By Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan for Youth Ki Awaaz:
Here we are again, back to talking about the things that matter and the things that don’t. Let’s get on with it!R asked:
Are the recent French laws banning the veil, anti-feminist? Do you think that the veil is a symbol of systematic oppression against women? Do you think that women or men who remark that the veil is emancipating or liberating- have been engendered to believe so? Or are you of the school of thought that considers any such ban on the veil as anti-feminist because it trammels the freedom or choice of a woman to wear it?
Such a lot of questions in one paragraph. And yet, all I can think of is this time when I was a young and fresh early twenties reporter at my first job. It was a casual job, which meant we could wear what we liked, a newsroom filled with people not more than five years older than me. The walls were painted purple, the cubicles were decorated as we liked them, and we enjoyed our youth, flaunting it almost. Our lives stretched in front of us, we were young, we were strong, we were invincible and, in all this, we were smug, almost arrogant about not caring. Why should we care when there were adults to do the caring for us?
In the same building, there was a magazine and a radio station, all of us desperately young, all of us with the same pride and ambition which we tamped down so it didn’t interfere with the ironic way we dealt with our day to day life. No one spoke about money or family or promotions, the editor was older, a father figure almost, and in all this, I dressed exactly how I did to college—a tank top over jeans, a high rising t-shirt over a skirt, I hung my cloth bag across my shoulder and smelt like cigarette smoke and perfume. I was poor, but I was young, so I won.
And in all this, an older man who worked with us took to berating me every day about what I wore. “So much skin,” he’d say. Or, “this is not a night club, you know”. I’d look down at myself—what skin?–I could only see shoulders, was he objecting to my shoulders? And I’d ignore him, but the more I ignored him, the more he wanted to say something. Almost daily: “is that what you’re wearing?” I began to curl my shoulders inwards towards myself, but I didn’t stop wearing what I did, not out of some pride, but because I genuinely had no idea what he was objecting to.
Once I came in in a fairly normal t-shirt, which had little cut outs on my upper arms, the sleeves tied together in a bow. “We should have a dress code,” he roared at me from across the room where he sat in the best spot. My colleagues slid their eyes at me sideways. They were sorry for me, but they had their own battles to fight.
Eventually, I left the job (more money elsewhere) and I went to a stuffier newspaper office, where everyone had kids and/or was married, and my friends there wore casual but firmly covered up clothes, so I did too. Mostly, I never shared a newsroom with men again—the men in my new job were in their own section, and features was a woman’s beat, soft, lifestyle news where no one cared what you wore as long as you told your story well.
If I dressed slightly less buttoned up at my new job (for an appointment later in the day, for instance), my female colleagues would say, “You look nice! Going somewhere today?” and by then I knew about “office clothes” and “day off clothes” so I took care to have a pile of each on the ready. I would never be that person who wore a tank top and jeans to work again. I wish I had known that time would be so fleeting, that time where I felt so comfortable with who I was and what I did, that clothing was a matter of choice, not a uniform I put on every day.
Because, yes, for women, what you wear is a uniform. You suggest to the world how they should perceive you by the cut of your dress, the fall of your sari. This is who I am today. If I wore a veil, it would tell you certain things about me without me having to say anything. You might be angered by it, you might bellow: we should have a dress code, but it would be you undermining my choices.
It’s tricky to write about something you don’t personally do in your own life—such as a hijab. It wades into all sorts of political and personal waters—how can I tell you what to do? If I tell you to remove the scarf aren’t I as bad as the people to tell you to leave it on? If you are comfortable with your scarf on, if you feel empowered and like this is your choice (and there are many Muslim women who speak with this point of view), then how can I, someone completely unrelated, tell you that you are being used as a tool by the patriarchy to keep women down? Do I think they’ve been engendered to think so? Again, I’m not sure, because from the discourse I hear, it seems like these women have done the research, have done the reading, and have come to this deal they’ve struck with god completely outside anyone else’s purview.
So I guess I’m giving you a sort of wishy-washy answer. Can’t say the choice is feminist, because there are so many women and little girls being forced to cover their hair just because they’re female and their hair is, I don’t know, tempting in some way? Can’t say the choice isn’t feminist because there are women who are holding on to it as a symbol of their faith, a way of signalling to the world. I don’t think I am the authority you need to speak on this subject though, so I’m adding a few links that may answer your question more clearly, because sometimes feminism means letting people speak for themselves without pushing your own viewpoint in there all the time.
Aunty Feminist loves to hear from her readers! If you’d like her to answer a burning question you might have, send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet your questions to @reddymadhavan.