Last week, I wrote about choices that women and men might make in regards to showing their body. I’m sticking with this theme for another week, but approaching it from the other side: the choices people make in terms of not showing their body.
Nike recently publicised a prototype design for a sportswear hijab. I immediately thought that this was a great idea. It provides an opportunity for hijab-wearers to exercise freely outdoors, with all the traditional benefits of purposefully designed sportswear.
Others were not so sure about it. The Independent published a piece this week showing the backlash that Nike is facing- including proposed boycotts of the brand for ‘supporting the oppression of women’. I’d argue that what Nike is doing is exactly the opposite.
There are complicated arguments over the hijab, as there are about showing skin. There are parts of the world where covering oneself is mandatory, and yes, that is perceived by many as oppressive. But to assume that a woman wears a hijab because she is forced to do so is as patronising as assuming that a woman showing flesh is being exploited. To make this assumption is to rob hijab-wearers of their agency, and deny them the opportunity to make choices.
This sort of thinking led to the ill-conceived and terribly-enforced burkini ban in France. Take a look at this image, and think about how it makes you feel.
Here we have three armed men, forcing a women to take her clothes off. Make this any other woman on the beach, perhaps covering up with a dress or a sarong, and the real horror of this picture reveals itself. Forcing someone to show more skin than they feel comfortable with is gross. It is disgusting. It is a violation of a human being’s dignity and free will. It is an affront to all common decency. Forcing someone to strip in public when they clearly do not want to, when all they want is to be modest and get on with their own life, is an assault on their right to make choices about their body.
That’s before we get to to the hypocrisy that says a burqa is oppressive, but a nun’s habit is perfectly acceptable. Or that covering one’s hair is oppressive when a Muslim woman does it, but not when a Sikh man does. Suddenly the real point presents itself; this isn’t an argument in favour of women’s rights, it is a criticism of Islam.
There are branches of Islam that oppress women, just as there are branches of Christianity that do the same. In countries where a woman is told to wear a hijab, or a niqab, or a burqa, or face terrrible punishment, this is not a choice. But let’s not tar all branches of a religion with the same brush.
One of my Pajiba colleagues told me this week that a Muslim friend of hers felt more pressure to shave her legs while living in Canada than to wear a hijab while living in Pakistan. Doesn’t that show us where we are going wrong?
So let’s clarify this, once and for all. Forcing someone to cover up or strip off is clearly oppressive. If someone chooses to wear something you don’t like, it’s none of your business. I reserve the right to find certain clothing choices ‘bold’ and even entertaining- I saw a young’un in mustard coloured dungarees this week, and I may have suddenly got ‘Come on Eileen’ stuck in my head (for hours, seriously- that song doesn’t go away)- but he looked quite happy and no-one threatened to make him take his outfit off because it stood in opposition to principles of taste and style. It was an odd choice, but it was his choice. (It could have been a dare, I suppose, but that would still make it a choice of sorts.)
Where this is clearly not a choice, the issue becomes more complex. A choice of ‘do this or die’ is not really a choice; it is an illusion of choice designed to make the chooser complicit in their own subjugation. In ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, when Offred tells us that becoming a handmaid wasn’t much of a choice, but she consented and therefore what happens to her isn’t rape, you can see this internalised subjugation and complicity. But this is fiction, and it’s not OK to assume that a person who opts to cover their hair has not realised that they are not in control of their body.
The hijab might be easier for non-Muslims to understand than the burqa or niqab. After all, we all have hair that we prefer to cover up when we are in public. But covering the face feels symbolically stifling, and can be a barrier to communication. They can feel like masks, or disguises, and there is often an instinctive fear or suspicion that arises as a result. This may well be something that we should just get used to; the only other option is to force a woman to remove it. Which is worse: forcing someone to cover up, or forcing someone to strip?
I will always argue that our bodies are our jurisdiction only. They are our territory. We might invite others into that territory, but uninvited access is a violation. We are the governors of our own territory; decisions pertaining to its presentation and use belong to us alone.
My title this week comes from a Tim Minchin song (points if you recognised it already), and I’ll leave you with a few lines from it- have a beautiful weekend, my lovelies.
This is my body, and it’s fine.
It’s where I spend the vast majority of my time.
It’s not perfect, but it’s mine.
It’s not perfect.