GenderHuman RightsUncategorized

That meme comparing hijabis to nuns needs to die in a pit of fire

On the madonna of false equivalences….

This post is kind of rough because it’s basically copy-paste of commentary I wrote on facebook and I’m drowning in too much translation work to properly edit it, and some of these points have been made on this blog before.

Hey hey! I keep seeing this meme going the rounds so I will take the liberty of sharing my spiel about how blatant these false equivalences are:

Point one: Well, wouldn’t this just mean that these religions are then all… equally sexist?

Even if we go like “gee…could that mean these religions that endorse sexual purity as a feminine value are ALL sexist?” there’s still no comparing some of these. Like if I never hear anyone compare hijab to being a nun again I’ll die happy.

It would be nice to PRETEND that hijab is worn by religious women who want to display devotion to God, but reality has a way of getting in the way of happy myths like that (and believe me once hijab DOES start being largely practiced that way I’m not going to be unhappy, it’s just a blatant misrepresentation of the extant values and practices underlying it). *puts on stoic face* So here’s my spiel:

Muslim modesty doctrines are not contentless symbols of religious devotion. They are not reducible to garment. They rest on premises that reduce a woman’s value to her sexual purity and elevate that above all other social concerns. They treat feminine bodies as objects of discord and simultaneously hypersexualize them as objects while desexualizing them as subjects. They are inherently anti-woman in ideology, and even if they were not, the scale and sanction that enacts them constitutes such constraint that the conclusion of oppression is inescapable.

Muslim modesty doctrine is vastly institutionalized and normative and enacted by legal, extrajudicial, social, and economic forces, and also contributes to an epidemic of traumatic hypersexualization of the bodies of prepubescent girls who are deemed too tempting to men, far before these girls are capable of informed consent about something like sexual purity.

Further to that, often the mobility, safety, employability, social standing, and marriageability of women rests on their adherence to it. It is also stringent and unyielding, encompassing all forms of public presence at all times- as far as I know it’s not a mortal sin if a nun’s hair shows sometimes, and as far as I know, a nun’s worth and standing and status as a moral agent, a human being, does not actually rest on whether she covers her hair in her community.

There is utterly no comparison between the practice of hijab today and a modern day Catholic taking the cloth. I think this is a dangerous and frankly hurtful comparison..

Point two: This is only a false analogy because being a nun is a voluntary career-path while Muslim modesty is often coerced or practiced under social, legal, extrajudicial constraint.

Ie, the thrust of this point is that any oppressiveness related to hijab lies in *coercion* and nothing about the *hijab itself*:

I’ve written about this in much more detail before but here’s the recap: I often see people hide behind the premise that the hijab is only oppressive if forced, like virtually anything else, and when adhered to voluntarily there’s nothing about the hijab *itself* that is problematic. And that drives me all sorts of distracted. Because you can’t extricate the underlying ideology of hijab, how it functions, what it confers, from any discussion of how it’s enacted and enforced. To pretend wearing hijab is just symbolic clothing unless enforced is just blatantly false. The modesty doctrine is itself per force a problem for tying a woman’s worth to her bodily presentation and conduct. Even if it were not such an infuriatingly normative set of values, the values themselves are a recipe for harm and repression.

Point three: Aren’t autonomous, happy adherents to hijab counterpoints? Don’t other religions have stricter interpretations and consequences enacted for their modes of modesty too?

Neither of these are counterpoints. Knowing people or knowing of people who don’t undergo these constraints and/or the mere existence of a religious order in non-Muslim sects with more strict practice does absolutely nothing as counterpoint.

The issue is about deeply entrenched social norms and the institutionalization and the commonality of a practice, not mere jurisprudence or exegesis or any individual’s capacity for choice. A thousand sects could exist that endorse a strict firm of sexual purity for all females (as opposed to voluntary adherents to an ecclesiastic order in the case of nuns, so, like, it’s not like every woman and many girlchildren are automatically opted into modesty doctrine in these sects as a circumstance of birth– you’re still talking about someone whose chosen career is religion). But the mere existence of those sects is not  problematic to the same extent if there are not laws and community groups and social structures enacting the norms of said sects, and if they are not operating in a larger society that defines its currency based on female honor and sexual purity.

I’m concerned not only with what a certain sect says about hijab, but with an epidemic crushing the lives of millions upon millions of women and girls worldwide, where modesty is the sole and final arbiter of everything they have and do in their lives, a phenomenon that is largely denied, downplayed, and obscured. I mean, ffs there are entire countries with millions of women citizens where veiling from childhood is mandatory by law. Countries with socially normalized Muslim modesty doctrines have the highest sexual harassment and genital mutilation rates in the world, because women are viewed as deserving of no dignity or safety or respect unless they adhere to the most stringent of requirements in covering their bodies. Murder is sanctioned and celebrated if a woman transgresses in places like Egypt, Lebanon, Pakistan, Iran. In Indonesia women can be stoned to death for fornication and publicly whipped for standing to close to a man. Entire populations of countries practice things like FGM and male guardianship of adult women and there are laws written into our penal codes exonerating rapists who marry their victims or conferring sentences to perpetrators of honor crimes and refusal to criminalize domestic violence or marital rape, all reducible to the doctrines holding the entire worth of a woman and her family and society in her sexual purity.

