#WearWhatYouWant but speak out against compulsory hijab in Iran
2016 will be remembered for many things, but tolerance and understanding will not be high among them.
Wars rumble. Terror groups have killed many hundreds in Paris, Brussels, and Orlando, and throughout Africa and Asia. Most of these victims are Muslims: but as the most prominent terrorists claimed to kill in the name of Islam, Muslims themselves have faced a backlash of hate and mistrust across the world. Just as, of course, the terrorists intended.
Although in many ways much of the world lives in a time of relative peace and prosperity, mistrust in politicians across the ideological and political aisles seems near breaking point.
With only weeks to go to the US Presidential Election of 2016, and the possibility of a Donald Trump Presidency bringing unprecedented instability to world politics as well as to status of Muslims in the United States, the stakes for peace and understanding could hardly be higher.
This year, as ever, women have been at the forefront of the abuse and intolerance that inevitably surrounds fear and hatred. Muslim women are more vulnerable than most, due to social pressures in Muslim countries and the visibility of women wearing hijab (head coverings) in Western Countries. Hijabs have been ripped off, Muslim women abused, and women have felt threatened in a way not seen in most of the West for decades.
This has led many in the Islamic world, and many liberals in the West, to take a special interest in protecting Muslim women.
When politicians under pressure from the political right in France introduced bans on “burkinis” on beaches there was an international outcry.
Left-leaning news organisations like The Huffington Post have been at the forefront of campaigns to make Muslim women feel safe and accepted. Hijabi athletes in the Olympics were celebrated and lionised. Hijabi fashion has received widespread coverage, and the harassment of hijabi women has been high on the news agenda.
But of course not all Muslim women wear hijab, and even in Muslim countries a minority of women are vocally against it. Like all minorities-within-minorities, these voices are often heard the least. More generally, the voices heard speaking against hijab are white western voices: the hijab is sexist, regressive, repressive, a symbol of the commodification of women by religion.
These criticisms are vehemently rejected by women who support the wearing of the hijab: and indeed its opponents are generally categorised by both Muslim activists and the “Social Justice” Left as racist, sexist and Islamophobic: and, darker, those from a Muslim background speaking against the promotion of the hijab are described as “native informants” and “uncle toms”.
“Wear What You Want” has been the overwhelming cry of the Western Left, placing discussions of hijab firmly in the context of a women’s right to choose what to wear.
This conversation has been brought to a head by the award of the international Chess Federation FIDE of next years’ World Chess Championship to the only bidder, Iran.
Since Iran requires women to wear Hijab in public, whether they are Muslim or not, the situation could be said to mirror that of the French Burkini Ban, with a state insisting control over what women wear. But the media coverage has not been the same.
American International chess player Nazi Paikidze was called “Islamophobic” for saying she’d refuse to attend the tournament, and suggestions that a wider boycott of the event, or for FIDE to move the tournament to another country would, it was claimed in articles in The Guardian and The New York Times, “hurt women in Iran”.
Those calling for women to “wear what you want” over the Burkini ban in France have been notably silent over compulsory hijab in Iran. This is because the story does not fit with the narrative of the Social Justice Left, or of those promoting Hijab, as head covering being about choice.
I previously worked in news reporting (as a lawyer), and I’ve had a long interest in freedom of expression issues. I also edit a new blog Satiria that works with mostly left-leaning writers in Pakistan, India, Singapore and elsewhere. We regularly feature jokes and images about the hijab debate and extremists of every stripe, religious, progressive and on the left and right. Our hope, beyond making people smile, is to combat intolerance and encourage debate — and we have been honoured to receive support in this from secular activists such as Ali A. Rizvi (Pakistani-Canadian author of the forthcoming Atheist Muslim), and the Iranian secular feminist blogger Persian Rose.
In that spirit of support, I noticed the relative lack of press coverage of the mandatory hijab for women chess players in Iran compared with that of the Burkini ban in France.
In particular, I was surprised to see that The Huffington Post had not covered the Iran/Chess story even once — compared with its thorough coverage of the Burkini ban, and its occasional mentions of Masih Alinejad and her My Stealthy Freedom campaign against the mandatory hijab in Iran.
On Twitter, I asked why:
— Roger Dubar (@DubarRoger) October 6, 2016
A tweet from The Huffington Post’s World Social Media Editor Rowaida Abdelaziz also caught my eye:
The irony of the times that we are living becomes painful when choosing to wear more clothes is no longer a right, but an act of rebellion.
— Rowaida Abdelaziz (@Rowaida_Abdel) August 24, 2016
I asked to ask how acceptable it was that some women have no choice to wear hijab, and she responded with a further tweet.
— Rowaida Abdelaziz (@Rowaida_Abdel) October 6, 2016
I thought it would be worth summarising my thoughts.
Hijab is entirely about policing what women wear. When Muslim women in the West choose to wear religiously mandated dress outside of religious contexts, they are signalling that Muslim women who do not do so are less religiously compliant.
Taking about mandatory hijab is not “policing what women wear”, but insisting that it may not be talked about except by certain Muslims is policing what women wear – religious Muslims tell women what to wear all the time.
Women can wear hijab voluntarily without this being a symbol of anything: but when they promote it as “choice” and “liberation” and “feminism”, this excludes women in many Muslim dominated countries where hijab is at least culturally mandated and worse, women in Iran and elsewhere who have no choice but to cover up.
By publishing only positive articles about hijab, no matter how well-intentioned The Huffington Post or other publications are in seeking to protect hijabi women, they are portraying women from Muslim backgrounds as being universally pro-hijab; and that the wearing of hijab is a solely a matter of choice for individual women. Neither of these things are true.
I believe in choice. If women choose to comply with religiously obligated dress codes, that is up to them. If women choose to wear hijab as a sign of identity or solidarity or because they want to whatever the reason, that is up to them.
But claiming that hijab itself is a sign of choice or liberation when for millions of women it is not is dishonest at best – and a promotion of conservative religious values to silence other voices at worst.
If women don’t want to visit Iran if it means having to cover up, we should support that choice. If the World Chess Federation truly believes in equality, it should consider whether it is fitting for its main international tournament to take place in a country that does not respect that aim.
If we really believe in #WearWhatYouWant, let’s accept that for many women, what they wear isn’t a free choice at all – even if that conflicts with what we want to be true.