Looking at Muslim women’s clothing… again.

Every week, the Friday links here at Muslimah Media Watch include several stories about Muslim women’s clothing. Our posts often cover these issues as well. We look at definitions of veiling and modesty, and how these are perceived by Muslim and non-Muslim media. How some Muslim women are often seen as oppressed by their clothing, or other times are seen as stronger/better/more pious because of their clothing, and how people’s identities are always much more complicated than this.

But most of you who read MMW don’t actually need me, or any of the other writers, to tell you this stuff. I could probably write a different post each week focusing only on representations of clothing or headscarves, but that might get old. As much as I’m having fun pulling apart some of the ridiculous articles that come our way, this is something that many of you can do on your own.

Last week, when writing about the Charming Burka, I promised to have more of a discussion on these clothing issues and why they get talked about so much. So, a question. This might be a bit of a can of worms that I just may be opening here, but here goes. I guess I’m essentially wondering why there’s such a focus in the media on issues of how Muslim women dress, and especially on this clothing as oppressive. Before this starts to sound just too simplistic, let me explain. I’m working on the assumption that most women choose how they want to dress, and are entitled to make that choice (acknowledging that the concept of “choice” can be problematic inside and outside of Islamic contexts, but we’ll talk about that one another time.) However, there are also some women who may indeed dress a certain way because they are forced to do so because of whatever oppressive and patriarchal forces they are up against. (These categories are not necessarily so clearly defined.)

Given that we’re talking about images of Muslim women, this second category usually manifests as women who are forced to wear a burqa (or niqab, or hijab) because of overbearing and/or abusive fathers, or other male family or community members. This certainly does not represent anything close to all Muslim women, and even those covered by this category have much more complex lives than it suggests. (It is also certainly not unique to Muslim communities.) But let’s accept that some women do fit into this category in some way.

The thing is, even for this segment of the population for whom clothing is something imposed on them, should what they wear really be our biggest concern? My impression is that if a woman is in a situation where she truly does not have any say in what she wears, chances are she is probably facing greater abuse (or threats thereof) than the cloth that she is wearing on her body. Why, then, does the focus so often stop at the level of clothing? If the writers of these articles truly feel that these women are oppressed, then why don’t they look at the actual oppression that they are living with, rather than the headscarf (or face-covering, or whatever) that supposedly indicates this oppression? Or do the writers truly think that hijab, in whatever form it takes, is so inherently oppressive that it warrants constant media coverage and analysis?

I’m having a hard time articulating this, since it is often really inappropriate to assume that someone else is oppressed (or worse, needing you to save them), whether the issue is clothing or anything else. I do not want to be saying that people writing these articles should just switch to another issue without also looking critically at themselves and their own position and relation to the topic. But even when people do feel some need to write about “oppressed Muslim women,” why is this done so often in the context of their clothes? Is this just a continuation of the veil-fetish art and literature of colonial times? Is it simply because the scarf is such a visible marker of being different from mainstream European/North American society? Is it really just a misunderstanding that seems to lead people to see the scarf as inherently oppressive, or is there an agenda behind wanting to portray Muslim women (and by extension, Muslim cultures) in certain ways? Is this talked about differently in Western and non-Western media? I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on this.

Major disclaimer before anyone starts thinking about commenting: As usual, Muslimah Media Watch is a forum to discuss representations of Muslim women. This means that, as usual, this is not the place to discuss whether burqas (or headscarves) are required in Islam, or whether they are inherently oppressive. The question is about why these get talked about in the ways that they do, and specifically why they often get seen as the form of oppression that women are dealing with.

  • Jana

    I was interviewed recently for an article about hijab in the Guardian:http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2008/jul/28/fashion.womenGranted, it was written by a Muslim, but still…

