Wednesday, July 1, 2015

"They'd grown up calling women without hijab sluts."

Image via 

I received this email in response to the 'controversy' that's been sparked because of my week long curation of the @genderlogIndia feminist Twitter handle - where I *dared* to express that I believe the niqab is a tool of oppression. *Gasp* I know... 

This brought out many people's thoughts on not just the niqab however, but the wider concept of imposed modesty on women in an Islamic context. I will address the response in more detail in a future post, for now, I'm just sharing one person's story. 

You'd think people hanging around a *feminist* Twitter handle wouldn't rage against someone opposing religious patriarchy...but you'd be wrong. 

My week there has inspired many to speak out from both most of the pieces so far, sanity and rational thought have prevailed. 

The person expressing his views below is a man, yes. He shares his lived experiences and real life observation with female relatives. If he from the 'top of the Islamic ladder' can see this is a problem, then its got to be glaringly obvious. I know there will be those who will discredit his views and brush them aside, simply because he's 'a man', while accepting and fighting for the continued perpetuation of male-mandated standards of modesty. The irony of this is lost on them sadly.


I've been watching the fallout from your week curating Genderlog, and I keep swaying between wanting to rant at the people missing the point with their kneejerk reactions, and blocking the whole world on Twitter. I decided instead, to share with you, because your patience is, frankly, amazing to me.
Allow me to admit, right off the bat, that I'm a male, and my own opinions, admittedly, only carry so much weight. My only insight into the cultural battleground of the hijab comes from observation and my sisters and mother. A little background first. I grew up in the Middle East, like you, my family was/is fairly conservative muslim, middle class, educated. We're from the northwest of Pakistan, so perhaps a little more conservative than most, but culturally more inclined to the chador than the hijab.

My sister's were never forced into the hijab. They had the example of my mother, and the constant silent pressure of being informed that this is what god wants. They were hugged closer for wearing hijab, told they looked beautiful when they tried it on as little prepubescent girls, so their decision to wear it when they were older was inevitable. I supported it wholeheartedly, a young boy who thought of women as only someone raised with the double dose of misogyny that is Islam and Northwestern Pakistani culture can. I ended up losing my faith as I got older, and read more and more about Islam from Islamic texts. 

This was well before my exposure to the world of Sagan and Hawking and Hitchens and Dawkins. 

I left the middle east to attend med school, and took my heresy with me. During this time, I barely spoke with my sisters, just the occasional summer meetings. They maintained the hijab throughout, and I made pointed comments to them about their religion, but little more. It was much later, when I was done with school and we got to spend time together that I found that my sisters were done with religion too, unable to reconcile it's obvious contradictions and misogyny with a supposed divine source. They still wore hijab, and explained to me why. -They'd grown up calling women without hijab sluts. They knew that men in our societies were more likely to harass women who didn't wear hijab. Our parents would be crushed if they removed the hijab. They had trouble with colleagues at work judging those women who chose to "expose" their hair. My family had lived in Saudi Arabia for a while, and while the compounds were havens of freedom, any movement in public required hijab. They said it was their choice, but they also explained how it was no choice.

Is the niqab/burqa the ultimate slut-shaming/victim-blaming device?

How do we have issues with Western culture when it puts the blame on what women wear for provoking men, but not the same issues with our own Muslim culture....the hypocrisy is astounding....

I also dated a Pakistani while in school in Pakistan, and she wore the hijab too. She had about as much religion as I did, but she told me she wore the hijab because she didn't want to be harassed by men in public, because her father was less likely to control her movements as long as she wore it, because she didn't want to be known as a slut. 

She and I lived together for years, but for a lot of that time, in public, she wore hijab. She doesn't any more, she lives in a society where she doesn't have to, and admits to me that she avoids muslim communities because of the silent judgement.

Lastly, to my mother. My mother was, for the longest time, the most religious person in the family. She switched to the hijab from our traditional chador, and she raised me like any good Pakistani woman would, as a very observant muslim. She and I remain very close, and she was the first to know of my doubts about religion, which became shouting matches later on. When my family moved to Saudi, she was beside herself with joy at the prospect of weekend Umras (pilgrimage to Mecca). Somewhere along the line, my parents migrated to the United States.

Living in that society, which admittedly has flaws, but away from the social morality of the muslim world, I saw my mom change. She started to smile more. She learned how to drive, got herself a license, bought herself a car. She still believes in god, the god of islam, fire and eternal torment, all those fun things. She's stopped wearing the hijab though. She avoids muslim communities.

I'm sorry I got so long winded there, believe me, I had to reel myself in to avoid going into every little observation and criticism. My point is, the defenders of the Hijab go on and on about how supposedly NO ONE is forced into it, how it's their choice, like textbook examples of Stockholm syndrome. I despair of ever being able to explain to them that the illusion of choice is one of the worst cages to find oneself in. 

