Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Where Headscarves Meet Strippers

In April 2007, Dr. Muriel Walker, a non-Muslim professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario attempted to organize an event to show solidarity with Muslim women at the campus, inviting non-Muslim women on campus to wear the traditional Islamic headscarf - the hijab - for a day. To her horror, this attempt at interfaith unity resulted in the spray-painting of anti-Muslim graffiti on her office door, declaring her a "raghead lover" among other things.

Jonathan Kay, blogger for Canada's, posted his reaction to the event, condemning it as most reasonable people would - but also expressing his disapproval of Walker's intent to celebrate the wearing of the hijab:

"The problem is that the Hijab is not a politically neutral symbol of religious or ethnic identity, such as, say, a crucifix necklace, a yarmulke, or a Scottish kilt. Like the shaved heads and wigs that many married ultra-orthodox Jewish women endure, the Hijab signifies a coerced strain of social conservatism that symbolizes the lower status - or, at least, the institutinalized subservience - of women within a society. In some societies (not ours, yet) Muslim women who do not wear the hijab are beaten or imprisoned by religious thugs who see female modesty as a state-enforcable duty. Ms. Walker's blog suggests she sees the hijab as a purely aesthetic/cultural/religious symbol. But I think she's wrong: Her "Hijab Day" was arguably a celebration of that which is repressive and anti-feminist in Islam."
This prompted a response from a Muslim woman who defended the hijab, not so much directly, but instead by way of condemning the sexual objectification of women in Western culture:
"As a Muslim woman, I find your lack of understanding of the hijab offensively ignorant... If you want to talk about institutionalized subservience, open your eyes to mainstream media, and look at the way women's bodies are constantly exploited as if they're commodities to be sold. Fashion dictates that dressing like a stripper is en vogue, while engaging in as much intellectual discourse as Jessica Simpson, makes a girl more likeable. Watch 15 minutes of an MTV music video and tell me that women are truly liberated and not just succumbing to media pressures constructed largely by a male dominated industry, to degrade themselves and sell their sexuality for commercial purposes. Please, don't tell me that Hijab, which serves to demonstrate modesty, is a tool for oppression when in our society you have men salivating over the PUSSYcat dolls, the latter being everything that the women's liberation movement has worked so hard for."
Even though I don't identify or align myself with any specific religion, I was born and raised in a moderate to liberal Muslim family, the female (and male) members of which - nuclear and extended - are all accomplished, professional, and independent, but show very distinct, palpable, sometimes conflicting variability in their approaches to reconciling their faith and cultural sensibilities with their social progressivism; this includes frequent wavering on issues ranging from hijab to arranged marriage to traditional gender roles.

But, like both Jonathan Kay and the articulate commenter on his blog, there is a "splitting" tendency to their arguments, where one side is declared completely good and the other declared completely bad - and it doesn't always have to be that way.

I have, on occasions like this, found myself agreeing with both Kay's and his disagreeing commenter's viewpoint: to me, the traditional hijabi (headscarf-wearer) and the Western exotic dancer appear to be opposite sides of the same coin.

The tradition of hijab is the product of a patriarchal system that is geared towards and tailored to pleasing men by placing the responsibility of curbing male lust primarily upon women.

Similarly, the modern stripper is the product of a patriarchal system that is geared towards and tailored to pleasing men by catering to that lust.

Both are designed to sustain the dynamics of a male-dominated society.

Both maintain the status of women as sexual objects - whether it's by having them covered from head to toe, or exposed from head to toe - depending on whether the men in the surrounding environment want to curtail their seemingly uncontrollable sexual urges or exercise them. Hijab, so to speak, seems to be the objectification of women just the same - but in reverse.

Finally, both are not only insulting to women, but also to men, perpetuating the stereotypical notion that men have virtually no self-control over their testicular physiology, no discretionary sense, and no self-respect. I've heard men and women - including both hijabis and strippers - say, "That's just how men are..." innumerable times, setting a dangerous precedent potentially allowing boys and men to get away with pretty much anything, as they often do, while girls and women think of them as insatiable horndogs.

My dissociation with the faith that I was born into was primarily because of the status accorded to women in most religions.

I've often engaged in conversations with feminists, Muslim and non-Muslim, who believe strongly in the idea of being vocal and unabashed in their opposition to a patriarchal societal system, even if it offends conservative traditionalists. I believe that feminism benefits both women, men, and society in general, and I agree with them.

However, when I am critical of their religion, many of the same women view it as offensive or blasphemous, when from my standpoint, I am only doing the same thing they are: being vocal and unabashed in my opposition to a patriarchal societal system, even if it offends conservative traditionalists. In this case, though, they are playing that role themselves.

That said, many women who choose to be exotic dancers or wear the hijab do so out of choice, pleasure, and in many cases, for liberation. So I do understand that like anything else, this is about insight - and a mindset. In the end, feminism, masculinism, and humanism are about the same thing - autonomy, individual choice, and equality. I am not opposed to a woman's choice to wear the hijab. Nor am I opposed to exotic dancing - female or male. Both choices should be respected. The danger is in the notions that surround these phenomena: that women are sexual objects that need to be covered or exposed depending - in both cases - on the state of a man's lust, and that a man's lust is somehow well beyond his control more than a woman's is.

I would like to hope that Dr. Walker will be hosting an event in the near future inviting all the women on campus to dress as exotic dancers for a day - better yet, encourage the men to do the same - let 'em know what it's like. It would certainly increase attendance.