Across Europe, discussions are heated on the hijab and burkini debates, commenters throwing verbal bombs from each side, forcing people to take a stand for “good” or “evil”, and leaving little space for deeper reflections. Combined with what I consider most interesting; we get enraged by burkinis while covering up our own 4-year old girls in bikini tops and cover our babies’ heads while they’re eating, I challenged myself to look at this from various angles to find out what my own opinion actually is in this high tempered debate that has stricken such a nerve. Each side presenting some arguments I can agree with and some I don’t.
“The photo, by Lucy Nicholson of Reuters, juxtaposes two women, two beliefs and two dress codes, brought together by sport. The world confronts less a clash of civilizations than a clash of identities, concertinaed in time and space by technology. The West’s image of Islam and the Muslim image of Western societies are often mutually incommunicable; the incomprehension incubates violence”
Working in the global maritime industry with friends from many cultures, following a huge span of various traditions, I don’t see that there is any clear right or wrong way to dress. You can wear a hijab or shawl and at the same time be a strong person, a modern role model, someone who is not suppressed and a feminist. You can wear much less, act provocative and still fill those same descriptions. And you can be a very suppressed Western woman/girl while wearing a skimpy bikini. Only fools interpret a person by their outfit.
We could dedicate a minute of reflection to the fact that typical Westerns also follow various practice on covering up, either caused by tradition, religion or social context. The obvious ones are the Catholic nuns, or the many various directions within Christianity. But look at our everyday lives; Attending a wedding ceremony with bare shoulders as one example, is something many consider inappropriate. Or try wearing super-short skirt and big cleavage in a conservative corporate environment; probably a clear no-go for most of us due to the instant labeling experienced and judgemental looks.
Another killer example is the many Western countries where you receive bad remarks and looks for not covering up when breast-feeding. Where women are asked to leave a cafe or public space to feed her baby in the toilet – or under a cover. Now, how liberated are we really…? Aren’t we perhaps sometimes a little more similar (than we think) to people we like to criticize? Shouldn’t we make this a discussion about women’s rights as individuals across religions and cultures, rather than making it a Muslim/non-Muslim argument?
Our world will be less rich if everyone live and dress in typical Western style. Variety is good! It’s important to explore and introduce each other to our cultural uniquenesses – and at the same time building bonds and deeper understanding of the values and aspects that unifies us (which are most often more than what separates us). And just like food, art, literature and music, clothes are an important part of any culture.
On the other side, there’s a revolution going on among young Muslim women who no longer wants to be dictated on appearances and how to behave. Pakistan’s “Kim Kardashian” Qandeel Balduch, who was murdered by her own brother this summer, was one of many brave and provocative spearheads of this quest for change. This also happens in non-Muslim societies and countries that has not yet gone through the liberation of women. As a society, we need to make sure to support the new generation of strong women’s quest for freedom and equal rights as well. This is the same liberation process that women of many countries and cultures went through some decades ago, quite recently in a historic perspective.. Let’s not for a second pretend our own grandparents didn’t give them a hard time, trying to stop progression. Society changes takes time, and feels painful both for those pursuing it and those who resent it. But it is an essence of the human spirit and evolution.
Trying to look at both angles, I fully recognize and respect women who choose to wear a shawl or hijab due to their own personal relationship with their God, or for the feeling of privacy. At the same time, that’s just what religion should be – it’s personal and internal, and the level cannot be defined by external appearances. Don’t doubt that to a fair share of covered women, it’s a practice that can be compared with the use of a Kabbalah bracelet, rosary or a silver cross chain; a physical token that you use in your daily life to identify as a person of faith, and a reminder that keeps you focused and linked towards your God. The Bible originally requires women to pray with their head covered, and in other ways appear modestly. It also claims she is not to put on man’s clothes. Times have changed, and we interpret old religious texts differently, hence most don’t follow this practice, but we still have those branches of Christianity who do. And being dedicated and less materialistic through the practice of religion, focusing on your inner journey, is something that should be admired. The true core that unite the world religions before being misused by those seeking power and domination over others, is that they all encourage spiritual development, humbleness and emphasize both individual and shared responsibility to do good, help others and share our resources.
