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:
- God is sexist, and purposefully endowed women with more of a need to cover up than men.
- 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.
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.