Fashion / Politics / Social issues

In Defense of the Hijab: Musings on Free Choice

The personal is political – it’s a feminist cris de coeur, the mantra that carried women’s liberation movements in the tumult of the 1960s. And what is more political, more personal than a garment? And what is more deeply political, more intensely personal than the hijab, the Islamic veil?

With this mantra in mind, I recently took pen to paper to argue fashion and feminism in Ramp1885 and Huffington Post in support of the hijab and against Quebec’s Charter of Values. The Charter would prohibit all so-called ostentatious religious symbols from public life: the Jewish Kippah, large Christian crosses, Sikh turbans, and the Islamic veil. But the hijab has clearly become the lightning rod around much of the discussion in Québec, degenerating to highly racialized, sexualized, savage, and truly terrifying lows.

charter of values feminismWomen on the frontline of the October 27th anti-Charter protest organized by AMAL-Québec, the Congrès Maghrébin au Québec, and Québécois musulmans pour les droits et libertés in Montreal.

Reaction to the piece was (relatively) civilized. Perhaps with the exception of an ill-informed tweet that claimed that the women I interviewed should be ashamed of themselves and we might as well rehabilitate the swastika. NBD – I expect this from the Internet.

What I did not expect, was what I could only describe as paternalistic reactions from other feminists: pretentious deep-thought-beard-stroking-and-musings about the nature and social, political, and religious construction of choice. Enter scene: the feminism of exclusion, so beautifully illustrated by the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen movement, and a faux, politically-motivated clash of civilisations.

Earlier this year, I travelled to Montreal to interview young women who wear the veil, and those who support them, to help shed light on what the hijab means to Quebec’s “Hijabistas. These young women, many of whom are self-identified feminists who do not shy away from the F-word, argued that context is key – they argued that we are talking about adult, tax-paying women wearing the veil by choice in a free and democratic society that guarantees them freedom of religion. They argued that Quebec’s Muslim women do not need saving, and that the Charter would only stigmatize Muslim women.

Finally, I added my own voice, arguing that the State must not only stay out of the bedrooms of the nation, but also out of its closets – that a woman’s right to control her body is sacrosanct, and that it must extend to what she wears on her head.

hijab quebec charter of values feminismNeither crazy,  nor submissive – but citizens

But many feminists have dismissed the notion of Muslim women’s choice, including the Jeannettes – a group of mostly white, Francophone women who have argued that their own troubled religious history gives them the moral authority to call the shots (read: save) oppressed Muslim women.

And in private conversations, I have been treated to soliloquies of all stripes on the nature and construction of choice, with the ultimate suggestion that veiled Muslim women cannot make a choice free from pre-existing social, political, and religious norms. And I even heard this argument even from a brilliant young South Asian woman as she wore her nose-ring, another item of clothing fraught with its own social, cultural, and religious overtones (which I will also defend, should the Charter select it as target and should women who wear it argue for freedom of choice).

So, let’s review: the veil = oppression. And veiled ladies be cray, amiright, Denise Filiatrault? Amiright Malala? Monia Mahzig? Tawakkul Karman?

As Sheema Khan has argued in The Globe and Mail: Malala Yousafzai faced down the barrel of Taliban guns; Monia Mazigh, a PhD in Economics, took the Canadian, American, and Syrian governments to task and ran for the Federal New Democratic Party (NDP); Tawakkul Karman, the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize co-laureate, became the face of Yemen’s Arab Spring . But they’re veiled, and thusly servile and submissive.

But I digress.

At the heart of the feminist argument in favour (or in ambivalence) of the Quebec Charter of Values is this dangerously false inference: we, Ladies of the Mainstream, are free of the perils and oppression of culture and religion on our decisions. We are free.

charter of values feministEquality: Women = Women.  Men = Women.

Free from the fiancé-and-In-Law hissies when we decide to keep our last names upon marriage. Free from the tyranny of bikini-and-wedding-season fad diets. Free to not be roped into Christmas feast preps (I refuse to touch turkey gizzards). Free to have that coveted seat at the head of the family or boardroom table. Free to walk the streets without our keys lodged between our knuckles. Free from that first introduction of a new married couple as Mr. and Mrs. His-First-And-Last-Name. Free to not be slut-shamed or told we ‘asked for it’. Free from the pressures of protecting our young daughters from hypersexuality. Free to be called a feminist without fear of recriminations or being “accused” of being a “man-hater” or “lesbian” (happy homophobia!).

Just as our Muslim sisters, we – the Ladies of the Mainstream – are bullied by social, cultural, and religious norms to conform to feminine ideals.

feminism quebec charter values I am Quebecoise.  I am part of “us.”

And the issue of the veil is critical, because by pontificating the construction of ‘freedom of choice’ to our Muslim sisters, we are holding them to a higher standard than we ourselves are prepared to be held. And that does a disservice to all women.

So let’s collectively unclutch our proverbial pearls (I’m looking at you too, men), and turn our attention to other worthy feminist ventures: providing women and girls of all cultures and religions with safe means to leave violent households; making a dent in women’s poverty; putting an end to sexual violence; re-break that glass ceiling that is consistently being patched up; addressing the issue of our missing and murdered Aboriginal sisters; and telling our daughters to kick serious ass in math, science, and sports.

And let’s trust the judgment and intelligence of our Muslim sisters who chose to wear the veil. And let’s support them when they say:

Ne me libère pas, je m’en charge | No need to save me. I’ve got this.


Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé can be found sharing her opinions on fashion, social issues and more on Twitter at @Isabelle_BT

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One thought on “In Defense of the Hijab: Musings on Free Choice

  1. When the theology makes it impossible to leave, and punishes apostasy by death, any symbol which those enslaved to the theology are required to wear is abrasive and ostentatious.

    When Islam is understood by Islamic culture to be a choice, I will accept that the Hijab is a choice.

    I absolutely agree that government needs to stay out of people’s private lives. But I will also fight and voice my disgust at any theology that acts as a dictatorial government, killing those trying to leave as surely as any Fascist or Communist state.

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