Earlier today, the European Court of Justice ruled that the workplace headscarf ban is legal. The grounds for this being it is not discriminatory if there is an existing ban on all employees wearing visible religious symbols and cannot be based on the ‘wishes of a customer’. This news arrives a few days after Nike revealed its first athletic hijab – the Nike Pro Hijab – which was met with mixed reactions, with many taking to social media to express their distain. One twitter user wrote that Nike was ‘cashing in on the subjugation, domination, and oppression of women. I will never buy another Nike product again’ whilst another called for a boycott of Nike, stating they would not ‘support the oppression of woman in anyway, shape or form’.
The hijab, niqab and burka have long been a controversial topic in western culture, sparking debate around women’s position in Muslim society. However, in seeking to condemn modesty wear, western society only seems to oppress Muslim women further.
A headscarf has far more cultural significance than religious; its very existence comes from a male interpretation of religion and not explicitly from a religious text. The forced removal of such an item can be distressing for the wearer, as demonstrated when a Muslim woman was forced to remove her burkini by armed police in Nice last summer. This action seems to only punish Muslim women.
The headscarf has become synonymous with Islam, and too often Muslim women have been an easy target for racist and misogynistic abuse. The recent increase of racially and religious motivated attacks has included a staggering amount of violence directed towards women, from the Muslim mother who lost her unborn twins after being kicked in the stomach to a man grabbing a woman’s hijab and shouting ‘take it off – this is America’ whilst on a Southwest Airlines flight. The increase seems to be the result of a new sense of legitimacy behind racist rhetoric in the wake of divisive events like Brexit and Trump’s election.
In every instance the woman has been reduced to nothing more than her headscarf. She has become a symbol of Islam, and the rage the misinformed feel about immigration, terrorism and – supposedly – women’s rights, end up directed at her.
White middle class feminism hasn’t had the best relationship with eastern ideals, it has struggled to reconcile the hijab alongside it’s own western notion of women’s rights, and as a result has often failed to open its arms to Muslim women. As a white middle class woman I have my own notions of independence and what that looks like for me, but it is not my right to impose that version of liberation on every woman. We are all entitled to an opinion on such an archaic form of dress, but until we are doing everything in our power to give a platform to Muslim women we are no better than it.
If we truly want equality for all women, we should be helping our Muslim sisters and building them up in any way we can. The Nike Pro Hijab does just this, in working with figure skater Zahra Lari, triathlete Manal Rostom and Olympic weightlifter Amna Al Haddad it gives an international platform to 3 prominent Muslim women. But most importantly, other Muslim women will finally see themselves reflected back in mainstream media in a positive light. To condemn this move on the grounds of women’s liberation seems counterproductive.
Surely the greatest oppression to women is denying them the opportunity to work or exercise. By condemning the headscarf we only punish the wearer. These actions do nothing to tackle the fundamental male values that bring about modesty dress, but rather place all blame in the hands of women. Women raised in a patriarchal society and taught that their appearance is immodest. Women punished or excluded from their society for not bowing to a social pressure. Women that are a product of their society. Women that are a symptom, not the cause.
Offering women the opportunity to work and exercise, to encourage them to become a professional in their chosen field, to enable them to participate in society, to offer them the tools to do so and to include them in our feminist goals is to give them upward social mobility. Allowing women the option to choose what they wear, even if they choose a headscarf, is true autonomy. As long as we’re still bickering over what female freedom looks like, we’re no better than the oppressors.