Kate Maltby

Since when was the hijab a feminist statement?

Since when was the hijab a feminist statement?
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Over ten years ago, the satirical American magazine the Onion published an article under the headline: Women Now Empowered By Everything A Woman Does. If you’ve ever heard someone insist that pole dancing is empowering, the Onion predicted it. In a take-down of the lazy gluttony of ‘choice-feminism’, it told us: ‘Whereas early feminists campaigned tirelessly for improved health care and safe, legal access to abortion, often against a backdrop of public indifference or hostility, today's feminist asserts control over her biological destiny by wearing a baby-doll T-shirt with the word "Hoochie" spelled in glitter.’

I thought I was reading the Onion all over again yesterday, when I stumbled across the Guardian’s latest viral video: ‘My hijab has nothing to do with oppression. It's a feminist statement’. Against a backdrop of lingerie models, bikini babes, and sad western women weighing themselves (still in lingerie), hijab-wearer Hanna Yusuf adopts her primary school teacher voice and asks us, very, very slowly ‘in a world when a woman’s value is often reduced to her sexual allure, what could be more empowering than rejecting that notion?’ Western women, we discover, are dopes to consumerism, brainwashed into buying more diets, thongs and trashy magazines. The hijabi wearer, in covering her lust-inducing hair, is truly free. There are even background ‘gasps’ to represent the shocked non-Muslim viewer discovering this concept for the first time! HUH?!

Well, Hanna, let me tell you something. I’ve never once worn a bikini in my life. Like you, I don’t fancy being sexualised on my family beach holiday, and I do a dab hand in 1950s swimsuits: practical, glamorous, and comfortable around my Dad. During my long, ultra-feminist years of refusal to shave my legs, I endured annual struggles with billowing cover-ups and clingy leggings (though last time I went to a theology lecture, sensitive depilation was as mandated by most branches of Islam as it is by Cosmopolitan). I’m a conservative woman at heart: I don’t even practice sex before marriage. Not because I’m a female eunuch, but because I, like many Muslims, believe that sex is sacred.

But, Hanna, I don’t need a hijab to dress like a feminist. And your choice between veil or bikini is a false dichotomy. In fact, it’s one of the oldest anti-feminist tropes in the book, a mild reframing of the old Madonna-whore complex, for which my own Christianity has been rightly pilloried. Feminists are building a future in which the female body is no more a fetish object than the male: where I can eschew the bikini, but feel the wind through my Chelsea blow-dry, and still be valued more for my understanding of 16th century history than for how I look in either. Granted, we’re not there yet. But the more we treat parts of our bodies as sexual triggers and hide them away, the more we sexualise them in the male imagination. Both Islamic dress codes and Hollywood magazines sustain themselves by policing women’s bodies.

Hanna, I don’t think the hijab is about ‘oppression’ – not, as you say, in modern Britain. After all, you’re getting a Guardian vox-pop out of it. And obviously, as a liberal, I’d oppose any attempt to ban it. But while you rightly point out that most Western women are psychologically enslaved to diet culture, is it unreasonable to suggest to a student of Marx that false consciousness – remember that? – applies as much to women in hijabis as women in bikinis? I’m not sure I’ve ever met a woman, in a hijab, bikini or knee-length skirt, who makes culturally free choices about her wardrobe.

And why am I, a white woman, commenting in turn on what a Muslim woman wears? Because I’m also writing about my own cultural history. The attitudes to female modesty proposed in videos like this run through every poem I read for my academic work on women in the sixteenth century: Christian men justifying rape, because a woman accidentally flashed an ankle in their direction. My great-grandmothers, and great-great-grandmothers, fought to escape the limits of modesty policing. To quietly accept such premises all over again is to make a mockery of their entire struggle.

The hijab, by definition, highlights sexual difference and effaces intersexuality. As the Harvard academic Leila Ahmed details in her book, A Quiet Revolution, the rapid resurgence of the veil in the modern Muslim world has not been matched by a renewed dedication to men’s Islamic dress codes: women are required to display their belonging to the clan group, while men are not. As one ex-Muslim also told the Guardian, it allows women to be policed by Muslim strangers:

You’re much more visible as a woman. You’re conditioned to behave in a certain way with a headscarf. I mean, you’re not going to go to a pub with a headscarf, are you? You’re not going to stay out late with a headscarf. It’s a form of control.

There’s a simple question I ask of religious prohibitions, whether it’s Christian men telling me I couldn’t be a bishop, or the Haredi Jewish women hiding themselves away from the world during their menstrual cycles. Does God ban men from doing it, too? If not, there’s nothing feminist about it.

Written byKate Maltby

Kate Maltby writes about the intersection of culture, politics and history. She is a theatre critic for The Times and is conducting academic research on the intellectual life of Elizabeth I.

Topics in this articleSocietyfeminismguardianislamsex