Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Freedom... You say that word a lot

... I don't think it means what you think it means, Ms. Nusrat.

Ms. Ayesha Nusrat, self-described as a 23-year-old Muslim Indian from New Delhi, recently wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times, titling it "The Freedom of Hijab". In this essay, Ms. Nusrat described her transition to wearing a hijab following the tenets of her religion, Islam. According to Ms. Nusrat, this was her [I quote]"most liberating experience ever" [End quote]. Ms. Nusrat made a choice to exercise her prerogative to dress as she pleases. This is not, I repeat, NOT, a comment on that prerogative. However, the essay indicates that she intended to make a statement through this specific choice of hers. Since that statement is in the public domain via the Op-Ed, I would like to call the statement (and the judgement behind it) into question.
The questions and challenges I encountered increased my inquisitiveness and drive to explore and learn for myself various fundamental aspects of Islam. Thus began my journey to hijab-dom.
Ms. Nusrat's 'inquisitiveness and drive to explore' appear not to have exposed her to the journey and impact of fundamentalist Islam in the medieval, modern and contemporary history. But I am not going to debate Islam with her here (In a different forum, perhaps); I intend to focus on aspects of her statement, which blatantly violate the fundamentally human principles of liberty and equality. Ms. Nusrat writes (assuming a derisive tone, which for the moment I'm going to ignore):
I am abundantly aware of the rising concerns and controversies over how a few yards of cloth covering a woman’s head is written off as a global threat to women’s education, public security, rights and even religion.
Clearly, to Ms. Nusrat, the hijab is merely a few yards of cloth. For far too many women in far too many countries (for instance, the Middle East, North Africa, Far East and the Southeast of Asia, not to mention, Europe), the hijab is an obligatory article of indenturement that permits no choice, but is to be worn on pain of punishment and/or death; to them, it is a symbol of systematic oppression.

Let me offer Ms. Nusrat the point of view of someone who has been inside this oppressive system, via a post in the blog of the amazing Maryam Namazie.
Bahar a young woman living in Germany wrote: When you see me on the street I am veiled but do not think I am a Muslim. I have been forced to veil by my father and brothers; they will kill me if I don’t. Before I felt alone, but now I know I am not. This is a message she sent to Mina Ahadi, founder of the central council of ex-Muslims in Germany.
I wonder if Ms. Nusrat, from her privileged position of having been born in a secular democratic Republic like India, that too, in the late Eighties, ever pauses to consider the plight of someone like Bahar. How about the multitude of those other women who [I quote Maryam Namazie]... know from personal experience what it means to be female under Islam – hidden from view, bound, gagged, mutilated, murdered, without rights, and threatened and intimidated day in and day out for transgressing Islamic mores [End quote]? Has Ms. Nusrat ever considered how/why Islamic fundamentalists (be it Taliban, or Boko Haram, or the regime in Iran) ALWAYS impose the hijab, burqa or niqab on women at the first opportunity? Why does she think that is?

For all her glorious education ('...a master’s degree in human rights, and a graduate degree in psychology'), I find it odd that it seems to have never struck Ms. Nusrat that these inviolable mandates to cover up reflect the bleak reality of so many women's lives. She glibly talks about a 'misconception that Muslim women lack the strength, passion and power to strive for their own rights'; she frames it wrongly. As women, the Muslim women lack nothing; they are just as strong and passionate about striving for their own rights as women anywhere else. But Islam is something else. Islam, especially fundamentalist Islam, actively denies them the power, and would rather beat the women into submission than relinquish control - and that is not a misconception, judging by the experience of many, many women in the world. If Ms. Nusrat continues to dismiss their experience because of her beliefs, she is being dishonest.
I am also conscious of the media’s preferred mode of portraying all hijabi women as downtrodden and dominated by misogynist mullahs or male relatives who enforce them into sweltering pieces of oppressive clothing. But I believe my hijab liberates me. I know many who portray the hijab as the placard for either forced silence or fundamentalist regimes; but personally I found it to be neither.
Argument from ignorance? That's the best she can do? Being from a cosmopolitan city like New Delhi, Ms. Nusrat may not have experienced the strictures of fundamentalist Islam, but how does that negate the terrible experience of other women across the world? She may go on 'believing' her hijab liberates her; I believe I am the Chancellor of the Unseen University. But her belief (or mine) has nothing to do with reality. Shame on you, Ms. Nusrat, for being so casually dismissive of the plight of so many other human beings on this planet!
For someone who passionately studied and works for human rights and women’s empowerment, I realized that working for these causes while wearing the hijab can only contribute to breaking the misconception that Muslim women lack the strength, passion and power to strive for their own rights.
Ms. Nusrat's qualifier 'only' is misleading at best, or at worst a smokescreen. Her wearing the hijab while working for 'causes' can also serve as a reminder to many unfortunate women, that however educated, however passionate about 'causes' to work at, women in Islam would always be under the control of a patriarchy that dictates how they should dress, how they should cover up, what notions of modesty they would be judged under. To those women, it is a constant reminder that they are perpetually under a proscription not to incite male lust. Sexualization? Hell, yes. This is sexualization of a different kind that is neither liberating, nor empowering. Allow me, again, quote the words of someone who has seen this oppressive system up close, Maryam Namazie.
It’s ironic how hijabis often portray their wearing of the hijab as a form of liberation from the sexualisation of women in society when it is just one other form of sexualisation and control. In fact, it sexualises girls from a young age and demands that they be covered and segregated so as not to cause fitna or chaos in society... It’s no more a ‘choice’ than other forms of control and sexualisation, such as female genital mutilation or the chastity belt and foot binding.
Ms. Nusrat continues her sanctimonious monolog:
In a society that embraces uncovering, how can it be oppressive if I decided to cover up? I see hijab as the freedom to regard my body as my own concern and as a way to secure personal liberty in a world that objectifies women. I refuse to see how a woman’s significance is rated according to her looks and the clothes she wears.
Does Ms. Nusrat even realize how she has focused in that paragraph on her decision, her view, her choice? Of course, it is her choice. Ms. Nusrat, a citizen of a secular republic by birth, is able to make that choice, of her own volition, not under any kind of threat or intimidation, or fear of eternal damnation. A lot many women in the countries I mentioned above are not that fortunate. Consider that for a moment. And by embracing the hijab in order to make a statement (Ms. Nusrat wrote an Op-Ed, didn't she?), she has, in effect, denied agency to those millions of women, who cannot, who aren't allowed to, make that simple choice, to wear or not to wear.

