Pair the word hijab with compulsory so we can have a proper discussion about it
Many feminists insist on the importance of choosing our words to better take people’s feelings into account – and there is no harm in doing that. But what they fail to realize is that feminists who are against the hijab in all its forms – not just the compulsory – are themselves hijabi, or used to be. They fought their battles and received their share of patriarchal hatred.
By Ghina Al Andari- Lebanese feminist activist and writer
W hen the regime and security services of the Supreme Leader murdered Mahsa Amini, whose Kurdish name Jina means life, and when dozens of other Mahsa’s and Jina’s were executed afterwards, some of us thought that, this time perhaps, defenders of the hijab might restrain themselves from justifying its existence and saying that “the problem is the coercive and violent practices, not the hijab itself.” But we were once again mistaken in thinking this because, as it turns out, it is always the time for justifications and responses in gentle packaging, even from some feminists who purport that the hijab is a natural thing for those who choose to wear it but not for those upon whom it is imposed.
This logic suggests that there is nothing wrong with the hijab so long as it not compulsory, but seeing as it is a binding and coercive measure in Iran, and since we’re all having this conversation, let’s pair the word hijab with compulsory, coercive, or obligatory to be able to follow the idea through to the end and have consistent titles to describe this struggle.
On cheering the right to choose and its derivatives
First of all, it is necessary to pause at the pattern that most proponents of choice feminism uphold, which is to cheer for practically any and everything, so long as a woman has chosen it. This nullifies the need to understand how all this cheering actually impacts women’s issues and their struggle to confront the oppression they are subjected to, as the cheering becomes an end in itself, echoing the Parnassian literary doctrine of “literature for literature’s sake” and “art for art’s sake.” The feminist equivalent has now come about: cheering for cheering’s sake.
It seems to have become a magical solution enabling those who believe in it, women and men alike, to find their way out of any predicament. In other words, it allows people to save face and ensures that no one is forced to engage in any complex, sensitive, or divisive discussion, flattening issues that are thorny or harmful to women into acceptable and even empowering matters – when a woman has “chosen” them herself. It is only when the woman has had something imposed upon her that these issues become bad and terrible. Following this logic, plastering the word choice and its derivatives beside any other word removes any nuance of discrimination and structural violence that the word would otherwise hold, and silences any complicated discussion in hopes that we all live happily ever after.
This binary of choice and imposition may be sufficient for many women, at the forefront of whom are women — including we who call ourselves feminists — who have chosen to identify with patriarchal religious systems despite the fact that identifying with a system that seeks to oppress us is equivalent, in one way or another, to our participation in the perpetuation of these systems. But that’s okay, right, since it means that women are in harmony – rather, have chosen to be in harmony – with their values and ideologies. Herein lies the paradox: that women are carrying banners of the struggle against the patriarchal system all while simultaneously being satisfied not only with the symbols of this system but with its perceptions of women.
Here is one of the simplest questions that can be asked in this context: If we agree, for the sake of argument, that we can support and stand against something at the same time – and before we even go into the details and origin of the hijab – is it not provoking to those who cheer for choice that the hijab, as well as other obligatory duties, is a choice that exists only for women?
And if these feminists really do want to empower individuals to make these choices for themselves, shouldn’t it also be a matter of choice for the hijab to be an option available to men? Is this not a continuation of the principle of choice? This idea will inevitably seem too funny and unrealistic to even imagine because the second we reverse these roles or apply the same rules to men, it becomes clear as day that the root of the idea is incontestably discriminatory against women. It seems, however, that the word discrimination is not as popular as it used to be. What we can deduce from the above is that, under a patriarchal system, women cannot imagine men in their position, so how could they be expected to have the power to impose anything even remotely similar on men? To be clear, I am not comparing between the two on the grounds that whatever is applied to us as women must also apply to men. But we are talking here about rights. And these rights include the right to abandon symbols of oppression that treat women’s bodies and hair as exclusively as an object to be hidden away.
Acknowledging fear is a virtue
Atrocity facilitates visibility and solidarity. In other words, it is easy to denounce and reject the Iranian regime’s practices and crimes against women in particular and its people in general, as well as the injustices it commits to “discipline” women, because these practices are excessively violent and cruel. However, when it comes to the hijab as a hijab, rarely does anyone dare to criticize it, because such criticism will inevitably lead to a broader discussion that might touch on the sacred philosophy of “choice,” or sacred religion, or even God Himself. This is a debate no one wants to engage in. Why? Because this discussion will most likely be concluded with prepackaged, one-dimensional expressions that embody an apologist approach to practices that seek to shackle women and paint them as lesser-than, as flawed, and because this discussion will most likely require us to delve into the origin of the idea of the hijab.