  • Duniya

    This is a tough one. I think I’m of the opinion that Muslims have a greater role in this over-emphasis than non-Muslims. After all, when you have two Muslim countries mandating Muslim women’s attire, taking away their right to chose their own clothes, by law, then you are, as Muslims, sending the message that the way a Muslim woman dresses is immensely important. Supposedly her clothing determines the morality of the society in which she lives. When such a huge responsibility is placed on the body of a woman, then what she does with that body needs to be controlled by the society whose morality is at stake. Iran and Saudi might also be the reason that hijab/niqab are seen as forced and oppressive. How can they not be when two countries do in fact force their women to wear them? Unfortunately all the other Muslim countries, which do not enforce a dress code legally, get ignored. People forget that the majority of Muslim countries do not take that choice away from women, by law at least. Of course, there exist many cultural pressures, but those are everywhere. However, the Muslim countries that do not legislate what a woman wears, still do hold the belief that the morality of society rests on the clothing of women. Perhaps going back to the the centuries old belief that women are inherently sexual creatures, who, if left to their own devices, would be enticing and luring men through their sexuality, away from their duties to society thus resulting in the downfall of that society. Therefore, what women in that society wear will either hinder or catalyze that process. Just some of my thoughts.

  • Zeynab

    Jana, congrats on the interview! I’ll definitely include it in the Friday links.But what are your thoughts about the overemphasis on Muslim women’s dress in the media?

  • eyes serene

    Assalamu alaikom,I agree with what duniya has said (and you of course) and I would like to add that I think the Western media focus on it so much because it’s such an obvious, physical representation. Especially any kind of covering that hides the complete identity (not even visible eyes)… That’s the complete opposite of how things are in Western countries, where we have to pass laws to keep a stitch of clothing on some people. (Recently a city here in Michigan either passed a city by-law or put it up for discussion that men cannot have half their underwear hanging out of their baggy pants, as one example. The enormous Superbowl-Janet Jackson nipple controversy is another.) Not to say that we Westerners are immodest. It’s just that the issue of women covering as an aspect of community self-respect is SO not in our psyche. Some Muslims *do* put a lot of emphasis on hijab/modesty. A lot of the literature aimed at women focuses on this and sometimes I think at the expense of other key areas.

  • Jana

    Zeynab, I’ve got a detailed essay about hijab in the media, hijab in the Muslim community and overemphasis coming up actually. I’ll try to include it before Friday so you can put it in your links if you like.

  • Shawna

    I think this focus is a reflection of the women’s rights movement in the U.S. If you look at the progress of women’s rights throughout the last century, you’ll notice a trend in women becoming less covered. Western women consider themselves the most free. They fought for the right to undress. Our culture reflects this onto other cultures, so women still wearing lots of clothes haven’t been granted the freedom of women here. Don’t think I articulated that well, but hopefully that makes sense.

  • Duniya

    I wouldn’t say that Western women fought for the right to undress. I’m not sure if “the right to undress” was a part of the feminist movement. What was a part of the feminist movement was a woman’s right to control her own body whether that meant what she wore on it or what she did to it medically etc. I think the idea that for women in the West, particularly feminists, the less clothed you are the more liberated you are is actually not as common as many people, especially those of the East, would like to think. The feminist circles in which I run in fact, this whole phenomenon of young women appropriating feminism to justify taking their clothes off for the entertainment of men has been highly criticized (ie Girls Gone Wild). It is seen, among many feminists, as just another method of men controlling women, but this time by convincing women that what they are doing is liberating to women. But of course this is seen all over the world. So I’m a little hesitant to pit the West against Muslim countries/cultures. I don’t think it’s as clear cut or black and white as many make it out to be. There is responsibility on all sides.

  • Krista

    Thanks everyone for the comments!Duniya: That’s a good point that Muslims have a part in this – especially if women’s dress is seen as something worth legislating. (And, of course, in that context, hijab comes to be seen as something forced even for the women who would have chosen to wear it anyway.) But still, even in places where clothing is written into the law like this, should that be our biggest concern? I feel like sometimes the focus on imposed dress codes takes away from other things that may also be imposed on women living in those countries. (On the other hand the way any of these issues are talked about, especially in Western media, is often incredibly problematic, so maybe it’s good if people stop at the level of clothing!)Eyes serene: Wa alaikum assalaam. I agree with you that a huge part of it is about how visible it is, and that some of the forms of covering seem really different from a non-Muslim Western perspective – a lot of people just really don’t have a clue how to understand it.