Ms. Nusrat writes:
I am also absolutely certain that the skewed perception of women’s equality as the right to bare our breasts in public only contributes to our own objectification.
Ms. Nusrat seems to have no difficulty in leaping from wearing a hijab to baring breasts. Without a trace of irony. (Ophelia Benson has already commented on that, so I'm not going there) But no, Ms. Nusrat. It is your perception of women's equality that is skewed. Suffice it to say, that the said equality, for which the feminists are fighting for, comes down to (a) a woman's choice to bare her breasts or not, and (b) the creation of an environment in which men know how to exercise restraint and the mere sight of exposed breasts doesn't immediately sexualize the concerned woman or the situation, or cause the men to lunge at her. It is not that difficult to understand, is it?
I look forward to a whole new day when true equality will be had with women not needing to display themselves to get attention nor needing to defend their decision to keep their bodies to themselves.
Her lofty pontification on ‘true equality’ notwithstanding, she sadly appears not to understand that the much sought-after equality must come with freedom of choice.
I regard my hijab to be a commanding question of “I control what you see, how is that not empowering” mixed with a munificent amount of authority emanating from the “My body is my own concern” clause. I believe my hijab gives me the right to assert my body, femininity and spirituality as my own and under my authority alone.
... Except, as I said, to those whose hijabs confer upon them no right whatsoever in reality, just the reminder of servitude. "Control what you see" is an odious expression. It paints men as ever-hungry beasts, ready to pounce upon any piece of exposed flesh. Talk about objectification! Good grief, what kind of men has Ms. Nusrat met in all her two-odd decades of life?
This is all the more reason why, being a hijabi in the public arena is an escalating force that drives me to work in ways that would help break the undignified stereotypes, barriers and prejudices that my Islamic faith is relentlessly and irrationally associated with.
Let me understand this correctly. Ms. Nusrat now claims to be the victim of unjust attacks on her faith. So covering herself up... is her solution to the said attacks? What would Ms. Nusrat say about those women across the world who have been persecuted by their own faith for choosing to be different? How much does Ms. Nusrat's hijab weigh against a Taslima Nasreen, a Maryam Namazie, an Ayan Hirsi Ali when considering 'prejudices' - that she considers irrational - towards her faith?
As an extension of my personality and identity, it instigates me...
Wait a minute! I thought the hijab was 'just a few yards of cloth' to Ms. Nusrat? Does she realize the inherent danger of tying one's personality and identity, or indeed, ascribing moral/ethical agency, to a piece of clothing?
My reflection reminds me of the convictions that made me take up the hijab in first place — to work for a world where a woman isn’t judged by how she looks or what she wears, a world in which she needn’t defend the right to make decisions about her own body, in which she can be whoever she wants to be without ever having to choose between her religion and her rights.
... Except perhaps when those said rights are denied by the religion?

It appears, perhaps not really surprisingly, that Ms. Nusrat, having drunk deeply from the chalice of her faith, has absorbed the inherently oppressive system to such an extent that she no longer recognizes it for the vile depravity it is. That is possibly the only reason how she finds the voluntary submersion in an oppressive practice to be "liberating".

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