Reject state control of Muslim women’s religious expression
From national security to women’s rights, many western politicians and members of the political right will use any excuse to justify their Islamophobia these days, and more often than not, Islamophobic actions are counterproductive to the values they supposedly uphold. In the case of national security, for example, President Donald Trump’s recent attempt to ban people from seven Muslim-majority countries seems not only legally and morally questionable but also ineffective. According to a Jan. 29 Politifact article, no fatal terror attacks have been linked to people from any of those seven countries since the September 11, 2001 attacks.
On a broader scale, the West’s widespread condemnation of Islam as an anti-woman religion represents a shortsighted and ignorant disregard for freedom of religion — a value the United States and many European countries supposedly honor — and the true meaning of feminism.
Both freedom of religion and feminism boil down to individual choice and autonomy: As long as their actions do not hurt anyone, religious individuals should be free to observe and worship as they — and they alone — deem fit; similarly, at its core, feminism is — or, at least, should be — about supporting a woman’s choice to live her life as she deems fit. This includes wearing a burqa, niqab, hijab or other clothing item, if she so chooses.
The problem exists when Muslim women feel obligated — by law, social pressure or both — to wear headscarves when they do not want to. Where this is the case, the offending laws or social pressures should be challenged, but in areas where women choose to freely wear a burqa, niqab or hijab, the law and society should not interfere.
Islam itself does not inherently challenge feminism; bans of religiously affiliated clothing items do.
At least 12 European countries have made efforts to ban burqas, niqabs or hijabs, according to a Jan. 31 BBC article. Reasons for these bans range from separation of church and state to patronizing attempts to liberate women from their garments.
Starting with an April 11, 2011 ban on full-face veils in public places, France has continued to attempt restrictions on headscarves. Last year, regions of France passed additional bans, this time on “burkinis,” a type of swimwear, but these were later overruled by French courts. The ban on full-face veils remains, however, and women can receive a 150 euro fine — about 217 U.S. dollars — for violating it.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel endorsed burqa bans “wherever legally possible,” according to a Dec. 6, 2016 BBC article. More recently, Austria banned niqabs and burqas in public spaces to supposedly promote ideals of “open communication,” according to a Jan. 31 BBC article.
While reactions to bans have been mixed, Shami Chakrabati, a director of a United Kingdom human rights group, best summarized the problem with these bans, as cited by a July 1, 2014 article in the Guardian: “How do you liberate women by criminalising their clothing?”
As for choosing whether to wear a burqa, niqab or hijab, Muslim women seem divided. Some view such garments as a sign of modesty or devotion to their faith, while others view them as relics of the past. As two Muslim women explain in a Dec. 21, 2015 Washington Post article, some believe that the hijab “promotes a social attitude that absolves men of sexually harassing women and puts the onus on the victim to protect herself by covering up,” because it perpetuates the idea “that women are a sexual distraction to men, who are weak, and thus must not be tempted by the sight of our hair.” In any case, the decision whether to wear a headscarf must be left to each individual woman.
None of this is to say that no one ever warps or uses Islam to wrong women. However, any religion, including Christianity, can be warped in a way that harms people. In fact, as columnist Nicholas Kristof explains in a Jan. 9, 2010 opinion piece, all Abrahamic traditions have a history of using religion as an excuse to oppress women.
To promote women’s rights, one must also promote free will. In the case of headscarves, that means allowing each Muslim woman the choice to decide on her own whether she would like to wear one. Contrary to the belief that Muslim women are so oppressed that they are not allowed to speak or think for themselves — see Trump’s June 30, 2016 comment about Ghazala Khan — most Muslim women around the world believe that they deserve the same legal rights as men, according to an excerpt from the book “Who Speaks for Islam?”
In fact, according to a March 20, 2015 Time magazine article, Muslim women have protested and worked toward equality, just like non-Muslim women. As such, they are clearly capable of deciding whether they want to express their faith through wearing a burqa, niqab or hijab, and they do not need Western governments’ oversight to determine their clothing choices.
Even assuming the best of intentions, banning the burqa, niqab or hijab is wrong, and supporting such bans under the guise of feminism only perpetuates a patriarchal system in which those in power dictate a woman’s decisions. Everyone needs to listen to what Muslim women want before trying to dictate decisions that should be theirs alone to make.
Feminism, after all, is about empowerment, and according to a March 8, 2016 BBC video, many women seeking equality “say that labelling them as victims only makes those battles harder to fight.”