Earlier this month, the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled that private companies in EU member countries had the right to bar their employees from wearing “religious, political and philosophical signs” in the interest of “neutrality” (ah, yes!… that neutrality). CJEU’s opinion addresses two separate cases involving the dismissal of two Muslim women by their respective companies for their insistence on wearing headscarves to work.
The debate over headscarf bans is long, sprawling and contentious. I am not going to get into it now. But every time someone explains to me that really, all that these overwhelmingly white Christian nations want to do is promote secularism or be religiously “neutral,” I am left wondering if they can really hear themselves talk. When you are a minority in a society, the “religious, political and philosophical signs” of the majority are everywhere. And that’s OK because its inevitable. That’s what you would expect. But to have the majority adopt the sanctimonious position that they have selflessly suppressed all signs of their own cultural identity – on their streets, in the art that hangs on the walls of their museums, in their songs and their movies, in their everyday conversations and their perfunctory rituals – for the greater good of society is utterly laughable.
I thought I would post a couple of stories from Muslim women about how they want to dress. Obviously, two anecdotes do not begin to represent the diverse views of almost 1 billion Muslim women on a controversial and complex issue, but I’d rather start with them than with the neutral majority in Europe.
Here’s Hanna Yusuf in the Guardian explaining why we cannot just assume that every women who wears the hijab has been forced into it. She has her own strong view about this and is not trying to argue both sides of the debate (and yes, she knows its complicated). But it should be perfectly clear from her position that “neutrality” is in the eye of the beholder.
And here’s an uplifting piece from the NPR detailing the success of activist Afghan women in beating back the Afghanistan Ministry of Education’s decision that schoolgirls must change their already modest uniforms for even more restrictive styles. The old uniform included leggings that were worn under dresses that hit just a few inches below the knee. They allowed for greater flexibility, movement and comfort. The new uniforms were longer (and for girls 12 and up, extended all the way to the floor), and far more restrictive. Take a look:
The article describes the response by activists in Afghanistan and around the world. They took to social media, began online petitions and organized a local demonstration in Kabul that ultimately never took place. Why? Because faced with the growing protests, the government backed down, and issued the following statement:
“President Ghani says the new school uniform which was announced by the Ministry of Education is not representative of the culture and tradition of the [Afghan] people … He has directed the Ministry of Education to work on a new design that is affordable together with a nationally representative group of teachers, parents and students.”
Women speaking up for themselves. What a revolutionary idea.
Agree that it makes no sense to ban the hijab or for anyone to dictate what women should wear /not wear (hijab, leggings – take your pick). That said, I also don’t get women who claim that wearing the hijab is some kind of a feminist statement especially since the hijab and the veil emerges from a very particular and patriarchal vision of islam (and most muslim women in Indonesia, Senegal, Bangladesh even India and Pakistan don’t wear the hijab) – so not sure why one would want to elevate that version of Islam?
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So the way I understood Hanna Yusuf’s rationale for the hijab being her “feminist statement” is that women in *all* cultures are essentially responding to patriarchal norms — to remove or add clothing. So she presents her decision to wear the hijab as a rejection of western norms to bare more skin. Having said that, she does acknowledge that it’s a complicated issue (but doesn’t get into the costs and negatives). So I don’t think she is saying that the hijab itself is a universal feminist symbol, but rather that her choice to wear it is her “feminist” statement (especially in the context of where she lives — she probably gets stared at a lot and many people probably assume that she was forced into it). But she is obviously also a very independent, self-sufficient woman and so her ability to make her own choices is different from that of millions of other women.