Covering up and female oppression

Each and every day I read Isabella Lowengrips blog. Not so much for the content, but for the comments section… It is rather entertaining to see so many people get worked up over matters which do not affect them. Anyhow, I was reading a post that the blogger had uploaded about her recent trip to Riyadh and how she had had a pleasant trip, which was accompanied by a picture of her in a an abaya and two other women in niqabs. By default, I went to the comments section and was met by statements glorifying the freedom of us Swedish women while criticising the oppression of women in non-Western countries.

I was surprised. Perhaps because I have not lived in Sweden for a few years, and I had forgotten how narrow minded people can be. Do not get me wrong, Sweden IS an amazing country in so many ways and I am extremely lucky to have had the opportunity to grow up in a country where I have almost been treated as equal to men, because I am very aware that that is not the case in many countries around the world. But there is something very dangerous about “othering” and glorifying the West… let me explain what I mean with that. When talking about women covering their bodies, many people make the mistake of “othering” these women they are referring to. For example, as a Swedish woman I may think that because Sweden is one of the most equal countries in the world when it comes to opportunities for both sexes, the way women are treated in Sweden is the right way to be treated and the way women are treated in other parts of the world is oppressive and incorrect.

What is dangerous about this is that it creates a divide between women first and foremost. Not only are we portraying us Westerners as some kind of almighty saviours who’s way of life is the way to go, trying to teach the rest of the world how to be just like us. But we are also making the situation considerably worse for these women as by belittling them and their way of life we are further marginalising them. If a woman in Saudi has been forced to wear a niqab, having Birgitta, 63 year old dog owner from a suburban town in Sweden deem it “oppressing” in a comment section on a blog, will most likely not actually make a difference for the woman in question. All it does is create an incorrect preconception.

I can admit, I was the same a few years ago, writing my first ever essay during my Law degree on specifically the veil as a tool of oppression. I was of the view that of course the covering of a woman’s body was a tool of oppression and that any woman who did wear the veil or niqab was oppressed. Part of me wishes I could go back in time and re-write that essay because I feel it was based solely on my conception of the veil as a non-religious Western woman. After 3 years at a university with a majority of Asian students, a lot of who were Muslim, and after a year at UCL studying a Human Rights degree, I slowly started to get a different picture of what covering up meant, or what it did not mean. When speaking to some of my hijab and niqab wearing peers, not a single one suggested they were forced to wear it. Many actually said that their family was against them using it, but that they had done so anyway because they wanted to as it made them feel closer to Allah. Another story included a young woman who’s hair simply did not want to cooperate, so for her, the hijab was convenient as she no longer had to worry about her crazy hair affecting her self-confidence. Other women suggested that they wore it as they did not want to be sexualised and objectified – which is something that I can relate to. I have in recent years stopped wearing make up on a daily basis and started wearing more baggy clothes which are not sexy as I was tired of being cat called and tired of being sexually harassed and assaulted.

While of course, there are women who wear the veil who are also oppressed, I think it is incorrect to assume that the two are mutually exclusive. Women are oppressed all over the world, irrespective of nationality, race, religion, social class and age…oppression is not limited to non-Western countries and definitely not to one religion. And to be honest, what a woman wears is not the issue. As a Western woman, if I wear too much or clothes that are not sexy, I am told to dress nice and show a bit of skin because men like that. If I am showing skin, and cleavage and all the goods, I am told to cover up and to respect myself because no man wants a girl who looks slutty. How is this any different from the apparent oppression only the niqab and hijab can incur? In terms of oppression, it seems that what us women wear is not the problem, but that the men telling us what to wear are. While a piece of cloth that covers a woman’s body is quite a concrete and easy target for Westerners to put the oppression stamp on, oppression will usually not be as clear cut and straight forward as a scarf. It is a lot deeper, more difficult to see, and definitely not as stylish. And as a feminist, I think it is important for us women to stand together rather than ”othering”. To understand and respect each other and have an open mind towards cultures and religions different to our own, in order to eliminate real oppression of women.

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