Dear Liberal Feminists: The Hijab is Not Empowering
I am in Baghdad right now and I have my back to the wall as I type. I am slowly moving my laptop closer to my chest and looking around to make sure nobody else sees what I am writing. I am Iraqi. I am a woman. I am Christian. And I am not a hijabi.
Iraq, much like Iran, used to be a more secular place. The Saddam regime was brutal, but he kept Islamism in the country under control until the end when he sensed his loss of power and began turning to Islam. That is what regimes here usually do.
Liberal feminists will tell you the hijab was a response to the West. It is a defiant act against imperialism! It’s not. I am here and I promise you, the hijab is not empowering.
First, not all Iraqis are Muslim. If Islam is what unites us against imperialism, then where does that leave me? Subjugated. As a Christian and as a woman.
Second, and more importantly, women cannot reclaim our bodies by falling beneath another form of hegemony. “We do not want to submit to the Western men, and therefore we submit to the Arab men” is hardly a step forward.
Let me clarify: I do not want the Western armies in Iraq. They rape, torture, and kill Iraqi women and attempt to steal our limited resources for themselves. I do not, however, think abuse by Arab men is somehow a step in the right direction.
When Saddam fell, Iraqi men quickly searched for power. Those who did not find it are doing what emasculated men always do. They are practicing power over the women in their families.
I find it disgusting but expected that women’s clothing is always inspected. Whatever we wear, it is always the wrong thing for some people. I am not here to tell women what to wear. I am trying to dissect the idea that the hijab is empowering especially here in the Middle East.
In Iraq and in every other Middle Eastern country where the hijab is not required by law, (it is required in Iran and more extremely in Saudi Arabia), there are two specific demographics I have noticed wearing it:
1. Poor, uneducated women
2. The family members of Islamic leaders
I will focus on the first of these before moving on to the second. It is my experience that in almost every country in the world, poor and uneducated people are the most performative in their religion. When I lived in Spain, this was the case. The poor old women who walked along the beach were more devoted to their Christianity than I, a Christian from a place where my family was persecuted for it, ever was.
But both my parents are professors in biology and studied when Baghdad was the best place in the Middle East to study. None of my friends here, who are mostly Muslim, cover their hair. They come from educated families. They do not need to lean on religion.
For poor women, this is different. They are not likely to receive an education and understand from a young age they will need to depend on a husband or be a burden to the family. They often do not have jobs so if there is abuse in the household they are trapped. They have to follow the rules of men to survive, more than I do.
If these woman do not cover from a young age, they will not find a good husband. Men are close-minded and possessive and they cannot deal with a possibility other men saw such “intimate” parts of THEIR wife.
Their families pressure them to follow these rules. An uncovered woman will bring shame to the family first by revealing herself and then by not finding a good husband to provide for her. They are pressured to cover as young as eight and nine years old. Can any person that young devote themselves to an outfit for life?
Street harassment is very common in Baghdad. The few times I have been harassed when outside with hijabi women, they have blamed me for not covering. “I am Christian” I will say. “The men know that” is usually their response. The culture is so toxic that women with the hijab believe they are superior to those without it.
But materially they are inferior and they know that. In almost every case, women who do not cover are wealthier, more educated, better-employed, less-dependent on men, and live materially better lives. So what do poor, uneducated women have? Religion. I really can’t blame them.
Religion is also used as a tool by the second group I mentioned, the Islamic leaders, to unite and control the masses. Sure, your family is starving and your babies are dying from preventable diseases. But what do I offer you? Eternal life in heaven as long as you do everything I tell you in the name of God.
This makes people feel included and gives them purpose. It also creates a hierarchy in society. When men are permitted and even encouraged to oppress the women in their lives, they are more likely to follow the leaders that allow this. It makes them feel powerful. Men, especially poor men, want to feel power over something or someone.
In this way, the hijab is empowering… but only for men. It strips power away from women. It represents a society moving backwards in many ways.
Many women will tell you they choose to wear the hijab or they wear it for Allah. Once you ask questions, you will find this is less true. In almost all cases, they began wearing it at a young age (and always under eighteen) and were pressured by family.
I am hypocritical because I too perform “feminine” things because of family or society pressure. I wear my hair long even though it bothers me and I wish I could shave it off because I do not want to face society’s judgment for doing that. But at least I realize the source of this contradiction.
Western liberal feminists who praise the hijab are forgetting about the rest of us. I am terrified of a day I live in a place where covering is the law. Iraq is my home and I don’t want to leave, but sometimes I think maybe I don’t belong here especially if something like my hair can get me killed.
In every country, we need to have a larger conversation about what women say we want and what we really want. We also need to realize the broken logic of “wanting” to do something because it pleases men.
Liberal feminists: I know it is scary for you to criticize the hijab because then you have to admit some of your personal choices are actually part of your effort to serve the patriarchy. We all need to face this fact because if we don’t, we cannot get any closer to liberating ourselves.