  • Krista

    I was thinking about this more today, and also thinking about how some of this might be related to what we often see as a lot of Western cultures focusing on civil rights and individual freedom and choice, rather than on things like socioeconomic rights. So, a woman who wears a burqa because of some coercion will be seen as oppressed because she does not have the individual freedom to choose what she wears. Other forces that are oppressing her (poverty, war/violence/insecurity, etc.), perhaps even more than her clothing, are looked at differently because they don’t fit into the same discussions on “rights” as the burqa does.

  • rawi

    I think the answer partly lies in language, and the nature of our thinking vis-a-vis language. This is another case of confusing the sign itself with what it signfies (without even realizing that the relationship between the two is rather arbitrary in the first place). As such, even though the veil may be a (mere) symbol of oppression (to the extent that the practice may have originated in patriarchal control), once we focus on the veil, we become so obsessed with it, we don’t really even bother about the actual oppression that it supposedly signifies. And so, even if a woman dons the veil in a decidedly non-oppresive context, she is still an oppressed woman, because: “OMG, she’s veiled!”But this would only answer the issue of “overemphasis” on the veil and the relative neglect of “real” oppression. I think this issue relates to the much broader question of women’s clothing in general. To the extent that the female body is the site of cultural negotiation, all (patriarchal) societies have an interest (actually, an obsession) with women’s clothing. In this sense, the Western media is obsessed with Muslim women’s clothing because it is inherently obsessed with women and what they wear. In other words, it’s a patriarchal thing (And, arguably, the reason Muslim societies want to keep their women veiled is the same reason Western societies don’t!). In fact, perahps the West’s desire to unveil Muslim women is a reflection of its desire to control their bodies: to the extent that veiled women don’t conform to the currently acceptable/fashionable modes of behavior/dressing in the West, these women’s bodies are beyond Western “control”–a fact that frustrates the patriarchy. I suspect this is precisely the reason behind the horrifying comment by noted French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy, who said that when he comes across a veiled woman on the street, he feels like he wants to rape her.The other important factor I want to mention is the distinct history of Western representation/perception of Muslim women and their veils (and here I can’t help but drop the buzzword: Orientalism). In this sense, the fetishization of the veil is at least partly the continuation of a tradition/institution.(Since these is a quick impromptu comment, I regret any inadvertent implication of monoliths like “the West,” “Muslim women,” etc)

  • islamfemina

    I agree with a lot of what Rawi has said, the obsession with head covering, no matter who it is who is obsessing, is a sign of the female body being used as a site of cultural negotiation in patriarchal societies and despite so-called women’s liberation in the so-called ‘West’ yes it is also a patriarchal society. I think the focus on Muslim women in the media and by many non-Muslim feminists is also a projection of one’s own problems onto the ‘other’, this is orientalism.I have often wondered why the clothes of Christian nuns are not seen as oppressive and can only come to the conclusion that because they are celibate and under the ‘control’ of the church they are not seen as a danger. Such motivations are not necessarily conscious but rather ingrained after centuries of patriarchy. Any government attempting to regulate women’s clothing in order to make a statement about their own politics, whether that be religious, as in Iran, or secular, as in France or Turkey, is seriously disregarding the right to autonomy of every individual. As for the media it too often likes a fast story with headlines, cliches, sides pitched against each other, without making any real attempt to inform. Even in the broadsheets I often find a condescension in commentary that is outrageous and arrogant.Looking forward to reading your article Jana :)

  • Faith

    Rawi, that was an awesome comment and great use of radical feminist thought. I always thought that the focus on the veil by both Muslims and non-Muslims was ultimately about control over women’s bodies. Until we stop trying to control women’s bodies and let women be-truly be and not just give lip service to that idea-the veil will always have way more importance than it should.

