Niqabs Are Harmful, But We Shouldn’t Ban Them

 

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Recently, perhaps due to Facebook’s overtly partial organisational algorithm, or perhaps due to the well-intentioned yet misguided efforts of those in my ‘friends’ list of a far left-wing or theocratic inclination, I have found myself continually stumbling across a particularly grotesque yet entirely unsurprising attempt by the obnoxiously prolific BBC Three to normalise that most egregious of crimes against the sound moral conscience: the monotonisation and deindividualisation of the female of the species.

The video in question, ingratiatingly titled ‘Things Not To Say To Someone Who Wears a Burqa’ (which, interestingly, does not at any point include a woman wearing one), ventures to utilise the free adoption of hijab, in this case by women clad mostly in niqabs, to present the practice as something entirely benign and harmless. (Of course, their sample of interview participants is, to say the least, geographically invariable.) The most telling portion of the video by far is that in which the question ‘why do you wear that?’ is discussed. This is, after all, where the heat of the debate surrounding the covering of women truly lies: what is the motive behind the adoption of the cloth?

The very first answer shown by one of the women is, predictably, ‘I am wearing it for God’. This is revealing. Upon reading the Qur’an, it is difficult to ignore the blatant repression of women promoted by its god. There is further misogyny, however, as well as a number of unnecessary theological complications, implicit in the declaration that it is God’s will that women cover their faces in public (an injunction you will not find in the Qur’an itself). Firstly, if it is the case that a woman’s standard of modesty is different to that of a man’s in the eyes of the almighty, we have two options available by means of an explanation:

  1. God is sexist, and purposefully endowed women with more of a need to cover up than men.
  2. God is a non-existent entity, created by man (as in, men) as a projection of his most abundant characteristics, including, naturally, the subjugation of women.

Neither option is a compelling justification for the sacrifice of one’s identity.

Secondly, there is an issue here regarding the views of this unidentified (and unidentifiable) woman regarding those women who decide not to adopt the veil. If she is of the genuine opinion that it is necessary for her to wear a niqab in order to be looked upon favourably by the supreme leader, is this judgement not therefore administered to all women? The god of the Qur’an is unforgiving at the best of times, and makes it clear that those who contradict his prescriptions (myself unapologetically included) are in possession of a one-way ticket to the darkest pits of the underworld. If this woman’s code of dress is, as she claims, contingent upon the wishes of God, the necessary corollary is that those women who refuse to abide by it themselves are looked upon by this god with distaste, and therefore condemned to this most outrageous of fates.

Herein lies the most salient argument against the promotion of such propaganda: if impressionable girls are taught, implicitly or explicitly, that, in order to gratify the being that will ultimately decide their fate, it is advisable to cover their skin from the prying eyes of men for the sake of modesty (another defence which clearly identifies archaic male insecurities as the basis for this contemptible practice, as well as ignoring the piercing irony of the attraction of gazes of attention elicited by the wearing of the traditional garment), these girls will be led to believe that such a choice (provided they are in lucky enough a position to call it a choice) should be seen as desirable. In other words, they will begin to ‘want’ to cover themselves, despite this ‘want’ being grounded in a clear case of false consciousness.

It goes without saying, however, that once this regrettable ‘want’ is developed, nobody is within their rights to force a woman to remove a niqab or burqa, for the very same reasons that nobody should be able to force her to wear one. The prospect of a banning an item of religious expression, or state-control of a woman’s choice of clothing, certainly outrages my internal sense of moral decency (except in cases where a ban is appropriate, such as certain occupations within the public sector and education, or instances of forced adoption). Still, given that the origins of the desire to dress in such an otherwise perplexing and repressive manner are so clearly coercive in nature, I find it damagingly irresponsible for secular individuals to make such an erroneous exception for Islam where they would otherwise admonish such a clear case of the subconscious indoctrination of ingenuous girls into not only a bizarre religious practice, but also the victim-blaming mindset that underpins it.

