Saturday, January 4, 2014

American Hijab: Girls, Clothes, and Shame

Capistrano Valley High School wants girls to know their bodies are a problem
Yesterday my daughter and I were discussing the book I Am Malala with a group of friends, mothers and teens who get together for an informal book club. Malala is the Pakistani teenager who survived being shot by the Taliban and went on to write this remarkable memoir. Her photo graces its cover, and I notice two things about it: first, she looks surprisingly unscathed. Second, although she fights for women's and girls' rights, she chooses to wear the hijab.

And so we began discussing the hijab, such a foreign piece of clothing to us supposedly enlightened westerners. Can you imagine having to cover your hair every time you leave the house? Why—because the filamentous biomaterial that sprouts from follicles in the human female scalp is so tantalizing a man simply won't be able to stop himself ravishing an uncovered woman on the spot? That is the purpose behind all cover-it-up policies, after all: females are solely responsible for all sexual behavior, but especially that of men. Men are thoughtless beasts who can't control themselves, such thinking says, so females do the controlling for them by staying under wraps. And if you end up stared at, harassed, fondled, raped? It's your fault, girl. We told you to cover it up.

The modesty movement has become more rigid over the past few decades, perhaps as a fundamentalist response to an increasingly secular world. This purity fetish became a sudden and shocking reality for my daughter and me when we visited the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem a few years ago with my husband's family. My father-in-law is from Nazareth and was showing us the sights of his homeland; although his family is Christian, showing us this important mosque seemed a natural part of the tour. For me and the kids, this was our first time in Israel and our first visit to a mosque. It did not go well. It was clear we females were unwelcome, in spite of the fact that my father-in-law and step-mother-in-law speak Arabic and know the culture. They'd been to Al Aqsa before, but not for a few years. We women were covered up sufficiently for how my in-laws remembered the place, but things had changed. The mosque guardians were marginally polite to us until the men left to tour the mosque and we three were left standing in the women's area. Then a mosque-bouncer came over and began berating my then-13-year-old daughter for having a tiny fraction of ankle showing. He was shouting at her as her grandmother tried to reason with him in Arabic. My daughter began crying. Another man came over, and the two began conferring via walkie-talkie with other men. The men looked at my daughter with barely disguised hatred, as if she were something shameful — something haram. We were told to leave. We stood outside under a tree for what felt like years until my son, my husband, and his father rejoined us; the walkie-talkie men followed us and stood nearby, glaring and muttering. My father-in-law, hearing our story, let loose with a quality rant in Arabic that had all the henchmen looking ashamedly at their shoes, but by then it was too late: Al Aqsa will always have a bad association for us.

Although Islam generally is the strictest about female dress, all Abrahamic religious texts extoll the virtue of modesty, and all assume women's bodies are a problem. Scripture insinuates that men are teetering on the edge of serial rape at all times and women should do everything possible to avoid tempting them. The Bible explicitly states that if a woman is raped, she is culpable and must be punished along with the rapist. To this day, women in many parts of the world who are raped are tried and convicted of adultery or extramarital sex; often they are the only ones punished for their own rapes.

Indonesian women protest a victim-blaming judge
We have mostly moved beyond this in the US, as evidenced by the fact that it's no longer acceptable in court to ask a rape victim what she was wearing. But as we were discussing this among our mom-daughter group, one of the teens pointed out something interesting: school dress codes. Most schools require girls to dress a certain way, covering up any potentially-tempting parts. And why do they do this? Because girl-flesh distracts boys; it turns good boys bad. This is the same mode of thinking that justifies the hijab, and we enlightened Americans, including those who find the hijab objectionable, don't even question it.

Don't believe me? A middle school in California banned tight pants for girls because "they distract the boys." In Minnesota, a high school principal sent an email to parents telling them to stop allowing their daughters to wear yoga pants, as their butts "can be highly distracting" to other students (read: boys). A kindergartner (!!) in Georgia who wore a skirt with leggings was forced to change into someone else's jeans after a school official determined the skirt "a distraction." A pair of teenagers in Cincinnati were prevented from attending prom because one of their dresses was not up to snuff: "they can have no curvature of the breasts showing," explained one official. What does that even mean? Does cleavage count? (Because that's the only curvature I saw.) Is there a boob-check at the door? Who conducts it? What century are we in, again?

Gathered back at our table, my daughter's friend explained what message girls get from school dress codes: "Basically, we're told to self-objectify," she said. "We have to stand in front of a mirror every morning and view ourselves as sexual objects, we have to think about how our clothes might be a problem." A problem for the boys, that is.

Is this really so different from the thinking behind the hijab?



