Yesterday I saw three college women sitting on a park bench at the playground in Minneapolis. They were all in bikini tops and bottoms. I felt bad for them. I felt like they were oppressed more than the Somali women sitting on an opposite park bench in full hijab. They had bought into the cultural belief that women ought to bare their bodies for the entire world in order to be valued, receive attention, feel attractive. It is almost (dare I say it) like a religion in this country.
But can you imagine the backlash if a Muslim woman wearing a scarf were to write articles, books, provocative magazine articles, about these women being oppressed, forced to wear bikinis, or dominated by men? And yet that is how Muslim women are so often presented in the media. Oppressed. Forced to wear scarves. Dominated by the men in their lives.
So instead, here is a wonderful articles about the hijab, or Islamic head covering:
Hijab and Modesty by Dilshad Ali at the Muslimah Next Door blog on Patheos.
And though I feel it is always best to let the women who actually wear headscarves be the ones to talk about them, here’s an article I wrote for Skirt magazine a few years ago: The Dress on the Back of the Door comparing my black abaya with my pink bikini, and how I wear them both in Djibouti.
Since I live in a Muslim country, as a person who tries to be respectful of local modesty norms, I feel I’ve earned the right to at least bring up the topic now and then.
The scarf seems to have taken on a life of its own, with book covers and titles all making use of it. Most of the time, it is used as a symbol of oppression. But is that what the majority of Muslim women feel? I don’t think so.
Not any more than saying that the majority of non-Muslim women believe that the bikini is a symbol of oppression. Some might say that, but probably not most.
The author in the article above refers to an essay by a woman who calls herself a pagan. This woman talks about covering as sexy and empowering because it allows her to decide how much of her body to reveal, and who gets to see it. She decides, in my own words, that there is just as much beauty in the concealed as in the revealed.
In my experiences in Djibouti with friends, I rarely find women who feel oppressed or forced into covering. And I understand and have experienced the appeal of modesty while also feeling sexy in a full-body covering, which might seem contradictory. Again, there is just as much beauty in the concealed as in the revealed.
To say that because women cover in response to cultural pressure and therefore the scarf is oppressive is like saying that because women wear skinny jeans in response to culture pressure, skinny jeans are oppressive. I guess that’s not entirely true because head scarves are more than a cultural phenomenon, they are a religious one as well. Confining the discussion to one of culture oversimplifies the issue, but I will let these women speak for themselves. And in her article Hijab and Modesty, Dilshad Ali does a fine job.
I have also recently stumbled across some nice blogs by Muslim women who write about this.
I have skinny jeans. I have a bikini. I have an abaya (the black robe common among Arab women). I have a niqaab (the face veil).
Am I oppressed?
(I initially wrote that the women in bikinis were overweight. This was a poor choice of words because it put the emphasis on weight and led some people to believe I only felt this way because of their body shapes. I would have felt the same had they been thin and regret mentioning that at all. It took away from what I was trying to say.)