I consider myself a feminist, and I would never consider telling them what to wear, how to behave, but I'm also a firm believer in rational thought, and there is nothing rational about being indoctrinated and proclaiming it to be a choice. Cults and religions pride themselves on getting their victims young, because those childhood chains are the hardest to shed. I still catch myself thinking of things in Islamic terms at times, and this is as a straight male, the summit of the Islamic hierarchy. 

Imagine thinking you're free to make any choices as a muslim woman in a muslim society. All the terrible attempts at arguing with your criticism by bringing up the laughable bikini comparison left me sad. Almost as sad as misguided western liberals defending the hijab. They can rail against the church and the power of the religious right in their countries all day, but if I, or my sisters, or any ex muslim in or from a muslim country tries to criticize our own untouchable institutions, we're shot down as bigots and and Islamophobes. My frustration comes from living in the muslim world, living here in constant fear of being outed as an atheist, hacked up like the bloggers in Bangladesh, and being told by muslims and faux (or perhaps just misguided) liberals in free societies telling me that I'm the bigot.

This rant could go on for a while, so I'll stop, since it's time for me to go and pretend to break my fast, because that's what deviating from the iron rule of islam means in muslim society, a lot of pretending.
Thanks for indulging me.


My heart goes out to truly does. I know it's rough and I know that we have very few allies...we are unique in this because even the liberals in our own communities defend orthodoxy.  I think you've hit the nail on the head here, especially in the last paragraph:

"They can rail against the church and the power of the religious right in their countries all day, but if I, or my sisters, or any ex muslim in or from a muslim country tries to criticize our own untouchable institutions, we're shot down as bigots and and Islamophobes." 

Stay strong this Ramadan. More power to you and all the ex-muslims out there feeling alone and isolated. 

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  1. Sharing, because these voices need to be given a platform instead of clueless western liberals.

    1. Yes! Agreed! Sharing & hoping to educate more Canadians is a must. Can't believe I'm getting called racist & accused of spewing hate for this. The worst thing right now are ignorant Canadians!

  2. I've shared & hoping to reach many. Ty for this.

  3. I'm so glad to see this. I have been saying this forever, but I can't say it too loudly because I'm white and people just reactively say that you're bigot if you criticize islam. People have not only a right but a responsibility to be critical of all theologies. It amazes me how quick to judge and narrow minded some "feminists" can be when it comes to criticism of Islam.

  4. I loved it. As an ex muslim, I can understand perfectly well that kind of being mentally imprisoned by religion/culture. Keep up the good work.

  5. Trying to not go in a rant, but unable to stop myself...

    First and foremost, I have to say that my community was very different from what he describes, but I totally agree with him. I grew up Muslim in a Albanian city in Montenegro (minority religion and minority ethnicity). Because of a long history of communism, most women didn't wear any kind of veil and very few prayed regularly. After the war in Kosovo, we got many "humanitarian" organizations which were completely dedicated to promoting real Islam, one in which women cover their heads.

    Within a few years, in a society where women wore jeans and went to the beach and drunk bear after work, the few that started wearing hijab were being praised. The skirt length and how tight the jeans were started to matter. The best, the most moral and the noblest women now were the ones who wore hijab. The rest were bad girls, if not sluts. You cannot possibly say that this is not a form of pressure. I was around 14 at this time and at the peak of my religiosity, and I seriously considered wearing it. Thankfully, my high school didn't allow hijab. By the time I graduated, I was much less religious, much more scientifically literate, and cared much less about what other people thought.

    All in all, I don't see our society as becoming more religious, but it is definitely becoming more judgmental and more oppressive.

    As for the western pseudoliberals who defend the hijab, I have a few things to say:
    1. Women from Muslim societies are not your zoo animals that you can look at in order to "experience different cultures";
    2. If you are not wearing a Victorian dress, but you defend the hijab, you're a hypocrite;
    3. Muslim women getting to be free doesn't necessarily mean that they will lose their culture, their culture will just evolve, like yours did... A 16th century German or English woman couldn't have possibly imagined mini skirts or yoga pants, so it is absurd to think that you can now imagine their equivalent in an evolved Middle-Eastern culture;
    4. The west doesn't own liberalism or feminism, you just got to experience it first. Don't ruin it for everybody else.

  6. I am saddened to read this piece. It lays our hypocrisy bare but it also tells us how lonely some of us are. I'm a Kashmiri Muslim woman from India and I could see how everyone in my class started putting on a hijab and I didn't. My parents who are very religious did not allow me to. This side it is also a political thing where are embracing the Muslim identity against a constant fear of being run over by the 'Indian Right'. There are subtle ways you're forced into it, like marriage. Once I walking down a road, a guy stopped his car and said, hey lady, your bra is showing, put on a scarf. I go to the grocery store and the owner says with all the disgust he could gather that I would go to hell. As a 10 year old, I would go for my painting classes and some women would stop me and inquire whether I was a Hindu. I didn't get it for long until I realised it was an insult.