The article below sparked quite a bit of debate and dialogue, most notably around issues such as race, gender, ethnicity, privilege, and religion. Because of this, The Feminist Wire also created space for a response. Please see “A Collective Response to ‘To Be Anti-Racist Is To Be Feminist: The Hoodie and the Hijab Are Not Equals.’” While we support a writers’ prerogative to take unpopular positions on important matters, members of the Collective don’t always agree with positions taken.
~The Feminist Wire Collective
Last month, an American-born Iraqi woman, Shaima Alawadi, was viciously murdered in the United States. According to reports, her daughter stated that a racist note was left outside the family home before the attack. Alawadi’s death came shortly after another allegedly racially-motivated murder, that of African-American man Trayvon Martin. CNN reported:
..social media users quickly compared Alawadi’s death to that of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, calling both hate crimes, and drawing a parallel between a hijab and a hoodie… On Sunday morning, the authors of the parenting blog, Momstrology, tweeted: ‘A teen murdered for wearing hooded sweater. An Iraqi woman beaten to death for wearing a head scarf. Our hearts ache for you.’
To be clear, murder or violence motivated by hatred based on skin color, race, age, gender, or sexuality is wrong and should be condemned.
A ‘One Million Hoodies’ march was organised to demand justice for Martin. As Brendan O’Neill argued, this use of the hoodie is questionable enough. The wearing of ‘One million hijabs’ to show public solidarity and outrage at the murder of Alwadi? I cannot think of anything more ironic and counter-productive.
What I take issue with here is the equating of the hoodie and the hijab as sources of ethnic identity and pride. The hijab, which is discriminatory and rooted in men’s desire to control women’s appearance and sexuality, is not a choice for the majority of women who wear it. The hoodie, on the other hand, is a choice for everyone who wears it. The history and origin of these two items of clothing and what they represent could not be more different; like comparing the crippling footbindings of Chinese women with a ‘Made in China’ Nike trainer.
So why has the anti-racist debate taken this rather bizarre turn?
The Misplaced Sanctity of Culture
A common liberal response to this issue is that if Alawadi (and other Muslim women) had freely chosen to wear the hijab or burqa–in the same way that some women freely choose to have breast implants–then it could be a symbol of racial pride and identity; and any criticism of their choice is cultural prejudice. Germaine Greer, the renowned Australian feminist, made similar comments about female genital mutilation (FGM) as practiced by women of African origin both inside and outside Africa. In The Whole Woman, Greer argued that attempts to outlaw FGM amounted to “an attack on cultural identity”, adding: “One man’s (sic) beautification is another man’s mutilation.”
Even if we accept that some women make such choices ‘freely’ (which is clearly debatable), this response conflates two issues. First, the freedom to choose something (if we take that to mean the absence of ‘obvious’ force); and second, the ethics of the choice itself. I am not a cultural relativist like Greer and think her views on FGM represent ‘a misplaced sanctity of culture’. If we become cultural relativists on human rights, then it also means we cannot question a woman’s ‘choice’ to become a prostitute, a hardcore porn star, or to engage in endless amounts of plastic surgery and dieting. All highly questionable choices for a variety of reasons. On the other hand, unless such practices are clearly non-consensual or cause significant physical harm to women and girls (such as FGM), then they need not be banned either.
Whether it’s a hijab or a mini-skirt, the question we must ask is the same. When women ‘choose’ to wear these clothes, is it really a free choice? What does such clothing represent in their culture and why? Is it worn predominantly to please religious leaders and men, to fit in, to be accepted, and (for some women) to avoid punishment?
‘It’s Not Tradition, It’s Archaic’
This is not neo-colonialism either. Muslim feminists have spoken out against the burqa and hijab, and even supported the French ban in schools. Fadela Amara explained her support for France’s ban:
The veil is the visible symbol of the subjugation of women, and therefore has no place in the mixed, secular spaces of France’s public school system.
When some feminists began defending the headscarf on the grounds of “tradition”, Amara vehemently disagreed:
They define liberty and equality according to what colour your skin is. They won’t denounce forced marriages or female genital mutilation, because, they say, it’s tradition. It’s nothing more than neocolonialism. It’s not tradition, it’s archaic. French feminists are totally contradictory. When Algerian women fought against wearing the headscarf in Algeria, French feminists supported them. But when it’s some young girl in a French suburbs chool, they don’t.
Z.M. Hosseini also recently argued in Criminalising Sexuality that the patriarchal rulings on the hijab are used even today to sanction control over women’s bodies and freedom, and that it was only recently that the hijab became a marker of Muslim identity and faith. Author and human rights campaigner Malalai Joya, often referred to as ‘the bravest woman in Afghanistan’, one of the fiercest critics of the Afghan government and the foreign occupation of her country, recently referred to the burqa as ‘disgusting’.
