When I first started the forum thread on “A woman’s right to wear hijab?” I was looking for solutions to this question. Yet once again, as I had foreseen, we were all presented with perhaps the two most incompatible oppositions of modern day gender issues (and perhaps of the modern world altogether) for which there seem to be no definitive solution. We have the striving for equality through reason alone on one side and the freedom of religious practice on the other. Somehow, we cannot in any way deny the symbolic value the hijab holds to (some of) us westerners; nor can we deny the value of choice and religious practice that it holds to (some of) the women who wear it.
In the light of this month’s theme of Religion and Politics here on IMOW, I want to draw specific attention to the link between religion and the history of women. The Abrahamic religions especially, as we know, have probably been history’s main source and excuse for the suppression of women. Judaism told us that “anyone who touches [a woman before and immediately after her period] will be unclean” (Leviticus 15:19), Christianity stubbornly claims that “the head of the woman is man” (1 Corinthians 11:3), and in Islam it is taught that women must “guard their unseen parts [and as] for those from whom you fear disobedience, […] send them to beds apart and beat them” (Quran 4:34). I think it is safe to say that religion has not been and perhaps is not all that woman-friendly.
With this in mind, I am beginning to ask myself what I believe to be an important question: We all support the idea of being able to think and believe whatever we want (religion included), but which of the following two ways of life do we want to govern our daily lives and our societal structures – the respect for reason or the respect for religion??? There should be absolutely no doubt as to where I stand on this issue as a feminist. It is through reason and not through religion that women have obtained the rights they enjoy in the western world today. Therefore I believe that it is also through reason that women will acquire rights not yet obtained.
Thus, can anyone reasonably claim the right to decide what a Muslim woman wears on her head? Of course they cannot. We must respect the freedom of religion. But, and this is my point, it does not mean that we should respect religion itself if we do not. I believe that we should all be very well aware that the hijab and the burka, unlike almost any other religious symbols, do not symbolize to us the whole of Islam, but the part of Islam that is specifically targeted at keeping men superior to women. Thus, the question is not whether it should be forbidden, for we cannot interfere with that kind of individual freedom much in the same way that we cannot forbid a woman to wear a low cut t-shirt that says ‘F*** me, I’m a Porn Star’ however damaging we think it is to society’s perception of women. However, in the case of the t-shirt, we are most certainly allowed to raise people’s consciousness and to speak up about it if we so wish (in the same way that would speak up about anything), and so the question is rather whether we should all pretend that the hijab does not bother us if it does.
It bothers me. It bothers me a lot because of the sheer fact that a hijab or a burka not only symbolizes but promotes directly the Islamic submission of women, and so I want to able to spread consciousness about the fact that even though there are undoubtedly strong Muslim women out there who wear the hijab or the burka, these pieces of clothing are still used to cover up a woman’s being not because she desires to, but because of a religion that is still historically and contemporarily responsible for the suppression of women.
In short, I am not in a position to tell anyone what they can or cannot wear or what they can and cannot believe in, but I refuse to treat any religions or religious symbols with respect simply because they are related to faith – something which defines itself by lack of reason. If a hijab or a burka to me symbolizes the suppression of women (because it most certainly does not represent their liberation), I want to be able to raise people’s consciousness about it without being called racist or Islamophobic. Faith is something that we should tolerate – but as a feminist I cannot respect it.