directly at Muslim women.

As if she were not already disobedient enough to western patriarchy, a woman in niqab is wearing a badge that says “I don’t follow your little detailed rules” (at least, she is if she’s in the UK and in much of Europe). She is Other. In the eyes of Alibhai-Brown, it’s ok to be Other, to be Muslim – providing you do it sort of secretly. Mainstream people shouldn’t notice you being Other. They shouldn’t have to amend the way they think or the expectations they have of others. Basically, if you can sneak around being Muslim without anyone noticing, you are Doing It Right.

No. Because that way lies unchallenged racism.

I’m looking at this from the point of view of whitey, because whitey is what I am (albeit whitey blessed with a large chunk of Muslim family). I’m giving my, whitey’s, reasons for envying the hijab and niqab. But the one thing I haven’t touched on yet is that hijab and niqab both also carry a very profound message of social belonging. I made a jibe about it above, with my comment about trousers. But seriously: if your peer group and cultural group wear and have always worn a garment that denotes your membership of that group, that is no longer an item of clothing. It is an item of belonging, and has all the positive associations of family, community, seeing your parents wear this thing, longing to wear it when your older sister got to put hers on three years before you could.

If you don’t want to wear it, you must be free not to.

But it is time we stopped pretending that those women who WANT to wear it are crushed and bullied into feeling that way. Because if we think that is true, what we’re really saying is that we can’t understand how anyone can have a positive association with Islam.

And it’s long past time we stopped pretending that “crusading” against hijab and niqab – on women who WANT to wear them – is anything other than racist bullying.

In the UK we live in a country where women are worth less than men in the workplace, in the church, in our Parliament, in the doctor’s surgery. And we’re seriously complaining about a scarf? I have to wonder whether it makes us uncomfortable precisely because it’s an open statement that under patriarchy women are regarded differently, an open statement that as a society we have a problem with how we view and treat and judge women, and we don’t like that. We like that problem to remain invisible, so we can carry on pretending it doesn’t exist.

Alibhai-Brown writes:

“And the aggrieved college student, what future does she imagine? She denies herself jobs for the sake of what?”

Oh, so it’s the STUDENT’s fault that employers are racist and sexist? Silly me, I have always believed the onus was on the oppressor to change, not on the oppressed to … somehow … not be oppressed. How far does Alibhai-Brown want us to take this model? Should people who have obviously brown skin paint it paler, for instance? Should those of us with breasts bind them flat? Because otherwise isn’t it essentially their fault employers won’t employ them?

“The system wasn’t picking on her – a defendant in a micro mini would have caused as much disquiet.”

Here is the root of the problem with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s beef with niqab.

In her world, the problem is what women wear, not that they are judged for it because they are women.

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6 Responses to The niqab hokey-cokey: how women are too free and not free enough, and it’s all their fault.

  1. pjie2 says:

    Quite so. While it’s obviously wrong (and patriarchally so) to force anyone to wear the niqab, banning it is the wrong solution.

    I think you’re a bit off beam in saying “I have to wonder whether it makes us uncomfortable precisely because it’s an open statement that under patriarchy women are regarded differently”, though. I think it’s much more simply that pointing at the patriarchal oppression over there, being committed by those other backward people is a great way to distract from the patriarchal oppression over here. I think it’s very comfortable indeed to be able to pretend that these issues are something that’s nothing to do with us.

    That may possibly be different ways of wording the same point though.

    • chiller says:

      Yes, I fear you have worded my point better than I did myself, here. That is what I was getting at. There’s a palpable sense that what THEY do is patriarchy and what WE do is just our cultural norms and should be protected. It’s deeply racist as well as patriarchal.

  2. Fles says:

    I’m never sure of my position on this and I’m fairly sure I’m not entitled to one except that everyone deserves liberty. What I do believe is that we cannot legislate on clothing, because that’s just insane (although I’d bring personally ewintroduce flogging for that arse-of-the-pants dragging look).

    Shamefully, I have passed women in niqabs and thought, “Sexy eyes!”, which probably means I’m going to hell.

  3. Very Very Angry Female says:

    ‘In the UK we live in a country where women are worth less than men in the workplace, in the church, in our Parliament, in the doctor’s surgery.’

    Rubbish. There has been equality for decades. The Church is not a workplace, simply a concept for those who need belief as a crutch, and isn’t worth worrying about.

    Part of growing up is ceasing to worry what others think of your appearance. As long as you don’t smell and are covered within the law, that is all that matters. Women who teeter along in silly shoes or don’t dress for the climate are a joke, but they could change that if they wanted.

    sorry, but this article just makes me angry. Going round in a mask is NOT acceptable in this country outside medical reasons.

    • chiller says:

      You are simply incorrect. The wage gap is real and well documented. The church sits in our Parliament and women are not permitted to participate in that because of rules made by men which forbid it. Our representation as a sex is woeful in Parliament (actually lower than it has been in the past) and men legislate on our reproductive rights. Wake up.

      “As long as you don’t smell and are covered within the law” < this CURRENTLY applies to Muslim women in hijab or niquab. So what's your problem?

      • capojop says:

        The Church of England pays clergy working in it’s churches salaries and pensions. It also has lay employees (for example they are currently advertising for an Environmental Policy Officer). It is therefore an employer and the idea that it is not is factually incorrect

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