Is it not provoking to those who cheer for choice that the hijab, as well as other obligatory duties, is a choice that exists only for women?
Where did it come from? What does it represent? Why is still applied to women? What are the tools that have been used to impose the hijab on women? Why do women, or their loose hair, pose such a threat to the patriarchy? Why is it that the hijab provides some sort of peace of mind to some women? and other questions… – we might be better off admitting that we are afraid to engage in such a discussion, or even worried about the price we’d have to pay as a result of clashing with the patriarchal religious system. Jina (Mahsa) was murdered as soon as she – perhaps unintentionally – defied this system, so what would happen to us if we were to knock on the doors of religious institutions, their sheikhs and guides, disturbing their comfort with our opposition, our rejection of their authority and sanctities? There is no doubt that admitting such a thing would cost us whatever comfort we may have otherwise had in struggling for a cause. That is, easy and popular struggle and condemnation become that way by virtue of their distance from the actual causes of concern and headache. But, at the very least, such an acknowledgment would spare us any equivocation and would highlight the obvious instead of these hybrid formulas that advocate for so-called feminist flashy stereotypes that only perpetuate the oppression of women. This may represent the beginning of a truer form of confrontation which, despite its bitterness, will not supply the reigning system with any of the abundant arguments it uses against us. It already has enough of those to last centuries. More importantly, it will not make us complicit with the regime since we are not asking women to be lax about these different forms of oppression, rather we demand the dismantling and reform of these systems.
Criticism of the hijab will inevitably lead to a broader discussion that might touch on the sacred philosophy of “choice,” or sacred religion, or even God Himself…
Feminists vs. hijabis? The strawman argument…
Seeing how people automatically respond to any discussion about the hijab, and to any acknowledgment of the fact that it is a discriminatory and oppressive practice, is sufficient to know that we don’t need to read these responses twice. We already know that we are stuck in the loop of the strawman fallacy. This fallacy occurs when the second party gets stuck addressing an argument that the first party never even mentioned. The discussion then goes from point A to point B, which the first party never even hinted at. Some feminists are quick to express their rejection of the hijab as a tool of oppression and a symbol of patriarchal discrimination. Proponents of choice feminism accuse them of spreading hatred, of excluding and discriminating against women who wear the hijab and stigmatizing them as victims, thus positioning themselves as saviors. The truth is that neither of these two accusations has anything to do with the origin of the rejection of the hijab as a tool deployed by the patriarchal system to oppress women. It is self-evident to us that refusing oppression means standing up for the oppressed. What is meant here is that any social or political struggle that rejects the control of a repressive regime rejects it in support of the oppressed group, in recognition of the harm that has come to it and that may still come to those around it or those who will follow – it rejects the discriminatory ideas and practices that might be further entrenched in the present and future.
On the other hand, the pattern by which feminists who are against the hijab are framed as standing against hijabi women has not been witnessed much in other types of disagreement. To elaborate, communists, leftists, and unionists are not accused of hating workers for their rejection of the capitalist system that exploits them, even though there are workers who accept their conditions of work and may find a thousand and one different ways to justify their reality. Women’s rights advocates who stand firmly against domestic violence are not accused of hating abused women, even though many women choose to stay in abusive relationships and are often convinced, or satisfied, that such is their lot and that the choice to stay is the best option.
As for the stigmatization of hijabi women as victims… is it really necessary to add a disclaimer before every single word we utter? To make explicit that none of this is meant to offend hijabi women or take away their power, just so that we can have a discussion about the hijab? But let’s do that, anyway, while we’re at it:
It goes without saying that among women in general, and hijabi women in particular, there are many empowered, ambitious, and pioneering women in their respective fields. Their hijabs do not pose any kind of problem for them in the pursuit of their dreams. However, this ambition, or this leadership, is not attributed to the woman’s hijab – it is attributed to the woman herself. Correct? And this will not change the intended meaning of the hijab, which was established based off of the perception of woman as flawed, of her hair as one of the scourges of this world. This is what the hijab symbolizes in contemporary history. Not the woman herself.
Had we been living in an alternative system in which women are neither portrayed as flawed nor treated as inferior to men, maybe then would we be able to talk about a woman actually having ownership over her body and being able to choose freely. Only then would we be able to claim that women really are making choices for themselves, that their bodies are their own, in word and deed: if women are able to decide, on their own, to cover their hair as a kind of trend or style, and if men can also choose it, or other types of trends or styles. Simply put, had the hijab not been the product of patriarchal thought, we wouldn’t care what women did with their heads in the first place.