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1979: Women take to the streets to protest forced hijab days after the Iranian (counter) revolution

There does also exist, of course, the claim that wearing a niqab or burqa is not an Islamic practice, and is instead an expression of modesty for modesty’s sake, not to impress any Middle-Eastern deity. This is easily dismissible. If it were simply a reasonable expression of modesty, the niqab and the burqa (and furthermore, the headscarf), would not be idiosyncratic to Muslim women. As a matter of fact, this exclusivity seems indicative of there needing to be some religious persuasion involved in order for any person to wish to wear a cloth on their face every day. This should not come as a surprise.

I am unreservedly in favour of any person’s right to wear whatever they want. But I am also unreservedly repelled by any ideologically-driven attempt to decide what women should want.

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31 comments

  1. My skeptic alarm goes off whenever I see an acolyte of misogynists and anti-feminists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Chris Hitchens making noble-sounding pronouncements about the plight of women in the Middle East.

    I’m sorry, but I don’t believe for a minute that anyone who ridicules “regressive leftists” and “SJWs” is advocating for women’s rights for any reason other than for anti-Muslim kicks. You must think we were all born yesterday if you think we believe your commitment to female autonomy is anything other than a convenient pose in which you exploit the suffering of women in conservative Middle Eastern societies to make it sound like that’s the only place where male dominance is a problem.

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    1. So we can’t advocate for women’s rights without being anti-muslim? Because why would any man advocate for women’s rights, right? Is that what you’re getting at?

      He also makes it very clear throughout the post that he doesn’t think we should tell anyone how to dress at all. He doesn’t think it should be forced on people, which is what is happening, even if it’s on a subconscious level.

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      1. Oh, I see, you’re “advocating for women’s rights” by targeting their choice of dress as demeaning and irrational? By deploring the way women are “forced” to wear the hijab, you’re making it seem like our cultural beliefs about propriety and femininity are superior, and so we never ever have to look at the problems with the way women are treated in our own society.

        Like I said, I’d give Alex more credit if it seemed like his commitment to women’s issues derived from a feminist mindset or a familiarity with feminist literature. Did I miss all the videos where he addressed feminist concerns in the West, or how women are treated in the atheist and freethought communities? Like his heroes Dawkins and Hitchens, he’s just exploiting the plight of women in conservative Middle Eastern societies to bash Muslims.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. If someone chooses to wear a hijab that’s completely fine I don’t care. I don’t have a problem with what anyone decides to wear, it’s their choice not mine. Burkas are forced on women a lot though, and it can be forced subliminally.

        Also, I don’t agree with the way women are treated in our society, I’m really not sure where you are getting these arguments from.

        Criticizing a religion, or a cultural idea, is not “bashing”. No one is intentionally just “bashing” Muslims we are criticizing their beliefs, just as we do with Christianity.

        And what do you mean about how women are treated in the freethought and atheist communities? That doesn’t make sense. There isn’t an actual community, and in general, as far as I know, women are treated equally by most rational people.

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      3. I don’t buy that this kind of grandstanding is merely “criticizing a cultural idea.” It’s objectifying, stereotyping, and demonizing Muslims, particularly Muslim women, and imposing our way of thinking on them. Is it really the way they dress that annoys Alex, or the way they think?

        I guess I’m different in that I call myself an atheist because my worldview doesn’t include gods or the supernatural. Others, I guess, call themselves atheists because they think that allows them to bash others with impunity and exempts them from any kind of self-criticism or responsibility for their beliefs. My atheism is more about critical thinking and freethought than about disingenuity and intellectual cowardice.

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      4. How is it demonizing Muslims when no one has said “Muslims are evil”, or in any way attacked the people? We are only talking about the beliefs. I have had Muslim friends and we have had friendly discussions about religion without her getting mad at me. I have nothing against the people. I just think that their beliefs, and all religious beliefs, are irrational and harmful. All ideas deserve to be criticized, and criticising an idea is in no way an attack on the people. Scientific ideas are criticized and debated constantly, religious ideas deserve to be treated the same.

        Also this doesn’t apply to only Muslims. I criticize Christianity more than I do Islam, because I am surrounded by more Christians than Muslims. My family is Christian, my fiance’s family is Christian, and I am in no way demonizing my family when I criticize Christianity. It’s all the same.

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      5. “I have nothing against the people.”

