On the above image on the left: women in Saudi-style abayas and niqabs. They've been convinced to believe that this is the way to paradise. Or they've been threatened with violence, or fines and jail if they don't comply. For many of them, this is the only way to leave the house.
On the right: the beautiful array of traditional clothing for women that you can find all over Muslim countries. Not one of these outfits is immodest or obscene. Some include a head covering, some don't. Yet in Muslim countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, where theocracy rules, or in any place where extremists exert power over society, a deliberate effort is being made to suppress and erase women's traditional clothing – and in many cases, men's, in favour of the Arab-style thobe and skullcap.
This is not Islam. This is cultural imperialism mixed with misogyny.
The recent Twitter hashtag #traditionallysubmissive was an interesting counterpoint to the photograph above. According to The Telegraph, UK Prime Minister David Cameron had said that some young men are vulnerable to radicalisation due to the "traditional submissiveness of Muslim women", which prevents them from speaking out. In protest, Muslim women took to Twitter – the majority in hijabs – holding up placards announcing their jobs, activities and other contributions to society, which showed they were completely the opposite of submissive. It is also significant in a time where many Muslim women have been harassed and attacked for wearing hijabs.
At the heart of the debate is the fact that Muslim women have a right as well as a responsibility to move in the world normally. What "normal" means is something that has to be negotiated by women — not dictated by men — from country to country and society to society, taking traditional culture, religious practice and the aspirations of women moving towards modernity at their own pace into account. "Normal" does not mean the complete erasure of women from public view.
Extremist versions of Islam follow the same line of thinking as some traditional Christian beliefs. John Knox, for example, believed that women are sinful creatures who lead men to temptation and downfall.
As Inas Younis wrote in her deeply insightful essay The Moderate Muslim Misogynist:
"In some places, this is taken so literally that all women are legally required to dress exactly the same. In other societies they are expected to be completely desexualized. Naturally this has had the opposite effect, by hyper-sexualizing the most benign and innocent expressions of female beauty. And if a woman should step out and express her individuality, it is perceived as an invitation to violently put her in her place."
She also writes about Muslim women who take part in this bargain: "Nevertheless, women in Islam continue to fulfil their part of the social contract, by feigning weakness as a sign of spiritual strength."
Muslim women who wear the abaya and niqab by choice are complicit in the belief perpetuated by misogynists (who can be found everywhere, not just Muslim countries — go to any rape trial and see how victims are quizzed about what they were wearing) that they are responsible for keeping men from sinning. The photograph above really makes Younis's words hit home, by illustrating to what extent some women will go — or are forced to go — in order to make men feel safe around them, while the burqa has been passed off as a guarantee of women's own safety!
And that isn't all. I have met women who refused to wear perfume for fear of arousing strange men, as if men would turn around and sexually assault them if they got a whiff of Chanel No 5. In some Muslim countries women's voices have been silenced from public broadcasts because of the fear that men will become aroused listening to them.
Salafi interpretations of the Quran add to the verses instructing women to draw their outer clothes over themselves with a parenthetical instruction to cover their faces entirely so that only one eye can see the way.
When Muslim women believe in this bargain, they imprison themselves, and they insult men by suggesting, not so subtly, that all men are unable to control themselves. They do not allow men to deal with their temptations and conquer them and emerge better men. By hiding themselves away, women contribute to the sexual immaturity and underdevelopment of the men in their society. And it's not as if those urges go away; when repressed, they emerge even more strongly and destructively in the form of sexual violence.
While I protest social, emotional and legal coercion to adopt the burqa and niqab, the hijab – which is also seen as problematic by unenlightened observers of Muslim women – is actually being used by Muslim women to assert their social and political identity.
In many ways, the hijab, which is probably the most politicized piece of cloth on the planet, highlights women's balancing act between their Muslim identities and their Western ones – or more aptly, their refusal to have to choose one over the other, which is a demonstration of agency, not submission.
Islam condones neither this nor a monolithic dress code or a uniform for women. Women who carry themselves in the world as if their very existence is a sin perpetuate the myth that Muslim woman cannot be a "normal" part of society. And women who participate wholeheartedly in their societies, whether Eastern or Western, should not be stigmatized for their headscarves but accepted as a "normal" part of life everywhere.
The original version of this post can be found here