Other women are taking more direct radical action to challenge the dogma of the hijab. Egyptian naked blogger Aliaa Mahdy addresses the notion that a woman is the sum total of her headscarf and hymen by showing that nakedness and sex can become weapons of political resistance. Similarly, this week in Paris, Femen feminists from Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa came together to join forces and protest. Among the participants were Iranian human rights activist Mariam Namazi, popular Lebanese actress Darina Al Jondy, and well-known French feminist of Arabian origin Safia Lebdi.
Nakedness and sexuality have long been effective weapons in the feminist arsenal (bra-burning and free love). However, feminists take note: (as Greer also later claimed) this ‘sexual revolution’ was also hijacked by a male-dominated and misogynistic media who managed to sell back to women a distorted form of sexual freedom and nudity that was more about pleasing and servicing men’s sexual desires than genuine liberation. It has not all been a waste of time, though. A small minority of women who benefited from the second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s do have far more freedom and control over their bodies than ever before.
I have heard some Muslim men (and women) claim that the hijab can be used to challenge and reclaim the idea of female freedom from the hyper-sexualized porno West with an alternative idea of sexuality and femininity about covering up, modesty, mystery, and so on. Nice as it sounds, it is the classic virgin/whore false dichotomy, yet again.
Whatever women wear (or don’t) to challenge their oppressors, it is important not to lose sight of the root source of their bondage. Let’s not forget amidst the public cries of ‘racism’, the silent truth that the killers of both Martin and Alawadi were men.
Racism and a Global Culture of Male Supremacy and Violence
The chief problem with much of the mainstream anti-racist debate is its failure to recognize the gender dimension. Focusing an anti-racist gaze on a person’s skin color alone misses one of the most crucial aspects of racist violence: patriarchal power and domination.
Just to be clear, I am not saying that ALL men are racists, sexists, or violent either. As Hollywood actress Ashley Judd recently stated, in response to the media’s obsession with her own physical appearance:
Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate. It privileges, inter alia, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women.
The fact that Martin’s murder generated far more headlines, public outrage, and support shows that a man’s death is still considered worse than a woman’s. Yet, with three women per week in the U.S. being murdered by their former or ex-partners, why is that? Paying lip-service to the notion of equality and justice, by tagging Alawadi’s death on to Martin’s murder, insults everyone’s intelligence.
The equating of the hoodie with the hijab misrepresents and denies the root source of Alawadi’s murder. Ironically, Alawadi and her family fled to the United States trying to escape the effects of state-sanctioned male aggression and violence, otherwise known as the 1991 Persian Gulf War. By wearing the hijab in the U.S., Alawadi was doing the ‘right thing’ by the Iraqi patriarchal ‘team’. Yet, it produced the opposite effect in men from the U.S. ’team’. This clash of patriarchal ideologies on the issue of female sexuality and physical appearance certainly exposed the hatred of ‘other’, that other being ‘woman’. Alawadi’s ‘mistake’ (like all women blamed for victimhood) was not fitting the home team’s vision of appropriate femininity and freedom.
It really is time to re-frame the tired, mainstream debate on racism.
Racism is not skin-deep: white vs. non-white. If that were the case, then why has there been centuries of caste discrimination and violence in countries like India? Why are Muslim women beaten and murdered by Muslim men for refusing to wear the hijab ? How did both these deaths occur in a country that is led by a black male President? How does it explain the fact that about 150 black men are killed every week in the U.S. — and 94 percent of them by other black men? This is not to play the ‘race card’ nor the ‘violence card’. This is to make sure we do not miss the major problem.
The social constructs and divisions of race are clearly drawn by those who hold and control religious, economic, and cultural power. So however much mainstream anti-racist discourse claims this is about race, or fear of ‘hijabs’ and ‘terrorists’, this is too simplistic. Scratch the surface and what is underlying racist fear and violence is an all-pervasive global culture of male power and domination. If people want to see an end to racism, and I certainly do, then we need to see an end to the celebration and perpetuation of patriarchal norms, values, and institutions. In the twenty-first century, to be anti-racist is to be feminist.
As Shaima Alawadi tragically discovered, whether it is white men in the U.S. or brown men in Iraq, women are literally ‘damned if they do and damned if they don’t’.
Dedicated to all the brave, beautiful, and forgotten women who have been raped, tortured, murdered (and blamed), for not wearing ‘suitable’ clothes.