        Yeah, it’s like Trump said, “Some, I assume, are good people.”

        “I just think that their beliefs, and all religious beliefs, are irrational and harmful.”

        Oh, so you don’t think the people are irrational and dangerous, it’s just that the beliefs that define their identities and behavior are irrational and dangerous. That’s SO different!

        “All ideas deserve to be criticized, and criticising an idea is in no way an attack on the people.”

        It’s just adorable that you think this hackneyed distinction-without-a-difference is still persuasive. Each to his own magical thinking.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. So are you proposing that we should never criticize any beliefs or ideas? Or just Muslim beliefs and ideas?

        And if so, I’m assuming that you’re 100% okay with the stoning of unwed non-virgins, genital mutilation, killing apostates/non-believers, etc.

        Are you also against criticizing the ideas that scientists come up with, or in turn, the ideas of pseudoscience?

        And if a serial killer says that he believes he is doing good, should he not be imprisoned?

        Just trying to figure out where you draw the line.

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      7. “I’m assuming that you’re 100% okay with the stoning of unwed non-virgins, genital mutilation, killing apostates/non-believers, etc.”

        If that’s what you assume, then I assume you’re more interested in self-righteous grandstanding than true dialogue.

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      8. How is this not true dialogue? Because I don’t agree with you? You haven’t made any actual points, you just keep quoting me and arguing that my argument is just “self-righteous grandstanding”. I was genuinely asking a question. You haven’t addressed any point that I’ve raised, you just keep deflecting it all to say “oh, you’re just grandstanding.” You’re arguing in a circle without making any progress past the fact that you disagree.

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    2. I haven’t made any points? Okay, let me remind you what my points are:

      This kind of critique isn’t motivated by a true commitment to women’s rights but rather by the urge to bash Muslims and portray them as bigoted and primitive. It’s not like Alex frequently discusses issues about female autonomy on his channel and this article is in keeping with his concern for the way women are treated in whatever society; he’s just denigrating them as “women in bags” to make them seem like they’re brainwashed and irrational.

      The distinction you make between criticism of the religion of Islam and criticism of Muslims is a false one, a meaningless differentiation employed purely as a rhetorical defense against wholly valid accusations of bias. Islam is what makes people Muslim; there’s no way to define Islam apart from the identities, mindsets and behavior of Muslims. You’re trying to bash Muslims without seeming prejudiced, and nobody buys it anymore.

      Defining oneself as an atheist doesn’t automatically make one impervious to criticism or relieve one of the obligation to morally and rationally justify what he or she believes. Whether The Big G exists or not isn’t the only relevant matter in society; the reason we’re atheists is because of all the other beliefs we have about science, history, progress, psychology, morality, and culture. We should take responsibility for what we believe and be self-critical, rather than pretend we get to criticize everyone else and never have to justify what we believe.

      The only thing you’ve done is handwave away these claims, and then disingenuously deny that I’ve made them.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The fact that most women who wear burquas and niqabs do so because forced to tells me all I need to know. That some women identify with their oppressors is irrelevant. Until it truly becomes a free choice, by which I mean that women are considered equals, are permitted every freedom, have autonomy over their bodies, participate fully in government and business, serve freely and in the same roles as men in the military and no one gives it a second thought, this type of dress code for women should be discouraged and spoken out against. It should not be banned because to do so is another form of oppression.

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  3. Alex, I believe you’re over-thinking the issue. Neither you nor I are responsible for what others raise their children to believe (assuming no laws are broken) even when the child is indoctrinated with what we regard as unacceptable beliefs. We are not permitted to intervene in a free society. We can try to persuade the parents towards a different path; however, this is certainly futile leading to complaints of meddling where we don’t belong.

    Why women choose to wear the beekeeper suit is none of our business. They are free to do so for whatever reason.

