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No man may choose whether I wear my hijab Open in fullscreen

Nargess Moballeghi

No man may choose whether I wear my hijab

The controversial Burkini ban prompted criticism from around the glove [Getty]

Date of publication: 25 August, 2016

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Comment: In light of France's controversial Burkini ban, my hijab has been hijacked to become the battleground of a war, and I choose neither side, argues Nargess Moballeghi.
My father died unexpectedly two and a half years ago. He was my best friend and one of the most truly religious people I have ever known. He spent his whole life teaching us by example. Islam was something that he was, not something that he did.

He was never much interested in sons. He had three daughters, and told us he secretly wanted 12, for his all-girl football team, plus a sub. Let's just say Mum was less keen on the dozen.

When "the squad" didn’t happen, he went for "Plan B" - get one of the daughters into watching the footie - so until my late teens, I was a very good companion on a Wednesday night and a Saturday afternoon.

He was the best feminist I ever knew. It's not that he encouraged us to do things "despite us being girls", but as if he didn't see the fact that we were. It was never a factor. And so we went out into the world thinking the same, and when we realised the rest of the world might not, we were told "that is their problem not yours".

He never enforced religion or hijab on us, but instead showed us our religion could be a hugely empowering force, that we don't need a man to tell us what our religion says for us or about us, and that we should educate ourselves and stand for something  just as Islam has encouraged us to do.

Having an awesome kick-ass mum obviously helped. My mother chose to wear the hijab herself aged 19. She's now a retired teacher, who speaks five languages, including French, and was the resident DIY expert in our house (Dad was useless on that front).

Between them, they showed us the Islam that I recognise – a multifaceted way of life to be explored spiritually and intellectually – to question and interact with, and that shows you how to peacefully coexist in any of the five (mostly European) countries my parents had lived in by the time I was born in this here London Town.

No man was involved in my decision to put on my hijab. No man should be involved in telling me to take it off.

My younger sister – "the lawyer" – decided to wear the hijab ten years ago. I decided to take the plunge four years ago. Well, it was more of a wade, than a dive to be honest. My elder sister doesn't wear one and hey, guess what? She's extra fab too. When our dad was dying, our faith kept us strong in exactly the same way; there was no hijab divide between us.

I remember, that when I decided to wear mine, the only person to ask me "if my dad told me to do it, or was I getting married" was a woman. My dad wasn't even in the country and I was, unfortunately, persistently single.

No man was involved in my decision to put on my hijab. No man should be involved in telling me to take it off.

A burkini ban to fight extremism is like a miniskirt ban to fight sexual assault. Saying all women in a hijab are oppressed or are extremists is like saying all women in short skirts are "whores" or "asking for it".

Just because patriarchy uses a thing for its own gains does not mean the thing itself is patriarchal.

Neither are socio-cultural norms and pressure exclusive to Muslim women. All women face these battles in many different forms all around the world – including in France.

Emancipation is to see through them – on both sides – and make informed and independent choices for yourself.

It was ironic that while the news of police forcibly enforcing the burkini ban in France broke, I was filming a piece about being female in Britain. I was speaking to a teacher who told me that, at the end of the school year, most of the girls in her class wrote their aspiration for the future as wanting to be a WAG (a footballer's "Wife And Girlfriend").

Politics has hijacked, and men are now dictatorially enforcing a specific view by brazenly and confidently stripping a woman down on a beach

I have spoken to teachers at specialist schools for girls with eating disorders, where students as young as eight are battling anorexia and bulimia.

These are children who have deep-rooted issues of self-esteem and self-love before they even reach their teenage years. These teachers tell me of the direct link they see between eating disorders and advertising, the media and an over-sexualised entertainment industry geared towards these very young girls.

There is not a woman who grew up in Britain, who can honestly tell me that there are not two sides to our "sexual liberation". If we have not lived it ourselves, then we have witnessed it. It is not always, fun, frolics and freedom. There is sometimes emptiness, hurt and regret. To acknowledge two sides is to make informed decisions, it is not to judge.

For every magazine cover or woman who tells us a full view of Kim Kardashian's vagina (or Kim Kardashian period) is the height of secular western feminist liberation, I am sure I can find you several who – for perhaps different reasons - think she is an indicator of how badly things have gone wrong.

To debate the merits of a particular set of feminist, secular, western ideals over another set of views is one thing – to engage and discuss is healthy. But to dictate that these values are absolute, concrete, resolved and flag-bearing is another.

We have now even crossed that red line. Politics has hijacked the conversation, and men are now dictatorially enforcing a specific view by brazenly and confidently stripping a woman down on a beach – while other women sit by and watch.

Conversely.

Two girls in my high school class who wore the hijab took it off in adult life because they felt it wasn't their decision to wear it in the first place.

After the revolution in Iran – where I am from – the majority of the country voted for mandatory hijab. From then until now, some have protested.

Islam came to revolutionise an engrained patriarchal and tribal culture that was oppressing women horrifically, and burying girls alive

For the majority of women across the country, who would have chosen to wear the hijab anyway, there is no problem. But for others, especially many in urban centres such as Tehran, you will see women trying to find innovative ways to get round the rules. There is a lot of social pressure, frustration and resentment that builds up.

In Saudi Arabia too there is mandatory hijab and we hear all the time that there, women cant even drive. In Afghanistan, the images of women being forced behind burkas are still vivid in our mind, and more recently cultural practises like Female Genital Mutilation have been brought to our attention in the British press.

The mixing of culture and religion is an historic one, and even Muslims can struggle with differentiating the two. But it is important to remember that there is a distinction.

Islam came to revolutionise an engrained patriarchal and tribal culture that was oppressing women horrifically, and burying girls alive. Ever since, smart little men realised that, manipulated correctly, Islam could be a very handy tool to make sure the chains of patriarchy are not completely broken.  

I am not sure how different this is to the smart little men who about 1,300 years later, realised that sex sells, and that capitalism and advertising were very handy tools to make a lot of money in ways that could – at least arguably – be equally oppressive.

My hijab is now the battleground of war, in which two ideologies I disagree with want to free me by endangering me, give me voice by silencing me and make me stand for something I do not

Making the buck stop with Islam is dangerous; not just for Muslim women, but for all women – because to scapegoat Islam is to ignore other fundamental factors of oppression for women across the world.

We have to first and foremost accept and respect that women will have different ideas for themselves on what independence, morality and freedom mean. Just as Muslims are not a homogeneous group, neither does being a woman bind us to identical intellectual thinking.

We are entitled to have different viewpoints on liberation, freedom and feminism.

Living in Europe, and choosing to wear the hijab, doesn't make me oppressed nor incompatible. Nor does it mean I have to agree with established norms on female identity.

The attitudes about hijab we are seeing in France are mirrored across the secular world. They are just as discriminatory and oppressive as the cultural-religious barriers awesome women in hijab have to battle every day.

My hijab is now the battleground of war, in which two ideologies I disagree with want to free me by endangering me, give me voice by silencing me and make me stand for something I do not.

But boy, oh boy, oh boy, I will not be silenced – even if there are some girls standing silently by.

I am far too much of a strong woman to stand for that.


Nargess Moballeghi is an independent journalist and director of Merging Media. She has spent a decade as a news reporter in the Middle East and Europe and has a special interest in UK and Middle East politics as well as global social justice issues. Follow her on Twitter: @journonargess

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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