  1. While I would argue that the passage from Deuteronomy doesn't blame the victim for the victim's sake, rather that it's more that she didn't put up a fight that attracted the attention that would have ended it; it's more a naive observation that all such attacks could be prevented, and probably something that like a lot of regulations from that time were more relevant to those conditions than our present.

    This is also a symptom of extreme reluctance to punish the guilty that cuts across most cultures. When Westerns say "innocent until proven guilty," it leads to absurd news blurbs that must qualify even blatantly guilty subjects with the term "alleged." Whether this is due to litigious concerns or not, it's a sign that most of our bad behavior comes from a general lack of personal responsibility, which becomes endemic when we extend it to others as well. We punish academically more than we do criminally. I think that's wrong.

    Women, more specifically, will always suffer in male-dominated cultures. I suspect the same is true of men in female-dominated cultures. The problem is that we can't understand the concept of basic equality. Normally we consider this on racial levels, but there's a reason why 19th century Americans tackled both at the same time, and why their 20th century equivalents continued the fight right alongside each other.

    Of course it makes no sense to say women, however they dress, are responsible for the actions of the men around them. Feminists only contribute to the problem when they say scantily-clad women objectify themselves. The thing is, if we exist in a visual way, we are a part of the whole visual world around us. Do we say trees objectify themselves for having leaves? Do we say the sky objectifies itself when it is particularly blue? We look at nature and observe animals in their courting behaviors and maybe that's all we think of. Although basically, in a two-sex system in which it is natural to promulgate the future of your species, courtship will always be a primal instinct. Any system that seeks to contradict this will always have a hard time reconciling the difference. And any system that preaches that evil deeds are evil but punishes them with evil deeds...

    The point is, unfortunately we are dumb fallible creatures. This is an example of that.

    1. It occurs to me as I'm reading my response again that I seem to have introduced a contradiction. Extreme reluctance to punish and an excessive need to punish seem to go hand-in-hand. Ironically this is another level of the culture wars concerning matters of faith. It's the faithful who suffer the extremes most keenly. I will never preach, equally ironic, Buddhist extreme moderation, but that is a concept that would do well to be preached the loudest. The guilty are guilty, but their punishment should be inclusive rather than a rejection of the offender. Rehabilitation is not possible in all cases, but all cases of evil behavior are a direct result of a separation from the greater community, an inability to understand why the action was wrong. I believe therapy to this effect is the most appropriate response. If it doesn't work immediately, that would be the only form of incarceration required. It's about a reconciliation, not punishment. If the offender never understands why they were wrong, chances are they suffer from an irreconcilable mental condition. Everyone else, given no matter how much time necessary (the basic conditions of the crude parole boards we have now), will come around. It's better than locking them up or outright execution. No one learns anything that way. Stopgate measures never work. They're not designed to.

    2. Wow, you raise a lot of points, Tony! :) Thank you, it's great to hear other views.

      "it leads to absurd news blurbs that must qualify even blatantly guilty subjects with the term "alleged." I can explain this one, at least, because I was a newspaper reporter. It's a journalistic rule that you have to use "alleged" until a court of law determines a person guilty. And yes, that applies even to people who have confessed. It bothers readers, but it is a hard rule that applies to all journalism, at least in the US, and has for decades. I was taught it on day one, and I think the reasoning behind it is sound.

      "Feminists only contribute to the problem when they say scantily-clad women objectify themselves." There may be feminists who say this, but that's not what happened here. The magazine article that caught my daughter's friend's attention said this. "With society fetishizing girls at younger and younger ages, girls are instructed to self-objectify and see themselves as sexual objects, something to be looked at. A laundry list of problems can come from obsessing over one’s appearance: eating disorders, depression, low self-worth. Who wouldn’t want to spare her daughter from these struggles? But these dress codes fall short of being legitimately helpful. What we fail to consider when enforcing restrictions on skirt-length and the tightness of pants is the girls themselves—not just their clothes, but their thoughts, emotions, budding sexuality and self-image. Instead, these restrictions are executed with distracted boys in mind, casting girls as inherent sexual threats needing to be tamed. Dress restrictions in schools contribute to the very problem they aim to solve: the objectification of young girls."

    3. I understand that it's a reporter's stock and trade, legally and everything. But sometimes it just sounds ridiculous. You can't be impartial with blatant facts. Or rather, it makes no logical sense, reporter's code or otherwise. It's another reason why newspapers are less relevant today than they were previously. They're much slower to change with the times. We live in a media age. We may get misinformation in the process, but we're far better informed today than at any other point in history. Newspapers ought to reflect that.

