For western feminists, the debate about the niqab that has been running in the UK is around choice. Have Muslim women who say they have chosen to wear a niqab really exercising free choice? And even if this choice is free – ‘free’ in the broadest sense of the term, say western feminists’ – is it very feminist? I believe this argument is short-sighted and misses the bigger picture that women’s rights movements need to work together. Women around the world need to get over the obsession with the veil and work with Muslim women, and here’s why: we are all on the same side, and we need to lay some ground rules that will help us work together to eradicate the problems women face around the world.
The arguments being aired around choice apply to hijab as well as niqab, as well as the broader right to be respected for being a Muslim woman. That’s one of the reasons why the recent debates and news coverage have featured so many Muslim women who don’t wear a niqab or any headcovering at all. To the Muslim women you’ve seen and heard in the news, this feels like an attack on our status as women who want to be Muslim, veil wearers or not. For many decades women who follow a religion were excluded as unable to be part of the feminist movement. Muslim women reject that. We believe that the movement towards more gender just societies must absolutely include women of religion if we are to achieve global and lasting change.
The manufactured veil controversy
Let’s tackle some basics in the niqab debate.
First, security. Contrary to high-pitched opposition in the media discourse, women who cover their face are happy to lift their veils for identification such as in airports to ensure security.
Hygiene is another red herring for banning niqab. When the UK introduced legislation that health professionals could not wear sleeves beyond the elbow, Muslims have complied. There’s no reason to suggest any hygiene related guidelines on the veil would not be adhered to with similar pragmatism. Besides, even the UK’s Secretary of Health admitted that he didn’t know of any niqab-wearing doctors. And don’t surgeons cover their faces anyway? In parts of Asia, covering your face with a mask is a form of consideration to those you are engaging with to avoid sharing your germs.
When these non-excuses are dealt with, we start to get to the crux of the matter: Muslims are not ‘like us’, and they wear veils to keep themselves separate. If the position you start from is that Muslims are ‘other’, then no wonder interaction is difficult. If anything, it is precisely because these women have entered into the public space in order to engage and integrate that we are having this debate. If they stayed at home, we’d have nothing to talk about.
Feminists must be cautious of when their sentiments and actions are swept up to bolster the rising tide of anti-Muslim hatred. The Sun newspaper demanded on its front page that Muslim women be unveiled. Muslim women have had their veils forcibly ripped off. A pregnant Muslim woman was kicked in the stomach. A woman in Germany who wore a headscarf was stabbed eighteen times in open court. It is Islam that is the problem, not Muslim women, Muslim women are told. That’s cold comfort to a Muslim woman being physically attacked.
The Ukrainian ‘feminist’ group Femen told us that we were slaves and they would free us. Their topless jihad was the route to liberation. (We’ve found out subsequently that they were being managed by a man who only picked the most attractive of women.) Whilst Femen may be more extreme than most, their idea that western feminists will free Muslim women is a sentiment widely shared. It infantilises Muslim women. How can we engage if you treat us as lesser beings? Respect must be the crucial foundation. This is also lacking in some extreme Muslim discourse that refers disgustingly to non-veiled women as raw meat, and fair game. Mutual respect is a sentiment which will foster better outcomes for all.
‘Whataboutery’ and the road to nowhere
My favourite anti-veil opposition – and the argument that feminists fall back on – is the argument of ‘whataboutery’. What about women who are forced to wear a veil?” They cry! “What about Afghanistan, we fought a war there to free women!” "What about the women who died to give up the veil?!" I’m not convinced yet that the imperialist enterprise in Afghanistan has improved women's situation greatly, and I’m equally unconvinced that denying women's rights to choose how they dress in one country improves life for those who are forced to veil. Our standard for women’s rights should not be on a par with those who force women to wear a veil. We must lead the way, not pander to the oppressive common denominator.
The challenge for feminists of all stripes in this debate is that all the arguments have pitfalls. If you ban it to 'save' the women who are forced, then what of the free will of those who have chosen to wear it, but are now prevented from doing so? And this is even before we even know how many women are actually forced to wear it.
If the feminist argument is that Muslim women who autonomously choose to veil only think they are doing so out of free will, and are in fact being brainwashed to do so, then the core principle of feminism to elevate women’s control of their own destiny is immediately violated. And worse, it underscores the argument that feminism is a western imperialist project: that only western culture can supposedly liberate women, and that all other ideas are brainwashing. Perhaps the most insulting subtext of all is that Muslim women are infants, to be patronised into the 'right' choices.
If Muslim women are brainwashed into veiling, then is the mini-skirt generation equally brainwashed into believing that showing skin is liberation?
This idea underpins a current flurry of veil tourism. This is when a well-meaning journalist 'gets behind a niqab' for a day (or more) and then keeps a diary of her experiences, inevitably concluding that it was hot and she felt repressed.
Wearing a veil for a day can give you a taste of the physical aspects. Most veil tourists talk about the heat and the restriction. They can also offer a taster of the social interactions that women who wear a niqab experience: the negativity, the hostility and even the public humiliation. Wearing a niqab for a day sounds like a good idea, and I applaud the notion of walking in another woman's shoes. But almost every journalistic piece enters the project with scepticism and looks for reinforcement of their arguments. It is seen as an item of clothing, rather than, as many Muslim perceive it, an expression of something deeper.
I could write a piece about wearing very high heels. It would read much the same: they constrict my walking, they make my ankles hurt. Men in the street feel legitimate in yelling things at me. It doesn’t help deepen the debate or go beyond it.
Veil tourists I believe are genuine, but fail to grasp that the veil means something more to the women who wear it, and for whom, therefore, any hardships are either accepted as the price for a bigger cause, or for whom the difficulties are simply not difficulties.
Calling all feminists
The debate around veiling will run and run. It stokes provocative debates – and rightly so – about the nature of choice, women’s place in the public and private spheres, and the relationship between women, religion and patriarchy. To have these debates between women from vastly different backgrounds, religions and perspectives makes the debates richer and more complicated. It is in the true tradition of feminism to hold our beliefs up for examination and this must be done honestly by all feminists, those women who veil and those who don’t.
Whilst it is important to the future of feminism to have these ideological debates, what is more important is to avoid getting distracted by little pieces of cloth. If Muslim women say it’s a choice to wear it, let’s respect them. Let’s put an end to the headline: "Woman wears piece of cloth." Let's move on.
What is more important is to realise we share more in common in terms of the problems we must tackle together as women. These range from topics as wide and fundamental as poverty, education and legal rights, to access to healthcare, domestic violence, public engagement and political influence and everything in between. These are the same challenges for women around the world but under different labels and manifestations. Let’s address them together.
Feminists: stop fighting over what I wear, and start addressing who I am. I am neither burqa nor bikini. I am woman.
Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is a writer and commentator on Muslim women’s issues, and has been named as one of the UK’s 100 most influential Muslim women. She is the author of Love in a headscarf and writes a blog at www.spirit21.co.uk
You can follow Shelina on Twitter @loveinheadscarf
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.