Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The head scarf is back "on top" as a global issue

Are U.S. outcries about the hijab legitimate moral outrage, or just our usual hypocritical meddling?
    As radical Islamic violence and incredible barbarism heat up in vast regions of the world, the perennial issue of the head scarf has been reignited. Even in the U.S., the Supreme Court is currently considering whether an employer -- in this case Abercrombie & Fitch -- can refuse to hire a woman who wears a headscarf .
    (UPDATE June 1, 2015: The Court sweepingly denies Abercrombie's right to discriminate, against applicants, whether on religious or style grounds, and affirms women's right to wear to wear a hijab in the workplace (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/03/opinion/head-scarves-before-the-supreme-court.html). 
    Hundreds of millions of Muslim women do not leave home without wearing a hijab. The West's intolerance of head scarves fails to recognize that while they can embody male dominance and "ownership" of women, they more often serve other purposes, which women freely embrace. We should take a stand against all forms of oppression, whether it be based on gender, religion, race or anything else, and we should oppose it whether it affects men, women or children.  But there are also times when we should mind our own business, and focus on the oppression, inequality and scandalous corruption in our own country. We lack the moral standing to dictate righteousness to others.
    The focus on headscarves has been an unfortunate distraction from the much larger tragedy of human subjugation. It has, to some degree, trivialized the issue. And it has ignored the fact that headscarves, for many, are sensual, glamorous fashion statements.

 Leymah Gbowee, Tawakul Karman  and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
    It was a striking sight on the morning of October 7, 2011, morning to see that all three winners of the Nobel Peace Prize -- who are ardent campaigners for women’s rights -- were wearing hair coverings, which remain the topic of intense and often anguished debate around the world. 
    In the Oct. 13, 2014 issue of the New York Daily News, the message was clear: "The hijab is hot!" That’s the sentiment two Upper West Side artists want to spread by encouraging women around the city to put on the veil and snap a selfie. 
    “Women who wear a hijab by choice are in complete control of their sexuality,” says Saks Afridi, who started the #DamnILookGood campaign with project partner Qinza Najm. “Here in New York, it’s very brave for a woman to wear one out in public.” 
A"Damn, I look good," the captions proclaim defiantly.

    Almost none of the women who participated in the #DamnILookGood project had ever worn a hijab before. “It was mind-opening to put one on,” one young woman said.  “It was like looking at the world through someone else’s eyes.”
    Exactly! We in the U.S. should do that more often.
    Just six weeks later, the Islamic Fashion Festival in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, cast a new light on how striking and individualistic "modesty" can be, according to the New York Times. “I think that if Islamic fashion can gain traction in America, it will change people’s perceptions of Islam and Islamic fashion,” a designer told the Jakarta Post:  


    Just as we in the West have a characteristic style of dressing, so do those in Muslim countries. Only 20 percent of Muslims live in the Middle East, and even there, many women can choose to wear "the veil" or not. To a significant extent, the hijab is an essential feature of fashion in these regions. The scarves can be beautiful, colorful and becoming. 
    The women who stroll about the cities in their carefully accessorized ensembles don't seem oppressed in the least. Nor do they appear to be terrorized into being "invisible" to men. 
    They wear lavish designer sunglasses and expertly applied makeup. They have professionally manicured fingernails, and they wear European perfume.
    Here are some more beautiful Muslim women, dressed according to the strictures of their faith:

