Fighting the Right Enemy
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Strolling down Hamra Street on a sunny Beirut afternoon, Joe and I passed by a couple having an argument (in English, as this detail has its own importance) , with the woman telling off her partner rather abruptly (I believe the phrase “Shut up!” has been heard, but let us not overhear and tell). The arguing woman was wearing a dashing pink coat (I remember it well, having coveted it), beautiful make up and blue jeans. She was also veiled. After the initial smile drawn by the harsh “Shut up!”, Joe pointed out that this small scene would have been a good counter example of the generally admitted assumption in the West that veiled women are submissive women: an English speaking, veiled, Lebanese young woman, standing her ground to her boyfriend. In other words, a HijaBabe, a specie that seem to have created its own identity in the Middle East and referring to ambitious, educated, dynamic young women wearing the hijab.
It is true that for most feminists in the West, the veil is the symbol a of woman’s submission to her man or to the men in her family. This statement always made me cringe, for several reasons. First of all, because I know of many veiled women who are anything but submissive, women who are the heads of their households, running them with an iron hand, working women, in all senses similar to the unveiled western woman, and I hate to see the word “submissive” stamped all over their foreheads, just because of a piece of cloth. Second of all, because I was under the impression that this whole conversation around the veil in the West was doing nothing, except stigmatizing Muslim women even more, which is kind of ironic coming from women’s rights organizations which strive to achieve women’s empowerment. And thirdly, because to me, waging war to the veil is utter and complete nonsense, fighting the wrong enemy in the name of women’s Human Rights.
Indeed, the veil could be anything, just like any other piece of attire: it could be a sign of what the woman wearing it considers as modesty, it could be a religious sign, hell, it could even be a Fashion Statement. Many young women decide to wear the veil after thorough reflection, as a means to express themselves, or because they feel more at ease or more in line with their religious beliefs, or for whatever reason they think is right. The enemy is not the veil in itself, or what it represents: the enemy is when the free will of a woman is taken away and something is forced upon her. Western feminists seem to forget that it is equally wrong to force or pressure a woman into dressing in a very sexy way or to do something she doesn’t really want to do than it is to make her wear the veil. Yet it seems that this somehow gets lost in all the media fuelled drama about the veil. Some Western women’s rights organizations make the veil a true battle, and tend to forget women who are being pressured by magazines or their partners to wear certain things they don’t want to, to achieve certain standards, to get skinny. So what is worse? A veiled woman who decided to be so on her own right, or a very sexy young woman who doesn’t feel at ease dressed like that but simply gave in to the pressure?
It seems to me that the only important, crucial, essential thing is free will. If a woman wants to be veiled, then so be it, let her wear the scarf for as long as she wants, stop judging her, stigmatizing her, singling her out, because then you’re just plainly intolerant and do the exact opposite of empowering. Being an assertive, empowered woman doesn’t mean not to wear the veil: it simply means being able to decide for oneself, and feel good about one’s life choices. If you ever walk down a Beirut street, you’ll see everything, from the uber- sexy Haifa look -a-like, to the veiled woman wearing the chador, and no one really minds.
It is sometimes important to remind western feminists that it is not because Arab women are different and think differently that they are necessarily submissive, less empowered, oppressed. Being different doesn’t make us any less of strong women, it’s other people’s reactions that force us to justify ourselves, when really we shouldn’t. Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying Human Rights are contingent to which culture you come from. Human Rights are universal, but to me the veil, when it is freely chosen, is not a Human Rights question.
The real enemies are oppressive regimes, ignorance, harmful practices, intolerance. It is the man or government forcing women to cover themselves, otherwise they would be labeled as a “sluts” and punished, and it is the man asking his wife or girlfriend to dress in a very sexy way so he can show her off. The real enemy is simply not something that covers women’s heads.
There are many of our sisters out there who need our support to fully enjoy their Human Rights: we can not afford to waste time on the tree hiding the forest.