    Charlie

    Liked by 1 person

  4. i don’t think the author wants to mock the practice of covering women but is genuinely interested in what motivates and perpetuates this behaviour – especially in the context of a modern, free thinking contemporary society.it is such an in-your-face (mind the pun) display of gang loyalty that the atheists you mention above question the religious impulse that demands such a dress code that targets half of their population and therefore use it to ridicule the institution of religion questioning its relevance and sexist orientation. inequality exists everywhere and social traditions should be questioned and challenged for our future generations to experience a world from a multitude of viewpoints rather than being stuck in an outdated, barbaric and unfair perspective that islam presents. and islam is not alone in this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it has a lot more to do with misogyny than freethinking. As I’ve said, Alex doesn’t address women’s issues at all on his channel except to target them for their religious and irrational clothing choices. He’s trying to claim a moral high ground he hasn’t earned.

      The problem I have with the burqa isn’t religious at all: it’s the way the man gets to use it to claim a woman’s body as his exclusive property, exempt from the eyes of other men. And the anti-burqa phenomenon is just as superficial, because it’s mostly articulated by men who resent not having access to the bodies of women in public. As usual, women’s beings are used as the battlefield between control-freak males.

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  5. It seems you have developed a dislike of the author’s expression of viewpoints and that probably means you have spent a lot of time pondering the content and the attitude of his arguments. Fair enough. But the problem with the burqa is a religious one because it gains its authority through religious piety ( regardless of how twisted or irrational this may seem ) And yes the men ( and indeed the women) justify this treatment by appealing to religious references. I know not all Muslims share this barbaric practice whose historical roots was based on the desire of upper class. wealthy Muslim women to be anonymous in their need to sometimes move into the general community and venture into the town square to purchase items of food occasionally. But its prime purpose was to shield the wealthy, upper-class females from the poorer sections of society and is therefore a practice based on class snobbery. How it transformed into a strategy to monopolise a woman’s identity to the personal dictates of husbands beggars belief but when religion enters into any equation of human motivation nothing should surprise. And I don’t think it is an anti-burqa phenomenon but one of common sense that questions the rationale in accepting a condition where women are forced to wear a bag over their heads. Would you want to wear a bag over your head? In this day and age? The atheists you mention- that you also seem to dislike and consider to be misogynists- are merely making the simple point that under the umbrella of religion these practices flourish unquestioningly and are spurred on by the insanity of religious impulse. Now what’s wrong with that?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I explained what I think is wrong with it: it’s a bunch of men using women’s bodies as the battlefield in their dick-swinging culture war. It’s Western people patting themselves on the back for their superiority to the chosen Other while they ignore the inequities in their own society. It’s a bunch of people who know so little about history, culture, and philosophy that they can blame all problems on religion, and pretend they’re doing something to remedy the problems just by insulting, intimidating and stereotyping people online.

      That’s what’s wrong with it.

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  6. Your ad hominem arguments are sadly lacking a genuine voice. Religion is the problem in this instance. If having an alternative viewpoint is insulting, intimidating and stereotyping then so be it. Sorry to disrupt your vision of your self. But freedom to express is a value for everyone to share and it helps to move society to a better place for all. :-))

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If I were making an ad hominem argument, all I’d be saying is, “Alex is a jerk and so everything he says is wrong.” If I’m critiquing the content of people’s biased and mistaken opinions, then that’s not an ad hom. And I’m not criticizing poor Alex or right-wing men for “having an alternative viewpoint,” I’ve made clear what my issues with their mindsets and strategies are.

      Since you haven’t bothered to address, even once, the substance of my criticisms, I assume they’re simply so far from your simplistic notion that “religion is the problem” that you can’t even understand them.

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  7. I don’t mean to be rude but you seem to be so drunk with your own sense of self righteousness that you seem incapable of seeing the trees in the forest. In fact you seem to be deluded into a notion that you are somehow a spokesperson for the plight of women in a world dominated by-quote- a dick-swinging culture war. You have made no arguments against Hinch. Dawkins. Harris except to call them misogynsts and anti-feminists and your critique of Alex – although you refuse to see it – is exactly as you phrased it – “Alex is a jerk and so everything he says is wrong.” And lastly there is no need to explain or justify the inhumane effects of religion on all societies – any sane person can see for themselves what religion has done and is continuing to do to individuals and communities as a whole. You my dear friend are guided by a strong dislike and revulsion to the truth espoused by these individuals. I rest my case.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Well done Steve F. Alex’s views will change as he ages… as all of our views do… I agree that currently he is too keen to follow in the path of Hitchens… but he seems to read varied books… I’m excited to see how he changes… granted he continues to put in the work and continues to have some public success

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    1. Considering how entrenched anti-feminist and anti-Muslim sentiment is in the atheist community and among YouTube celebrity atheists, I don’t share your optimism. Many of the comments for this video on Alex’s YouTube channel came from people who had no problem with a burqa ban and displayed condescension and contempt for Muslims.

