Facebook Dress Codes for Women in Hijab
Of all of the pointless discussions taking place on Facebook at any given moment, I thought this particular one was worth a little further diagnosis, if not to understand, than at least to exhibit the mentality at work in such “debates” over women’s dress codes in Islamic contexts.
This morning, someone on Facebook named Mohammad Aman tagged me in this photo he posted, with the caption:
Which one look nice and respective to you?????
Please answer upper question....
The deluge of comments (over 100 within a few hours) were revealing of a debate playing out within and beyond Muslim societies offline and online. And while I welcome the fact that there is debate at all, the level and substance of that debate is not very encouraging.
The first thought that occurred to me in seeing this photo was, what is the point? Indeed, a small number of others felt similarly and said so. One commenter asked, “What's the point of this? To promote religious bigotry?”
Some were critical of the veiled dress. One commenter, from Mazar-i-sharif in Afghanistan, simply replied that his preference was, “the one I can see.” Lots of people took humour with the request to choose. One person referred to the veiled woman as a ninja, specifically one who did not inspire respect, another declared, “i will marry both of them coz iam muslim,” and another made his choice based on the following inference: “No.1 to be your wife so she can stay at home, cook, clean and make babies. No.2 to be your girlfriend so you can take her out and party all night long.”
But most people had a serious opinion on the subject. Roughly equal numbers of commenters said “both”, “neither” or “the Muslim one”, with the latter usually adding a self-righteous reason behind their view, such as that only those who dress piously will go to Paradise or as in one sneering comment, “we all know who is more modest”. One commenter confidently said “both” because “one is allready muslim and the other we can convert her to islam too and then she will also look like other muslim girls” (sic).
A male student of the Higher Education Institute of Karwan (in Afghanistan) had this enlightening response for another commenter: “becareful your mother fucker fuck your sister your and your all member of your home,” before calming down a little and adding “the real religion is just ISLAM ,every body khow it” (sic). In the “real religion”, apparently, you can prefer your women to be in hijab, but also openly discuss violating someone else’s sister in response to an opinion you disagree with.
While we can write off the cocky Karwan student as yet another delusional hothead lurking about in cyberspace with all the time in the world to share his nonsensical views on everything that he knows nothing about, the views contained in his comments belie the ugly symptoms of a worldview prevalent among so many Muslim men, even young men who are university-educated and embrace many aspects of the modern world, that women ought to be cloaked and covered in order to be “good women”.
This view is unreasonable for two reasons. Firstly, how did it come to be that men are in charge of defining what makes a “good” woman? Should the Karwan student, in all his worldliness, get to be the arbiter of a woman’s character based on the superficiality of prescribed dress codes?
Secondly, there is no evidence whatsoever that “modest” dress (another characteristic open to debate, if you’ve ever seen the impressive make-up, bejeweled scarves or coiffed hair of many women who wear hijab in Muslim communities all over the world) prevents sexual interactions of the kind that many Muslims consider haram, or forbidden. And it certainly doesn’t protect women from sexual violence or sexual harassment, as Afghanistan-born Josh Shahryar eloquently pointed out in his article, “The myth of how the hijab protects women against sexual assault”:
The hijab cannot and will not stop men from assaulting women. Even if the only part of a woman's body that shows is her shadow, deviants will sexualize and fetishize it. Take the example of Egypt, where sexual harassment against women has become almost a pandemic—whether they wear the hijab or not.
I would go even further. Could it be that a society that espouses the view that the display of women’s bodies begets their subjection to unwanted sexual advances, or to rape and assault, is more likely to see a higher incidence of sexual harassment and sexual violence against women?
There is some compelling evidence. For instance, I have never witnessed sexual harassment anywhere on the scale that it occurs in Pakistan, one of the most conservative and gender segregated societies in the world. There, in a single year, 2010, there were news stories of 2,252 child sexual abuse cases, according to the child rights organization Sahil—and those are only the stories that made it into the news. Pakistan has no specific law against incest, which is believed to be rampant. In that same year, 2010, police statistics showed 2,903 reported rape cases of women. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan points out that this figure would be only a fraction of actual number of cases since the vast majority go unreported.
Every year, horrifying and sensational stories emerge from Muslim countries of sexual violence. In 2006, a teenage girl in Saudi Arabia was gang-raped by seven men. The victim was sentenced to be lashed for having relations with unrelated men (later revoked by royal pardon). Mukhtar Mai of Pakistan made international headlines when she took the rare step of fighting back against the men who gang-raped her on the orders of her village council in 2002 as a punishment to her younger brother. Nevertheless, the accused rapists were acquitted by Pakistan’s supreme court, and Mai today lives in fear of her life. In December 2011 in Afghanistan, 15-year-old Sahar Gul was discovered in a cellar, where she had been tortured and starved for five months by her in-laws because she refused their demands to prostitute her. Her abusers broke her fingers, pulled out her fingernails, beat her, and burned her body with hot pokers. Afghanistan’s women’s shelters are full of Sahar Guls: women who have survived unspeakable sexual and physical violence, and who have largely been failed by the “justice” system. Incidentally, Afghanistan is one of the most socially conservative countries in the world, if not the most, where nearly all women observe hijab.
It is a mistake to think that shrouding women’s faces and bodies will make them immune to the misogyny that festers everywhere around them. Only the full realization of human rights for women will serve as an effective antidote to sexual predators.
And as for the original poster, while it would appear that Mr. Aman has strong feelings about women wearing “traditional” garb, in his profile picture he himself is wearing a dark western style suit, collared shirt, and sunglasses, and poses in front of a shiny high rise building. In the buffet of modernity and enlightenment, Mr. Aman has made different selections for himself than for the women with whom he shares a faith.
Lauryn Oates is an Assistant Editor for The Propagandist.