Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Back to the hijab...

I'm not an expert on the various Islamic religions and this post is not about that. Coming from a Western and secular background, I have a hard time understanding and coming to terms with any type of organized religions. But I do remember a conversation I once had with my roommate about dressing codes and the headscarf. The headscarf, she told me, was the dressing code which made her feel safe. She felt naked without it. She felt men looking at her without it, and she had no clue how to handle that, especially since men for her represented violence.

It then occurred to me that I'm only grasping the religious aspect of the headscarf.
That I've been trained to 'see' only religion (and an 'alien' yet homogeneous religion, the religion of the 'Other'). That I am ignoring a whole dimension of dressing codes: the everyday life dimension. After all, haven't I chosen a longer skirt over a shorter one because I was sick and tired of being hassled on the street?

Which is not to say that religion is totally absent. But rather to allow some space for women to choose their own dressing codes, and to acknowledge that we do not live in a world without constraints. Gender relations, religion, power, social structures, definitions of normality, discourses about the 'Other' - they all mix together in our everyday lives and our identities. To realize that for the woman in question, having a headscarf or a longer dress may be - as strange as it may sound - an act of empowerment, of being in control, of being free, of being herself.

Photo credits: loufi


Goethe said...

In New York you frequently see Jewish women and girls wearing body-covering clothing. No one objects to that. I'm all in favor of modesty, and I'm surprised that you, as as academic and thinking person, are somewhat late in understanding the place of modest clothing. The head covering, however, is a different issue and is not simply a piece of cloth. The swastika for Indians 2,000 years ago had a meaning that is not objectionable, but we rightly object when young people today sport that Nazi symbol. I personally feel something similar is going on with the head covering. A scarf, okay, Hindu women wear loose scarves, but the full head covering among young women suggests not the modesty of a Catholic nun but solidarity with a political cause that is inimical to Western free, secular societies. The face covering is totally appalling. The lack of transparency in Middle Eastern societies is summed up for me in the figure of the obscured woman.

thinking about difference said...

Hm, personally I find the parallel between the svastika and the hijab offending, even if I am not myself a religious person. Also, the distinction between a Catholic nun covering her whole body out of modesty, vs. a Muslim girl covering her head out of being narrow minded or religiously brain-washed does not seem viable. In fact, it only betrays, I'd say, a double standard: modesty as a standard for Christianity, lack of transparency or narrow-mindedness for the "other", the Muslim. Personally, I disagree with your argument.

Goethe said...

Hm, personally, I think you're just a down-the-road, think-what-everyone-else thinks academic liberal. Being "offended" gets you off the hook from real thinking. You don't like the comparison, but it has merit, which you do not discuss. I agree with non-WEsterners who find that American and European females are often immodest in their dress, and I appreciate why they may be repelled or frightened by the implications of immodest dress. But many Muslim girls on college campuses wear tight-fitting jeans and only cover their heads. That head covering does not telegraph "modesty." For those who want to cover from head to foot while in America, it telegraphs to me that they want to import the same non-transparent political conditions that reign in their country of origin. And if such political conditions came to pass here, those who "think differently" would be the first to be outlawed.

Goethe said...

For an up-to-the-moment series on the burkha:

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