As for the accusation of some feminists making hijabi women into victims, why are we so afraid of the word victim? Honestly, had we not been victims of a system that hates us and seeks to suppress and erase us in various ways, what would the reason for our existence as feminists be in the first place? We’ve witnessed with our own eyes how this system turns us into very real and very potential victims on a daily basis.
Trying to flee these clear identifications of women’s position within patriarchal systems does not serve women in the least. On the contrary, it may be argued to serve the systems themselves. If we were not really victims of their oppression – and this does not mean that we are powerless – there wouldn’t be any problem to speak of, which would mean that there is no need to change the reality of women or to try to create a new one.
To conclude this strawman story, when some feminist militants are accused of acting with a sense of superiority or even of hating hijabi women, it becomes clear how these responses to the issue of the hijab come about. They don’t come from any analysis of its being described as an obligation imposed exclusively on women and as a repressive practice that bothers some hijabi women themselves, in public or in private; rather these responses address issues that even women who criticize the hijab never mentioned in the first place.
This not only contributes to scattering attention and obliterating any serious attempt to address the question of the hijab but also presents a gift on a silver platter, wrapped in a feminist package, to the patriarchal religious system. Instead of confronting the strong-voiced religious leaders, virtual battles and confrontations are waged against other women, because at the end of the day, the easiest thing in the world is to demonize and attack certain feminists by repeating the all too familiar tune that the patriarchy weaponizes.
Lectures on consideration and censorship
On the other hand, there is a certain restlessness that grows in Lebanese feminist circles, as well as other milieus, when the question of the hijab or another controversial topic is discussed. This restlessness soon turns into a censorship tool. At its root may be feelings of goodwill, stemming from a concern for hijabi women not to feel attacked, and out of respect for inclusivity and the desire to foster inclusive spaces from which hijabi women do not feel excluded. This is especially true for feminist spaces. Zeal for the right to choose also contributes to this restlessness, but the issue is that the right to choose is mostly thought of as an abstraction, disconnected from any realistic analysis of what this choice would actually mean on the ground.
It is useful to mention here that addressing the question of the hijab requires that hijabi women be at the center of the discussion. This in itself nullifies the exclusion claims. But a distinction must be made here, too, between being inclusive and merely pacifying people. Our spaces and movements can be inclusive and welcome all women, regardless of their affiliations and beliefs, but when we are more occupied with flattery, mitigation, and appeasement, these feminist movements turn into trivial placation efforts. Talking about the hijab is not taboo, and talking about the commodification of women is not taboo either.
There is no point to any feminist or political movement that seeks to embellish a problematic reality. Feminists don’t have to be nice (isn’t asking women to be nice itself just another misogynistic tactic?). Confronting any repressive regime requires, fundamentally, one key issue: clarity.
At the very least, feminist movements must provide a space in which women can reflect on their reality, not one where any controversial discussion is shut down, where restrictions are placed on what words are allowed. This just limits debate to whatever issues don’t threaten feminist “civil peace.” Questions need to be asked, and not all these questions are going to be pleasant or even welcome. They might disturb the psychological and intellectual security that typical men enjoy. Feminist movements should question our acceptance of certain practices and require that we revise some things within our own selves first, no matter how unpleasant that confrontation might be. Only then could we confront these same practices at the source: the men, religious men, and institutions that uphold them.
In conclusion, it should be noted that we do not need lectures on consideration and the importance of taking feelings into account so that we can talk about the hijab as a feminist issue. Many feminists insist more than others on the importance of choosing our words to better take people’s feelings into account – and there is no harm in doing that. But what they fail to realize is that feminists who are against the hijab in all its forms – not just the compulsory – are themselves hijabi, or used to be. They fought their battles and received their share of patriarchal hatred.
Feminists who criticize those who question the hijab often accuse them of transplanting their discourse from some white feminists and their everyday reality, not ours. What I am about to say may seem strange to some, but really, women are capable of thinking, analyzing, and deciding their own positionality without anyone having to dictate it for them. This rushing to accuse every feminist issue that doesn’t pass the inclusivity test of belonging to white feminist discourse may in fact bring us full circle, back to what we hear from religious figures, too numerous to count: “the West’s threat to our values, our society, and our traditions.”
Also, so what if white feminists have opinions about the hijab? I am well aware of the history of colonialism and the vast differences among women, but do women and feminists need to have specific affiliations in order to express their views on the oppression of other women?
I don’t see us asking Americans for permission before giving our opinions on the decision to ban abortion, which has impacted several states. I don’t see us being cautious about expressing our views on the situation of Iranian and Afghan women. We attribute this to our clear understanding of oppression whenever and wherever we see it. May we begin to speak about this issue honestly and openly, without deluding ourselves that it is just a choice, or a good thing for the women who choose it.