Thanks to Bronwyn Bishop and Sophie Panopoulos, I have recently heard more Muslim women defending their choice to wear a veil than ever before. But, from what I’ve heard so far, they may use different words, but it adds up to the same justification. The hijab protects them from the lustful glances of men, and liberates them from the need to be sexually attractive.
While I would defend the right of anyone to wear anything (yes, even the dreadful burkha, much as it makes me shudder), such a justification saddens me. I would much rather these young women said they wanted to wear the headscarf because it identifies them with their religion, or they think it looks good on them, or it is their cultural tradition, or, (dream on) because it gets up the noses of their teachers, certain Liberal members of parliament and authority in general. But no such luck. Universally, even the strongest and most articulate of these young women talk about the headscarf and modest attire as a way of controlling male sexuality.
Some of them go further, as have some of the male apologists for the hijab. They go on to criticise the extreme sexualisation of western women, the obsession the west has with female appearance and with displaying it as fully and as sexily as possible. They defend the hijab as being vastly preferable to the alternative; the oppression of women that is caused by the need for them to continually and competitively appeal to the male eye.
And, it seems to me, they have a point. There is something bizarre about the extremes western women are prepared to go to look good. Show me a woman from 13 to 70, and I’ll show you someone who is either on a diet, or thinks she should be on one. Survey after survey has shown that western women obsess about their weight and their appearance. All of us, overweight, healthy weight or underweight, want to lose some. And, if dieting doesn’t do it, more and more of us are prepared to resort to drugs or even surgery. (Interestingly, all this effort seems to come to nothing as women get fatter and fatter, but that is the subject of a future article.)
As I approach 50, I am occasionally asked if I would ever consider getting “work” done: “work” being the current euphemism for plastic surgery (and, yes, I do feel vaguely insulted). But even if we wouldn’t resort to such extremes, most of us still spend a small fortune on expensive face creams we know don’t work and spend hours and hundreds of dollars at the hairdressers and the beauticians. We’re all going to pilates or yoga or spin classes. We say for our health, but we really mean our shape.
Most of the women I know regard buying a swimming costume as one of the most painful experiences in life. Exquisitely beautiful young women of my acquaintance complain about their (invisible) flaws. And I am, and always have been, one of the worst. I now look back on pictures of myself when young and wondered why I never took pleasure in my appearance. I warn younger women against doing the same thing all the time, but to no avail. As much wiser feminists than I am have pointed out many times, keeping female energy focused on appearance disempowers us and makes us much less threatening. In the West, an entire gender, while claiming to be newly liberated, has never been more neurotic about the way they look.
And there is a lot resting on this. Entire economies would probably crumble if one day every woman in the western world woke up, slapped herself on the forehead, and said, “Oh my God, I’m fine just the way I am”. Which, of course, is why women’s magazines, marketing, advertising, TV, film, pop music and popular culture of all kinds are so keen on helping women remain terminally insecure about their appearance.
It seems to me that we in the West should be rather careful before we indulge in any feelings of superiority over the way we treat women. Mind you, I thank the universe daily that my daughters and I live in the West. There is no denying that women in developed Judeo Christian cultures, regardless of backlash, have got more rights and opportunities than many of their sisters in the Muslim world. But, when it comes to our own sexuality, I sometimes wonder if we are not mirror images of one another. The Islamic method of dealing with the erotic effect of women is to emphasis their disappearance, while ours is to emphasise their appearance.
Both societies, in some very fundamental way, place the responsibility for male sexual response on female shoulders. Among Muslim women, they must cover up to feel safe and accepted. Women who are uncovered automatically invite sexual approaches. Among western women, we must attract men to us to feel safe and accepted. Those who don’t are often both pitied and despised, (witness such programs as Extreme Make-overs).
Worse, in both cases it is women who not only collude but are often the most active agents in their own oppression. It is women who perform female circumcision on six-year-olds, it is women who rationalise and justify their need to hide from the world. It is women who criticise one another’s appearance most cruelly, it is women who buy the magazines and the products that feed our own and one another’s insecurities. Who among us hasn’t felt a secret frisson of pleasure when a skinny friend gains weight? An example, perhaps of Stockholm Syndrome, where captives collude with their captors to survive. We may appear to do it to ourselves, but we are dancing to a male tune. And, east and west, we dance the same push pull dance. Muslim women dance to repel-attract, because that which is mysterious and hidden is highly erotic. Western women dance to attract-repel, because that which is young, beautiful and desirable quickly fades.
Most women still only acquire power through their relationship with a man, whether boss, husband, lover or son, and we are trained from birth to please them. But don’t get me wrong, this is no-one’s fault. It is simply that our emotional integration always lags behind our intellectual understanding. Despite our awareness of what we do to ourselves and to one another, we still find it hard to change our behaviour. This is human and understandable, but we mustn’t forget why we want to change in the first place. For female sexuality to have to be either faceless or in your face is no choice at all.
As long as we continue to take responsibility for male sexuality, we will continue to compromise and distort ourselves. Perhaps dieting, cosmetics, botox and plastic surgery disguise our individuality and humanity in a similar way to the hijab. Having to look gorgeous is almost as oppressive as not being allowed to be seen at all, and just as destructive to our sense of ourselves.