Veiled Racism, Veiled Sexism

Shouldn’t everyone be allowed to wear whatever she or he wants, whether it’s a veil, a rubber miniskirt or a clown outfit? Should the State really be able to tell us how we must or mustn’t dress?

So once again the debate over banning the veil rears its head.

Shouldn’t everyone be allowed to wear whatever she or he wants, whether it’s a veil, a rubber miniskirt or a clown outfit? Should the State really be able to tell us how we must or mustn’t dress?

Scratch the surface of the concerns about veiled women and you’ll find the undercurrent of racism.  I don’t remember any Sun readers being up in arms about Mother Teresa going around in a long dress and a headscarf.

At the other extreme, while some liberals tie themselves in knots over not wishing to appear racist, they collapse into cultural relativism.  But being a tradition doesn’t make a practise acceptable – take female genital mutilation as a blatant example.

We must not be afraid to criticise religious beliefs, as we would any other belief, and we must be able to differentiate between criticising religious practises with which we disagree on one hand and discriminating on racial grounds on the other.

It is sad but true that the majority of religions, including all the major ones, are patriarchal both in theology and in practise.  It is also true that most people who claim to be religious essentially treat their religious texts as a bag of pick ‘n’ mix sweets, selecting the parts that they want to accept and ignoring the parts they find unpalatable.

You may not agree with

her decision, but it’s

her body, not yours

There is much debate amongst Islamic scholars as to whether the niqab (as opposed to headscarves which do not cover the whole face) is obligatory. While some argue that it is a cultural tradition rather than a religious requirement, certain schools of Islam cite parts of the Koran in support of their argument that a woman should cover up.

Before any Christians attack Muslims for being sexist, they might want to remember that the Bible refers to a wife being subservient to her husband.  Taking any text out of its historical context is bound to end badly.

Any woman who chooses, of her own free will, to wear a niqab, burqa or headscarf should be entitled to do so.  You may not agree with her decision, but it’s her body, not yours.

To ban her from wearing it at school won’t stop her from wearing it; it will just stop her from attending school.  To ban her from wearing it at work won’t stop her from wearing it; it will just stop her from being able to work. To ban her from wearing it in public places won’t stop her from wearing it; it will just mean that she can’t leave her house.

Of course it cannot be denied that many Muslim women who cover themselves up do so not out of choice but due to pressure from the men in their lives, be it their fathers, brothers or husbands. There are countries where women are forced to wear the veil and obviously this is wrong. But isn’t it just a bit patronising to assume that all veil wearers are acting under duress?  There are plenty of strong willed women in all cultures. In any event, banning the veil in public places is unlikely to liberate anyone.

Those who profess to support bans because it will make Muslim women more integrated into society need to stop and consider the real consequences of such a ban – less independence and more isolation for those women.  If you are concerned that they are wearing the veil against their will, then surely you would want them to have more opportunities to gain an education, have a career and participate in social interaction outside the home rather than closing off such prospects.

And maybe if it isn’t made into a battleground where women may feel compelled to defend their culture against racists, they might feel less militant about wearing the veil.

I don’t remember any Sun readers being

up in arms about Mother Teresa going

around in a long dress and a headscarf

But can any of us in the West really say that we are free from societal and cultural pressure to look a certain way? This isn’t just about feeling one has to dress a certain way, but in some cases extends to deforming our bodies.

We live in a country where pre-pubescent girls wear clothes with the Playboy logo plastered all over them, where women with perfectly healthy breasts undergo surgery with all the associated health risks and where teenage young women go through the physical pain of ripping off all of their body hair to please their porn-addicted boyfriends and vomit up their dinner to fit into the jeans advertised in the glossy magazines.  The majority of women in Britain today are dissatisfied with the way that they look, impacting deeply on their psyche and self-esteem.

Maybe it’s not so difficult to understand why some women might decide that the way to be judged on their character and intelligence rather than their physical appearance is to cover themselves up.

And on another note, we might also do well to remember that much of the so-called anti-terrorist legislation over the past decade or so has eroded the civil liberties of us all.  Once we start dictating to people what they can and can’t wear, we go down a dangerous path.

Martin Luther King had a dream that people would be judged on the content of their character rather than on the colour of their skin.  Let’s also hope for a world where a women’s body is neither seen as something shameful to be covered up nor as something on which she is judged.  A world where women wear what the fuck they want.

 

Photo: Copyright Steve Evans (babasteve)

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