Recently, I crossed paths with a cute, chubby prepubescent girl on a street in Philly. She was about six years old, dressed in an ankle length hijab. As we crossed paths, I smiled and thought nothing of it.
Later, though, I was bothered by the idea that someone so young would be required to wear a headscarf, since even the most orthodox interpretation of Islam requires a woman to cover her hair upon hitting puberty, and otherwise, simply dress “modestly”.
Then I remembered her mother and an op-ed I read last year. Her mother wore a niqab, which is a hijab-plus garment that not only covers a woman’s hair, but also her face and body, leaving slits for eyesight only. Suddenly, the headscarf on the six-year-old made sense. The daughter was being mentally prepared for the niqab.
The niqab is controversial. A ban is being called for from France to Canada. It has become a symbol of not only female suppression, but radical Islam’s invocation of separatism and criminality as well. Unfortunately, the niqab is but one issue facing Muslim women today.
Remember Lubna Hussain, the Sudanese journalist found guilty of indecent dress for wearing trousers in Sudan, or the more recent news highlighting Egyptian clerical outrage against Chinese hymen reconstruction kits now available for $30?
Such incidents move quickly through Western news media due to their unbelievability. But, if one understood the danger behind such incidences, perhaps reaction in the West would be stronger, especially from feminists.
What these stories have in common is the continued use of a woman’s body as the first battleground for political and cultural conflicts between reformers and authoritarian religious patriarchs that enjoy the status quo.
Which brings me to the op-ed I mentioned above. Feminist Naomi Wolf published a troubling article entitled, “Behind the veil lives a thriving Muslim sexuality,” where
Wolf argued that veiling is a valid form of modesty when predicated upon choice. Her proof of free will was based on visits to various homes in Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.
Wolf argues that, unlike Western society which ruins women’s lives with unattainable standards of beauty, the veil allows women to be taken seriously in the public sphere without objectification. Moreover, Muslim women are “thriving” in private where their sexuality is appropriately channeled toward marriage.
Is this what feminists argue these days? It is essential to recognize that, while some modern Muslims may choose to wear a headscarf, no choice exists where a girl is socialized to “channel” her sexuality “for her husband.”
Such social mores reinforce the belief that women are property, who must consider their sexuality and identity as mere extensions of family honor. It is no coincidence then that honor killings are prevalent in the countries Wolf visited.
Moreover, it is ironic that Wolf, ignoring such realities of the Middle East and North Africa, is able to marvel at the access Muslim women have to Victoria’s Secret catalogues, whose very images illustrate the feminine ideal Wolf ridicules in the West.
Lubna Hussain was not jailed for wearing pants. She was convicted for being an outspoken journalist, who criticized undemocratic laws in Sudan. She was an easy target because she was a woman. If the authoritarian Sudanese government was incapable of debating her intellectually, they resorted to attacking her person — her sex — and justifying it with high-minded notions of religion and morality.
Likewise, Egyptian clerics who revile the hymen-reconstruction kits, are not simply concerned with immorality in society. Instead, they tacitly reinforce the notion that the “goodness” in society, or its collective honor, is the woman’s burden alone.
Wolf forgets that women in our own nation were never handed equal rights, but fought for them in increments. For generations, American women endured threats, jail, physical assaults and ostracization from friends and family, including religious arguments against their activities. Yet, Wolf concludes by asking that the West not judge the veiled women on our streets and calls any hesitancy we have Islamophobic.
I can’t imagine what she would conclude then of actual Muslim women in Muslim majority nations, like Lubna Hussain, who fight for more personal and political rights and are criticized, harmed or jailed by locals for upsetting local religious or cultural standards that are meant to keep women marginalized.
The debate on women’s rights and human rights are not relative but universal. Feminists like Naomi Wolf do men and women a disservice by blurring the line between equality and human rights with cultural relativism.
Examiner columnist Supna Zaida is assistant director of Islamist Watch and editor-in-chief of Muslim World Today.