  • R. Layla Terman

    I also agree with Rawi.Women’s bodies are often the boundary makers for their particular culture. Women themselves are made to represent the morals, ethics, and collective beliefs of a society. Their role in raising children often places upon them the burden of responsibility for maintaining the cultural purity and morality of the family, the fundamental unit of society. We see this is phrases like the “Mother Land”, and in various citizenship codes around the world in which a woman automatically looses her citizenship if she marries a foreign man, cannot pass on her citizenship to her children if the father is foreign, etc.So it makes sense that the woman’s body becomes the most visible symbol of ‘culture’ and ‘morality’ of the society. Why does the Iranian government spend a bajillian tumans and countless resources enforcing the compulsory hejab? Because it’s the “Islamic Republic”–its entire basis of legitimacy after the Revolution was that it was an Islamic government, culturally and politically representing an Islamic people. If the people aren’t Muslim (and ‘Muslim’ is whatever the government says it is), the government has no legitimacy. Women taking off the hejab shows that the society does not conform to the political basis of the regime.Perhaps this is why the media places so much emphasis on the hejab. This woman (wearing the hejab) is not part of ‘our’ culture, she’s not one of us. Her body must be controlled to reflect the values of our society, to look like us. No one shows pictures of Muslim men in beards. They can wear whatever they want, but women are the boundary makers–it’s their bodies that count.Homogeneity of society dissolves in the heterogeneity of women, and women’s bodies in particular.

  • rawi

    I wanted to share a quote I happened to come across today that reminded me of this post:“As mentioned earlier, cartoonists almost never symbolize Islam or Muslims with images of women. When females do appear, they are almost always depicted as veiled and oppressed. The veil, then, and not a woman, symbolizes Islam and its implied oppressiveness. In other words, it is the invisibility of a woman, seldom her presence, that symbolizes Islam. Islam, through this symbol, can only be considered as inherently lacking.”From Islamophobia: Making Muslims the Enemy (p. 54), which I just discovered at my local used books place. The book specifically analyses images and political cartoons that have appeared in newspapers across America–hence the reference to cartoons in the quote above.The point that caught my attention was about how the concern is always the veil and not the woman herself. Perhaps that is precisely a deliberate intent of the veil itself? Complete anonymity, so that there’s not much to focus on other than the veil itself. But this would be only true of a Saudi or Afghan style burqa, which you would think is the only kind all Muslim women wear if you look at cartoons in the media! Talk about homogeneity…

  • Anti-Flag

    I’m currently doing my thesis on the hijab and how it constructs Muslim identity in various contexts (France, Iran, Tunisia)– but also how the hijab plays a significant role in subverting colonial, nationalist and religious discourse within these contexts. The over-emphasis of the hijab is a product of the Muslim world’s encounter with the coloniser which infused the hijab with meanings when prior to that there really wasn’t much focus on the normative practice of the hijab in the region. (see Leila Ahmed). Muslims since have battled it out with the Western world within these colonial parameters. Thus, the focus on identity, ‘dignity’ etc today has become reliant on the hijab/dress which marks ‘difference’. Within Western orientalist discourse it becomes interesting: The focus on the hijab is for a number of reasons: The colonial mindset exists today in the Western discourse which continues to rely on extreme binary categories of ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’. The Muslim Other is demarcated as ‘inferior’ and ‘OTHER’ through the hijab’s visibility. The West has had a fetish for exoticising the Other and its uses visual representations to do this—the hijab’s visibility for instance. Its visibility makes it easier for Western critics to make it a symbol of all that is negative of Islam (dominating narrative of Islam is in fact negative). Its visibility also allows these critics to stress the ‘alien’ and incompatibility of Islam to the West. The over emphasis also alludes to this idea of the hijab as a ‘costume’ as oppose to the ‘normal’ dress we see women in the West wearing. Of course, this also reduces Muslim women (like other women but in different ways) to superficial representations or ornamentations premised solely on appearance.

  • Duniya

    anti flag:Great points! Though I’m wondering if you meant to say “Arab” or “Arab Muslim” as opposed to “Muslim”? Colonizers encountered Muslims in India as well where women did not wear the hijab as we know it today. In fact, even today most Muslim women in the region do not wear hijab.

  • Krista

    Wow – I am impressed by the quality of the responses that this post is getting! Haha, maybe you should be the ones writing the articles… But seriously, thanks to all of you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.Sadly, I don’t have time to add any detailed reflections until probably tonight – but just wanted to say thanks to all for your contributions, and I will jump back into a more active role in this conversation as soon as I have a spare minute to think!

  • Forsoothsayer

    i think it is the visible marker thing, when you talk about muslim women living in the west. as for the ones not living there, monumental emphasis is put on their veils, for sure. i have to say it’s certainly on my mind quite often, because pretty much no man i pass lets me forget it. it’s become an issue of quite serious importance in egyptian society today, often discussed in the media and from pulpits, in favour of much more important topics.

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