    The hijab is as much a part of their fashion palette as jeans and T-shirts, or power suits and six-inch heels, are to ours.
Jennifer Lopez
     Pop icon Jennifer Lopez is not the only American celebrity to adopt the head scarf as an emblem of glamor. It provides a graceful frame for the face and draws attention to one's loveliest features, without the distraction of hair, or the need to worry about one's "do."
Rihanna "gets it" too.
    Many women in Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Amish, African and other cultures regard covering the hair as an aspect of modesty or devotion. This may seem odd to us, but that's beside the point. Perhaps our porn-drenched country could learn a thing or two about dignity and grace from those for whom modesty is one of the greatest virtues.
    The women in India, who are Hindu, cover their hair as "religiously" as do those in Muslim countries. Their clothing's vivid hues, often embellished with gold thread, confer an element of beauty on even the poorest lifestyles. 
Hindu women are not 'oppressed' by their headscarves.
   Islam is slowly taking root in China and, according to a BBC report last week, the women have only recently begun to comprehend the significance of the headscarf. A lively demand for the scarves -- along with instructions on how to wear them -- has developed. 
Modest -- and mesmerizing.
      I have seen a number of Iranian feature films and documentaries over the years. I wish more people could be exposed to these works; I believe that most people in our country have a terribly distorted impression of life in the Middle East. 
    The well-known travel guide Rick Steves noted the same thing as he strolled the cities of Iran, having wonderfully frank and personal talks with young Muslim adults. The women all had their hair covered, but they were clearly fashion-conscious. They were also highly educated, forceful and ambitious.  
    The Iranians (at least the urban-dwellers, who have been featured in thee films and programs) are a delightful people -- warm, open, generous and good-humored. I have been very moved by how dedicated they are to doing the right thing -- and in going to considerable trouble to debate what the right thing is.
    The women in Iranian households seem to have no fear of saying exactly what they think. They make demands on their husbands, they joke, they argue. They can be quite shrill and persistent. The husbands seem a bit henpecked, although they usually don't seem to mind, even when their daughters join in ganging up on them.
    It is clear that they don't force their wives to do or WEAR anything. In the more backward areas, I assume it's a different situation.
    I recently saw a documentary on PBS in which the teenage daughter of a very liberated, Westernized Tehran family decided on her own that she wanted to begin wearing the hijab. Her parents were upset at first. They were proud of being so "modern." 
    But they ultimately respected her wish to be regarded as a serious, self-respecting, chaste young woman who wanted to be "protected by the veil" from harassment. 
     Indeed, in a number of more secular Muslim nations, such as Turkey and Tunisia, many women are choosing to wear the hijab once again, to show their support for an Islamic revival. The men in these countries are returning to more traditional clothing as well. 
   Several years ago, a number of Haredi Jewish women in Jerusalem adopted the burqa as a sign of piety, and it became enough of an issue that a member of  the Knesset was drafting a bill to prohibit the wearing of the burqa by both Jews and Muslims. 
    One official argued that "showing too little flesh" is as provocative as showing too much, which I think is an interesting perspective.
Maybe we could learn something from this "showing too little" style.
    So many religions require that women cover their hair that it seems unfair to single out Muslims. The Amish are always seen in this uncomfortable, unbecoming attire, and we don't bother them.
    Jewish women, depending upon the sect in which they practice, must wear scarves or wigs whenever they are in public, or they must wear a lace head covering in the temple.
Jewish modesty.
    Catholic women are encouraged to wear mantillas. The color depends upon their marital status.
Catholic piety.
    African women traditionally cover their hair, and they seem to have a good time doing it. Their scarves and wraps are gorgeous.
African joie de vivre.
                       Christian girls in Nigeria.     / photo by New York Times
    Of course, I don't support male dominance of women in any form, within any religion or by any country, although we know it happens all the time -- and the U.S. is no exception. 
    Men have "owned" their wives for most of this country's history, and until recently, the law did not recognize a man's rape of his wife as a crime. Domestic terrorism is widespread in America. So is cultural oppression. 
    Women feel such pressure to live up to media (and porn) ideals that they starve themselves, undergo grotesque surgical procedures, engage in sexual practices that injure and disgust them, and stroll around dressed like wannabee prostitutes. 
    Younger and younger girls in the U.S. are being sucked into this twisted imperative to be alluring to the opposite sex. Elementary-school girls are being "turned on" to the need to be "flirty" and "saucy" in their short-short skirts and neon bras.
     And we call Muslims barbaric! Look at this adorable Muslim child. She looks happy, healthy, open to the world, and refreshingly modest. Good for her!
She looks a whole lot prettier than America's 's little hookers.
    I am not trying to minimize the vast and truly perverse oppression of women that occurs in some parts of the Muslim world.  Even the head scarf, if it is forced upon a woman, is oppressive. Of greater concern, of course, are the full-body coverings that turn women into indistinguishable flocks of helpless birds.
    The chadors strip the women of their humanity and transform them into ghostly remnants of their real selves.
     In some countries, such as Oman, things get even more disturbing.
This looks like it's from some sci-fi, CGI blockbuster, but it's just life in Oman.
     I would never make excuses for a culture that forces women to be shrouded in burquas. But, as with the scarf, I can see some appeal, if it is freely chosen. I have often wished that I could be invisible -- that I could go out and take care of business without having to be "seen."
    When I was young, it was oppressive in itself to walk down a city street and to be constantly gawked at, approached, and even followed by men. It would have been nice to put on a burqa before going out, so I could simply be left alone.
    Now, I find that being older is a sort of built-in burqa. No one notices me very much anymore, which is a relief. But I still often wish I had something akin to a burqa that would enable me to do what I have to do in complete privacy.
    The picture below is a hideous representation of female oppression, but sometimes I long to be this anonymous:
    I was inspired by the pictures of the three Nobel Peace Prize winners to think more about how various cultures express their views of morality, and to what extent we are in a position to judge them. All of us, I think, should care about anyone who is being mistreated. But we have a lot of self-improvement to do in our own culture before we stomp around the globe, castigating others.
   Perhaps you've noticed how female American journalists often wear a headscarf when reporting from the Middle East. What is interesting to observe is how the scarves change their demeanors. It's clear they enjoy the feeling -- as if the scarves confer upon them a new innocence, beauty, modesty and radiance. Women in the West are oppressed by ubiquitous, aggressive sexuality. I think we have something profound to learn about the allure of chastity.
    The fact that three women in headscarves won the Nobel Peace Prize should help us to realize that this issue -- like so many others we view simplistically -- deserves a more nuanced and informed analysis. 
    Some younger Muslim women have declared that modesty doesn’t require them to be invisible or unfashionable. Social media, and Instagram in particular, give cosmopolitan young women (highly educated, well versed in global cultural trends and open to Western influences) an opportunity to showcase their creative and attractive use of the headscarf as an essential fashion accessory.  (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/17/fashion/muslim-women-hijab-style-traditional-garment-fashion.html :

Fashion blogger Yasmeni Kaman.
 Three international Christian fashion icons who loved the headscarf: 
Grace Kelly.

Sophia Loren.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

The photos of the three Nobel laureates at the top of this post were provided by:
Left: Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times; center: Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters; right: Jim Watson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

a version of this story was originally published on Oct. 7, 2011 on this blog and on the prominent iVillage site.