Tuesday 23 August 2016


Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, 2016 (image taken from You Tube)

Having followed the heated discussion regarding the appearance of Muslim women athletes in the Olympics with full-body suits, as well as the ban of the burkini on some French beaches, I find that some facts are – deliberately or not – left out of the equation.

On the one side, some see in these images a confirmation of their fears of Islam, spreading and threatening our way of living, defending the oppression and submission of women in the Islamic world and beyond. These people don’t seem to know or recognise how diverse and plural the practice of Islam is around the world. Furthermore, they seem to especially ignore the fact that the use of the veil (a term used to refer generally to the hijab, chador, niqab and burqa) is in many cases a choice for many Muslim women, a symbol not only of religious belief, but also of identity, of freedom or, simply, of a rural background (as it still is, for instance, in Greece and other countries of the European south, where older women coming from villages would not consider coming out of their homes without covering their heads – do we still remember where this comes from?). Leila Ahmed’s “A Quiet Revolution: The Veil's Resurgence, from the Middle East to America” helped me put this whole issue into a historical context and allowed me to get to know some contemporary perspectives [watch also this LA Times video, where American Muslims explain what their hijab means to them

Image updated in September 2016: on the left, Jennifer Lopez at the Met Gala, 2016 (image taken from ibtimes.com); in the middle, a 2013 Dolce & Gabbana ad (image taken from Pinterest); on the right, actress Dayanne Mello at the Venice Film Festival, 2016 (image taken from the newspaper The Mirror).

Another issue that people on this side of the argument seem to claim, as they express concern regarding the veil and the place of women in the Muslim world, is that the place of women in the “West” is no longer an issue. Let’s consider the revealing attire of beach volley women athletes (quite a different fashion from that of male athletes in the same sport), Hollywood actresses appearing practically naked in public events, the sexualised presence of women in the advertisement of all sorts of products, etc., to mention only some more superficial examples related to appearances and not getting into the details of daily social, professional and domestic life: are these images representing women’s liberation and “western” progress or simply the two sides of the same coin? Those who express concern regarding the place of woman in the Islamic world rarely do they raise concerns regarding the way women are seen, treated, expected to behave or dress in the “West” in order to please and the level of choice or social imposition in these cases. Is this no longer an issue?

On the other side, we have the defenders of freedom of choice for women. These people do not see the veil as a threat to our way of living and a symbol of the oppression of women. They defend the right of women to follow the rules of modest clothing (not all that different from rules in conservative Christian or Jewish communities). I consider myself to be part of this group of people and this is probably why I am particularly bothered about omissions in their arguments. The most significant omission, in my view, is the fact that wearing or not the hijab or the burkini is not a choice for every Muslim woman. And this is where it all starts. Although this is not always mentioned, as if it was no longer an issue, the whole discussion about the freedom to wear a hijab or a burkini (or even the burqa, as this group seems to be particularly tolerant in what concerns people concealing their identity in the public space), this whole discussion is taking place because many women around the world are obliged to cover, to disappear. Because they are women.

I liked reading Sarah Malik’s article in the Sydney Morning Herald regarding the ban of the burkini. Informative, clear, it rightly expresses concerns that the ban will push Muslim women back to the sidelines and considers it “an attack on minority communities, already subject to increased surveillance and harassment, who occupy the very bottom of the social hierarchy; and its most vulnerable members - Muslim women”. As most arguments on this side, though, it fails to mention that modest clothing is not an option for many Muslim women, including some in France. It defends the right of Muslim women to cover, but doesn’t refer to Muslim women who don’t wish to cover and are obliged to. Sarah Malik actually goes as far as to state that for those who “don't feel comfortable with the body beautiful display otherwise required on the beach, various forms of the suit give freedom to frolic with joyous abandon”. Isn’t this a step backwards? Are we going to accept the imposition of a “beach body” and suggest that all those who don’t have it may opt for the burkini in order to feel more comfortable? London’s (Muslim) mayor, Sadiq Khan, went the other way, actually, banning body shaming publicity from transport and stating that “As the father of two teenage girls, I am extremely concerned about this kind of advertising which can demean people, particularly women, and make them ashamed of their bodies. It is high time it came to an end.” (read article in The Telegraph).