      In some ways, the clothes women can wear today are only catching up with the clothes men have been able to wear all along. A topless man is hardly an uncommon sight historically. A woman can't necessarily do that (nor would they necessarily want to), but they're getting closer to the next best thing. Whether this is understood as a sexual statement is up to deranged morons to decide. The fact is, showing some skin is becoming more normal and less sexual, no matter what the Internet tells you. The extreme differences in tolerance ought to speak to this. Someone who is scandalized by an ankle would go into hysterics over a short-sleeve shirt. There really is no difference here. An ankle is a short-sleeve shirt is a bikini is whatever Miley Cyrus is wearing today. You know progress is working when you're faced with reactionaries.

  2. I hate to say that my opinion of fundamentalist Islamic culture is very low because of this reasons, but the points brought up about own supposedly enlightened culture are very interesting ones.

    I've always heard tha rational for school uniforms being that it avoids kids competing through clothes- horror stories ripped from headlines of kids killing another kid for their $200 sneakers or other unimaginable things. It's interesting to see a particularly sexist edge to it.

    1. My view of fundamentalist anything culture has always been pretty low, but visiting Israel did not help. Fundamentalism of all sorts was on full aggressive display there. (Including the rising problem of fundamentalist Judaism, which is also highly misogynistic.) It was a very tense place to be, especially Jerusalem. The coast tends to be a bit more chill, as beach towns often are.

      I think school uniforms would actually go a long way to solving this problem; it would be better than a school dress code. My kids had school uniforms at their first public school, and I think it helped ease a number of tensions.

  3. The hijab has become a lightning rod issue worldwide. I understand your objections and yet I'm also not comfortable with them being banned in schools as they have been in parts of Europe. There's a reasonable middle ground somewhere - not that I could tell you where that middle ground is.

    Unfortunately, I also think there's a knee-jerk discomfort with Islam imbedded in the issue. I'm not suggesting that's the case for you. Your post and your comment in response to Beverly assure me it is not. But I do think it plays a role in the matter globally. Too many paint all Muslims with one brush. Not all women wear the hijab or even believe in wearing it. The status of women in general is hardly uniform throughout the Muslim world, either.

    Your broader point is well taken. The objectification of women is a serious problem in the United States just as surely as it is in the Middle East.

    For what it's worth, I'm okay with Malala wearing the hijab on her book cover.

    1. I think she had to wear the hijab: there was no way around it. She's already been shot once, and she's vilified in her home country for daring to speak out against radical Islam. She has to wear the hijab or be labeled an apostate by even moderate Muslims. She has no choice.

      I agree with your comment about discomfort with Islam. I am married to an Arab, and my FIL has dedicated his career to understanding Islam (deeply understanding it, not vilifying it), so I am lucky to have a unique angle on this ideological issue. Islam, like Christianity, is not one thing, but many things to many people. Just as you have your snake-handling speaking-in-tongues gay-hating Christians and your liberal Episcopalians and your Latino Catholics and your Mormons, you have all stripes of Muslims. But "Islamophobia" becomes a mask for basic racism in many cases ... people are just xenophobic, and Muslims are "them." It doesn't even compute that some Muslims are white and middle class, that it's a religion and not a race.

      When Muslims pull of stunts like what happened with us at Al Aqsa, they are not helping their cause. That was the upshot of my FIL's rant. When we visited a mosque up north, near Lebanon, they welcomed us in. They were warm, they didn't scare my daughter, they gave us space to look around. We respected them and they respected us. Al Aqsa used to be like that. But things are changing. It worries me, especially when I see the impact on women. Religion is becoming an increasingly misogynistic force in the world. It doesn't have to be that way.

    2. Oh — and I forgot to add ... the hijab is worn by quite a few girls at my daughter's high school. It's not the least bit controversial, and dress-code allows it. It's much more acceptable to wear the hijab, in fact, than to wear a tank top. I have mixed feelings about that. I have mixed feelings about hijab bans, too; but I have no mixed feelings about burqa bans. A burqa has no place in western democratic society.

  4. Malala could not appear bare-headed on the cover of her book; she's probably never gone without head-covering & is undoubtedly more comfortable wearing it. Her message is still huge, and a great step forward for girls' education in Pakistan. Having lived and taught in rural Afghanistan many years ago I have such respect for her and her family, who have put her in the forefront of dangerous but important politics.

    Islam also has dress codes for men, but of course it doesn't really compare. The consequences just aren't the same. And dress codes in general...should we have them at all? It's hard to know where to draw the line, although clearly society has been far more restrictive of women.

    1. How interesting that you lived/taught in Afghanistan! I agree with everything you said.


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