And you’re talking about nominal anecdotes of the existence of individuals outside systems out of a strongly misguided urge to equitable comparison. If you believe anecdotes are counterpoints, you are endorsing a dangerous false equivalence, and  automatically searching for some rebuttal to talk about the hijab being oppressive belies a severe lack of scope and perspective, honest to goodness.

Point four: What about the merit of listening to different viewpoints and understandings of the Muslim experience? How do we reconcile what you’re saying with what my differing friend who has lived the Muslim experience says? Who has good things to say about Islam and the prophet and the Qur’an?

The thing about being open to hearing from multiple people is that you ought to consider which voices and experiences you’re more likely to have access to and find elevated around you, and why that is.

So i find this interesting. Here you say your friend has “the Muslim experience” And I’m largely like, what Muslim experience ? Which one? Which sect, which community, which country, race, language? If you consider one person’s  differing experience about this to be enough to provide counterpoint, then it is likely their experience is a privileged, nonrepresentative, frankly vanishingly rare Muslim experience that does not and cannot speak to the situation of the vast majority of Muslim women worldwide.

Legal and extrajudicial and institutional constraints don’t just vanish or become non-issues if someone else has a more positive spin on their particular Islam and are free to practice it.

Here’s an analogy. The term “American experience” for instance. You will always always always find an abundance of people who will vehemently defend their positive American experiences– does that make it a counterpoint if and when we want to talk about established, evidenced trends of institutionalized racism, sexism, classism, abelism in this country? And are those experiences any less American, or can their consistent patterned nature be denied simply because they don’t encompass the American experience by far?

Whether or not someone chooses to be a Muslim or wear hijab is utterly, utterly irrelevant because the question isn’t about what the Muslim experience is, whatever that means.

And yes, sure, I know Muslim women who aren’t overly concerned with eg personal sexual agency, or who wear hijab as a symbol of religious faith and only that, and don’t ascribe personal importance to modesty at all. That’s their prerogative. That’s their privilege. That is their Islam. But it does NOTHING to change the fact that in most mainstream sects in Muslim majority countries, hijab and modesty are largely sanctioned and practiced for sexual purity reasons and there is a lot underlying and enforcing that scripturally and socially and legally and EFFECTIVELY.

Also with all due respect, most Muslims in the west are afforded a much less mainstream, less stringent, less binding understanding of their own faiths. I’ve heard every bit of apologetics and exegesis under the sun providing ranges from more nurturing to less overtly violent of bigoted or sexist understandings of the faith. . I’ve heard every contextualization and cherry-picked anecdote and bit of torturous eschatology out there providing a vision of a peaceful and progressive Islam. And I’ve heard all of the less savory bits of jurisprudence and exegesis too.

The existence of milder forms is again not a counterpoint. The fact that people exist who work at and live by and endorse those interpretations does nothing to change the fact that, for instance, in mainstream Jaafari Twelver jurisprudence, gender segregation is required, girls must wear hijab at circa 8 years old, need paternal permission to marry, don’t have automatic right to work or get a divorce, don’t have maternity rights, and it is halal to beat them, can be put to death for adultery and whipped for fornication, and killed for apostasy. There is absolutely no question that this is the extant, adopted, enacted interpretation of Islam in Jaafari communities in Iran and Iraq and the Levant. There is massive scholarship and centuries of tradition undergirding that. No competing Muslim experience makes that problem not a Muslim problem or not a relevant one.

The world today is such that people with gentler Muslim experiences have them because they can afford to. Especially in the west. There is secularism here and societies are not fundamentally honor-based. The cards are not the same.

And the entire question of whether it is fair to talk about this stuff as being a Muslim problem is really a red herring.

Look, this isn’t about some abstract determination of what Islam is or isn’t and what kind of values the religion does or doesn’t endorse across its hundreds of sects and ethnicities and cultures and languages.

Islam isn’t a monolith and there’s no “real” or “platonic” form to it you can get at like some ideological truth, like is this experience more Muslim than that one. Of course some Muslim experiences are at odds with others. Child marriage and FGM are not practiced much in the Levant, for instance, and they’re common as sand in other Muslim communities. Islam is nothing more or less than the sum and conglomerate of Muslim practice and belief. I’m pointing at predominant states of affairs in the modern Muslim world as realities to be dealt with and their ideological influences not obscured. What Islam is or what hijab is for and how it’s practiced in 50 years or 100 may well look very very different. So this is not about what the religion *is* in some abstract sense.

My family put me in a particularly objectifying and abusive and shaming form of hijab at age 8 and thousands of girls around me went through that too while I watched and I am never going to stop highlighting that and its particularly Muslim ideological influences just because there are other less normalized Islams out there that don’t endorse the same. That is no counterpoint.

An abstract defense of an ideology does not take precedence over the rights and lives of women and girls.


~     ~     ~

Please consider supporting my work. Every bit helps:

personal paypal unaffiliated with EXMNA

Previous post

Principles and Politics: The Southern Poverty Law Center Loses the Plot

Next post

Documentary on “ex-Muslims” sparks contentious debate at Portland State