(Image taken from The Telegraph)

There are two recent articles that set the record straight for me, reminding us that there is a whole other side to the freedom of wearing the hijab (or the burkini): the right not to wear it, which is not guaranteed to too many Muslim women. The first appeared on the Washington Post and was entitled As Muslim women, we actually ask you not to wear the hijab in the name of interfaith solidarity. It referred to the initiative Wear a Hijab Day, which I found bizarre in the first place and somehow showing lack of respect and solidarity for all oppressed and humiliated Muslim women around the world. Journalists Asra Q. Nomani and Hala Arafa (who identify themselves as mainstream Muslim women, born in Egypt and in India; Asra is also co-founder of the Muslim Reform Movement) reject the interpretation that the hijab is merely a symbol of modesty and dignity adopted by faithful female followers of Islam; they recall theologians who from as early as the 7th century and up to our days have established that Muslim women are not required to cover their heads; and, most importantly, they are reclaiming their religion and their Islamic right to pray without a headscarf and share their experience of being denied entry to most mosques around the world, including in the United States, without a hijab. 

The second article was written by Nervana Mahmoud, a commentator on Middle East issues. In The Right Not to Wear a Burkini. Mahmoud recalls her time as a young woman growing up in Egypt. The rise of Islamism and the definite conservative turn in the 80s were times where “social pressure mounted, forcing women to cover their bodies to maintain their ‘honor’. Any uncovered woman was deemed loose, decadent, and attention seeking.” Her very interesting article ends like this: “Muslim women who opt to wear ordinary swimming costumes only want to enjoy the simple pleasure of feeling the sea waves caressing their skin and touching their hair, without external judgment of their morals or religious beliefs. Once the concept of equality and diversity is accepted in Muslim countries, it will empower Muslims to defend the burkini in Western countries. Let’s be frank: prejudice in this context originated within the Muslim communities, and will never be solved until Muslims truly embrace freedom for all, and not just for burkini-wearing women”. That goes for non-Muslim pro-choice defenders too.

These are not simple issues. And I am not trying here to simplify them either. I am trying to be informed, I am trying to listen to different opinions, learn and know how to respect, seeking answers or possible paths for the situation we are living in Europe and the world. I question mainly the meaning of tolerance in this encounter between cultures which in recent times has become even more intense and used in the worst possible way by some politicians at the international level. Does tolerance mean acceptance of everything? To live in society, are there not cases where one needs to say "No, this is not acceptable"? To live in society, is it not always necessary, respecting our differences, to seek to create together common rules applicable to everyone? Rules which do not discriminate based on stereotypes or resulting from fear?

My final thoughts go to some men and women that I consider very special and whom I also got to know in these last days by reading the news:

(Image taken from Twitter)

In Iranmen post photos of themselves wearing hijabs in protest of strict laws governing women. Yes, in Iran… (see more in the New York Times).

Masooma Muradi (mage taken from The National)

In Afghanistan, Masooma Muradi, the only female provincial governor, is standing her ground, against a sexist patriarchal tradition and despite being treated by many with lack of respect (read more in 
The National).

(Image taken from Fadumo Dayib's Facebook page)

Finally, Fadumo Dayib, once a Somali refugee in Finland and today a Harvard graduate and mother, is the first female presidential candidate in Somalia. She has received death threats and has prepared her will in case something happens to her. She states: “In terms of the threats that I've been getting, I see that actually as a positive sign that I am doing the right thing. As a result of what I am doing, Somali women will no longer be relegated to the back rooms and told to stay there. They'll come out and they'll never go back.” (read more on Identities.MIC).

Kudos to these people, for resisting, asking questions, dis-comforting us, giving us hope and pushing the world forward. And for showing us which are the things that unite us.

Note on 11 Set 2016: 

Very much worth reading Slavoj Žižek's The non-existence of Norway. And his questioning on what tolerance is.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing a more balanced view. We must find more ways to encourage critical thinking and curiosity - what ever the issue!

Maria Vlachou said...

Thank you for your comment. It's more of a search for more information, a need to listen to the "other side", as mainstream media may manipulate our views quite a bit. There is also a need for more self-evaluation on both sides. Before we consider the "other" a threat, I believe we need to have a good look at ourselves.