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      1. Steve, hold on. Since when is anti-feminist thinking part of atheist philosophy? First you need to explain what anti-feminist means. Does it mean those against feminism? Probably, but what forms of feminism? Being against equal rights for women qualifies as anti-feminist, but what about those supporting equal rights but against the current wave of radical anti-male feminism?

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    2. Charles, I’m just observing that most of the New Atheist nabobs Alex admires —folks like Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and popular YouTubers like Boghossian and Molyneux— proudly display an anti-feminist mindset that makes their outrage about things like burqas extremely suspect. Atheists online will argue against abortion too, but strictly to annoy conservative religious people and not because they’re committed to female autonomy.

      I’m an atheist too, but I don’t espouse this vague up-with-everybody universalism that humanism seems to have devolved into. There are systemic inequities in our society that disadvantage women and minorities, and it’s not “anti-male” to expect men to acknowledge and accept the reality of male privilege. Since we’re always criticizing religious people for not being able to face reality, we should be committed to recognizing harsh truths about our society and reality.

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      1. Steve, I don’t see why there should be any philosophical link between atheism and feminism. I’m unfamiliar with Boghossian, but for the others, all rational thinkers, I suspect their objections are with the fringe feminists who’ve crossed the line from rational to batshit.

        The systemic inequities you refer to while once prevalent are now mostly, not completely but mostly, in the dustbin of history. Today they seem most popular with professional victims. BTW: not all of us criticize the faithful for not accepting reality. It accomplishes nothing (unless you just enjoy pissing people off:), and we might be wrong!

        Charlie

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    3. Charles, I wasn’t saying there’s a “philosophical link” between atheism and anti-feminism. I just observed that the New Atheist nabobs openly express disdain for Western feminism while they berate their religious foes for supporting pro-life and the burqa. I’ve never heard them come out in support for any feminist or tout the work of a feminist writer. Have you?

      Since you deny that there are any systemic inequities worth mentioning, I assume you haven’t spent much time trying to understand the realities of structural biases in our society either. So if women aren’t forced to wear burqas, they’re totally free and equal, huh?

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      1. Steve, “New Atheist nabobs”, great phrase – like it! Not sure what it means, but who cares? The disdain for feminism I’m mostly seeing is largely confined to radical feminism as opposed to more classical feminism pushing for equal rights and against discrimination which everyone of good character should support in western society. Is disdain of feminism more prevalent among atheists than the religious? Do most atheists tolerate or berate the religious? Differing opinions doesn’t necessarily make us foes.

        All sorts of bias exists. Isn’t that part of the human reality? What are you defining as structural bias? Hiring discrimination is illegal. Housing discrimination is illegal. The tech industry (which is my background) goes out of their way to hire women and minorities trying to achieve diversity. Universities also go to great efforts to achieve a diverse student body. What am I missing?

        Your final comment about women and burkas was silly. I simply said I had no problem with women freely choosing to wear a burka. I never claimed this made them totally free and equal. Where did you get that idea?

        Charlie

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  9. I somewhat agree with this. Regardless of their reasons for wearing it, unless it is forced, it shouldn’t be taken away from them. The whole point of freedom is the ability to choose and by telling women what they can and can’t wear is completely derogatory and contrary to what we stand for. It’s demeaning to be told what is considered as oppression when how you dress is how you choose to dress. Comparing the plight of modern Muslim women in western countries with the mythology of the oppressive Middle East where every woman is forced into submission through adoption of the burqa is ridiculous. As for younger generations seeing it as something they have to wear in order to be good or go to heaven, they are not as impressionable as you may imagine. Especially in the West, there’s so much out there in the mediasphere that questions any such notions.
    A.H.

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