And let’s also not forget that people are different, women included. Some choose progressive, some choose conservative. That’s also a part of a woman’s right to make her own individual choices. Spoiler alert; you will also find very progressive thinkers among women who wears a cover.
But this topic is more complex than this. Hence its also too complex to solve with a law. It’s linked to all of us, and our tendency towards judgement. My worry on it is not for those who chose some sort of cover as a result of her own free will and beliefs. It’s for those who feel the external pressure from their community, family and surroundings to cover up. You will however find this practice in many other religions or societies too, linked to the judgement of “shameless” women. If any law was to resolve it without interfering with women’s rights, it would be “Thou shall not judge or harass other human beings.” Try putting a fine on that; should be an endless source of extra funds for any government!
Brilliantly described by SisterHood writer Sobia Ali-Faisal as Clothes shaming; “An act of making any person feel guilty or inferior for wearing certain clothes that deviate from traditional or orthodox religious expectations of modesty, which may or may not include hijab and/or niqab. The Muslim version of slut shaming.”
A part of the Quran’s reason for advising women to cover up is due to security, to be protected from men. I can partly understand the original reasoning behind this, yet it’s a reasoning behind that in the 21st Century both unlogical and similar to the general slutshaming that goes on in every religion, country & society of the world; we place the responsibility for shameless male behavior on women, while we make up stupid excuses for men. Why pretend rapists and bad men will be stopped by a piece of cloth, regardless of its size, so it provide a false sense of security. Why place the responsibility on male lust with the woman – instead of raising our sons to respect and honor all women, and understand that it’s a man’s responsibility to control their needs and urges. Period. In practical life, the current attitudes (clothes shaming) across our society send a message that harassing women who appear to differ from our own beliefs is okay. This should be the core of the ongoing debate – so let’s focus on that rather than building walls between women of different viewpoints. All of us should instead turn our attention to why there is so much focus on shameless women, and rarely any on shameless men? Young girls should feel no shame. Some men should feel more. And as parents, in order for us to raise sons that respect all women of any external appearance, so must we! So this debate starts and ends with us. Parents of all ages, religions, faiths, colors and nationalities; we must start respecting women and diversity.
Regardless of which religion you belong to and which fabric or symbol you wear, no one should make the mistake to think that a woman’s level of faith, values or deeds is directly linked to – or limited by – her physical appearance.
No one should feel justified to label a woman as more or less virtuous or humble towards her God, or more or less “up for grabs” based on the choice of wearing some sort of cover or not. The choice of cover or no cover should be 100% up to the individual woman. But the choice should never be punished by society – it is a strictly personal matter between the woman and her belief. Human beings or religious leaders should never take it upon them selves to judge or punish others who choose differently. Moral police, burkini police, or other society instruments to control women’s behavior is something we must all fight together, beyond borders and cultures. Wearing cover due to real belief can be a good thing for the individual relationship with a God. And wearing it due to pressure or fear truly can’t be good for ones faith and spiritual journey. But trying to solve this through forcing women in a certain direction only creates more support to what you’re trying to reduce.
The best support is this amazing initiative from Iran – coming from within;
To round of these Saturday morning thoughts; my coffee-break thoughts ended in a conclusion that ones outfit should be a personal choice based on ones personal belief, but never due to external pressure, fear of punishment or judgement. And more important, just as we shouldn’t judge those who cover, there shouldn’t be judgement either from covered women, society structures or the religious communities towards uncovered women – simply because people can be good and bad regardless of their way of clothing.
To rephrase an old quote; Never read a book (or a woman) by the covers. The humblest soul and most dedicated humanist can be covered by a mini skirt, and the coolest feminist or best soccer-player can be covered by a hijab. And a deuchebag comes in all outfits.
Women of all ages, beliefs, colors and shapes will be the key drivers to succeed reaching the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and reshape the world for better. Women represent a huge unrealized potential to create change. Let’s stop judging women that dress, believe or act different than yourself – and start enabling each other instead! Like the Sisterhood magazine by amazing Deeyah Khan!
PS: To be perfectly clear on one thing – kids should never need to be subject of covering up, unless it’s to protect them from cold weather or the sun. Let kids be kids!