Why Has ‘Covering Up’ Women Become A Part Of The Feminist Agenda?

Posted by Leila Badyari in Culture-Vulture, Feminism, Society
February 1, 2018

Most people know very little about Islam and what it stands for; more importantly, what it stands against. Most people who club together various ideals and causes, such as women’s rights, religious freedom and equality, have a very limited understanding of what constitutes the basis of the traditions that they stand up for.

In recent years, there has been an alarming increase in the support to the Islamic practice of ‘covering’ women up. Simply put, the hijab, the burqa, the headscarf – the long sleeves and ear-covering, face-shielding garments that make up a muslim woman’s closet, are all aimed at one thing – covering up a woman. Somehow, we seem to have deviated from this notion, and instead, ‘covering up’ women has now become about feminism, equality, women’s rights and religious freedom. And that is where the problem lies. In an attempt to normalise and intellectualise this practice and to make it a part of the larger agenda of women’s rights (because let’s face it, controversies surrounding hijabs and burqas gather way more publicity than regular women’s rights issues), a large number of women, women’s groups and international brands have started to rally for this cause and have begun to shove it under the umbrella of feminism.

This leaves many women at an uncomfortable juncture – our reasons for championing women’s rights causes were to create progressive thought, and to change the narrative around the archaic traditions that tie down women even in the most modern parts of the world. Many of us consider ourselves to be forward thinking feminists, who stand for equality and strive to reach a point in our lives where we are not bogged down by insanely biased and prejudiced thought processes. We fight for justice, and the right to be treated equal to our male counterparts – for equal treatment at the workplace, for the right to choose our own life partners, for the right to education, the right to vote and drive, and the right to life.

Out of the blue, in my opinion, we are now being asked to stand up for an extremely crippling and regressive practice – the practice of covering women up. Many of us are now tempted to take a step back and evaluate what we have been fighting for. How did we deviate from the original agenda? How did standing up for regressive cultural and religious traditions creep its way into the agenda to begin with?

It is worrying to see that fashion trends are incorporating these regressive traditions onto their runways and into their stores. All of that was somehow still acceptable. Because troubling as it might be, there are millions of women who will ‘choose’ (although, it’s not really a choice, if scripture demands it and deems you unworthy if you ‘choose’ otherwise), these fashion trends.

But, when this trend found its way into a realm that affects the unadulterated segment of our population, that is, children  – that’s when I thought to myself – this is no longer acceptable. For instance, the Hijabi Barbie – the words feel unnatural to me as I say them. Just because something exists, does that mean we need to glorify it? There is no logical reason to create a doll that is covered up. What is the intention here? To show a child that a covered up woman is an alternative way of dressing? To demonstrate the idea that covered up women are more dignified?

By this logic, we should also have dolls that are not allowed to drive, have no voting rights and dolls that are child brides. Because, according to me, the reality (as unpleasant as it sounds), is that the hijab represents the same level of ‘choice’ as all the other atrocious examples mentioned above.

It is ingrained into the fabric of a culture and a religion that women need to be covered up – now with a doll that represents this troubled notion, it will become ingrained into the minds of little girls and boys, who will grow up to believe that covering up a woman is an option, and a valid one at that.

The fundamental concern here is what the hijab stands for – according to my understanding of the Quran, the rationale for this dressing code is to ensure that women remain ‘respectable’, ‘dignified’, free from sin and they don’t ‘distract’ their male counterparts. In essence, this suggests that women who are not covered up are undignified, call attention to themselves (which in Islam is considered absolutely unacceptable), and are constantly sinning. And clearly, women who wear the hijab are aware of this because they claim to be wearing it to honour their religion.

So, the question that begs an answer is, how can you possibly stand up for something so regressive and club it under the umbrella of empowerment? How are you empowering anyone?

By normalising and accepting this dress code as an empowering choice, we are supporting a religious and cultural assumption that women who remain uncovered are less worthy of respect and dignity. If you think I’m being wildly presumptuous, consider the below statement by a Cleric, Sheik Taj Din al-Hilali, who said that unveiled victims of public rape invited their attackers:

“If I came across a rape crime – kidnap and violation of honour – I would discipline the man and order that the woman be arrested and jailed for life.’ Why would you do this, Rafihi? He says because if she had not left the meat uncovered, the cat wouldn’t have snatched it… If you take uncovered meat and put it on the street, on the pavement, in a garden, in a park or in the backyard, without a cover and the cats eat it, is it the fault of the cat or the uncovered meat? The uncovered meat is the problem.”

When people begin to reduce women to meat, based on a religious philosophy that perpetuates the idea of purity based on dressing sense, then we arrive at a very disturbing crossroads. Do we continue to pretend that this regressive practice can be an embodiment of women’s equality in the 21st century? Or do we accept that by perpetuating and encouraging this practice we are in fact party to the problem?

While it would be unfair of me to comment on the individual choices of women, I have to bring to the surface the issue that these personal choices are being glorified and glamorised into something they are not – that is, signs of freedom and empowerment. Oppression is oppression, even if you try to fluff it up and make it look appealing by adding it to the feminist agenda.

The second fundamental concern is that for many people, according to Islam and the Quran, muslim women are not allowed to play sport, wear make-up and tight clothing, engage freely with men outside their family, make themselves publicly noticeable or attract attention. To these women who wear hijabs and run marathons, and take part in sports, and work as news reporters or make up artists – this is the question – why are you choosing to select one directive from your religion (the one asking you to cover up), and ignoring the other directives?

If it is so easy for you to shirk off the other important directives of your religion, why do you choose to hold on to this one? The one that validates the idea that a woman’s body is something to be hidden – like a dirty secret you can only reveal to those nearest to you in the confines of your own home.

Why choose the one practice that validates the idea that a woman’s skin, her hair, her lips her mouth should be covered from the outside world – because exposing it would be sin? Why continue to carry forth the absurd notion that anything about a woman is shameful and lastly, but most importantly, why insist that this is in any way linked to the feminist agenda or supports the women empowerment movement?