Empowerment v.s. Oppression; Stripping and Hijab

I find it funny how both strippers and hijabis are seen as oppressed by many people. Particularly as I use both to increase my own personal freedom. Many Westerners see Muslim women as an oppressed group as they are “forced by their families cover up everything but their eyes” (not true in most cases) and equally many Muslims see Western women as oppressed as they “have to walk around naked for men to ogle at while the guys are all covered up” (also, nope).

 

I found an article a while back called “Burkas and Bikinis” which explores how both methods of covering women’s bodies and leaving them uncovered can be used for oppression and are essentially “two sides of the same coin”. The author states that both are forms of sexualisation and objectify the women in each scenario. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find the link to show you, but I will hopefully find it again soon.  While there are several points in the article that I agree with, I feel that there are several other points to be made. Namely that neither covering nor uncovering has to oppress anyone.

It is true that both a bikini and hijab can be used to oppress women, but it is also true that both can be used for liberation. The main difference which leads to different results is how and why the women are wearing bikinis,  hijab or other types of veil. Are the women themselves choosing how they present themselves or do they simply feel that they have to? If they cover or uncover due to a feeling of obligation and not by choice, I would consider this oppression. This could be pressure from friends and family, bosses, society or even the laws of a particular country. If however, the women are happy choosing what they wear and how they present themselves, I would say that they are not being oppressed.  In fact, just the opposite!

Women who wear hijab do so for a variety of reasons and often not because they feel forced to. The same goes for those who wear the niqab (face veil). For many it’s a barrier between themselves and strange men. They can choose who gets to see how much of their body and hide or reveal however much they choose. Someone who wears a veil often does so because they want others to pay attention to them for their personality and intelligence and not because of their beauty or body. This is partially why I choose to wear hijab when I am not at work. No one can see that part of me when I choose for them not to.

Similarly, those who choose to wear revealing clothing often do so by choice and not because they feel they ought to or have to.  They feel proud of their bodies and comfortable in their own skin and so are not afraid to hide it. Women wear bikinis on the beach because they are comfortable to swim in and let’s be honest; don’t reveal much more skin than the average swimming trunks that men wear. In any case, many women who choose to show off skin are not even doing so to please men. Perhaps it’s just more comfortable to wear less on a hot day and enjoy the feeling of warm sunlight. Perhaps in their society, women’s bodies aren’t sexualised to the extent where they feel they have to cover it up, just in the same way men don’t feel they have to.  Many tribal people, both men and women, don’t see the chest area as being sexual and so little effort to keep it covered. To them, it is seen the same as leaving one’s face uncovered; it’s just another part of them.

young zulu couple dat

Are either of these Zulu people “oppressed” for baring their chests?

Women who strip also do it for a variety of reasons and often not because they feel that they have to. For some, the extra money gives them that bit more freedom. For others, it’s a chance to express and discover their own sexuality (like me) without doing anything that they don’t feel comfortable with. Of course, there are strippers out there who are oppressed people and this is often due to issues with the management rather than the job itself. This could be because the management frequently rips off the girls, because they pressure girls into doing things which they are uncomfortable with or improperly dealing with bad customers so that the girls don’t feel safe. I’m happy to say that this is not true in my case or any of the other girls working at my club.  The wages are fair, no one expects “extras” and those caught giving them are promptly booted out and likewise, bad customers who try to take advantage in any way are also quickly removed from the premises. We have a very safe, friendly environment where we are free to enjoy and express ourselves as we please.

I feel immensely lucky to have the opportunity to explore such opposites and make the most of them. I love the freedom that I gain from both in a way that so few others do.

Perhaps there is another question we should be asking ourselves. Why is it that both the West and Islamic worlds are so keen to discuss whether women are oppressed by how much or little they wear when no one gives a damn about how much men wear? No one I know of thinks of men as being oppressed when they wear neither swimming trunks nor when they cover themselves from head to toe.

So, which of these guys are oppressed? (a discussion you’re unlikely to find on the internet).

 

As far as I can see, it’s only a big deal when a woman is perceived as wearing too much or not enough. Frankly, who should bloody care anyway? As long as someone is wearing something they feel comfortable in, man or woman, it shouldn’t be anyone else’s business.

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The Highs and Lows of Being Hijabi

There are many reasons why Muslim women and girls choose to wear or not wear a hijab. Each has their own very personal story behind it. Many feel that it gives them respect. That instead of focusing on their beauty or (lack of), people must appreciate them for their intelligence, wit and personality and find wearing the hijab to be liberating. Others do it because they wish to feel closer to Allah and that by wearing one they show their loyalness to him. Some wear it simply because they think it looks good. For me it was partly because I feel culturally connected to the piece, but for the most part because I wanted to show the world that I’m Muslim and not afraid to let everyone know.

ilovehijab

When you wear the hijab, it becomes a part of your identity. Much like being British, female or Muslim. When you pass another hijabi in the street, you acknowledge one another with that knowing smile and an “Assalamu alaikum”. Even if you have never seen this person before in all your life. It’s kind of like a part of a secret sisterhood. Only of course, it isn’t at all secret. Anyone can spot someone wearing hijab miles off. It’s also kind of similar to when you see another person who’s also wearing a t-shirt by your favourite YouTuber, in my case Markiplier, and you give them a high-fiving and complement them on their fantastic taste in TouTube channels (this actually happened once). On a slightly different level of course, but you catch my drift.

The hijab is also great on a superficial level. Don’t feel like styling your hair today? No problem; shove a scarf over it. Don’t feel like washing your hair just yet? Hide it under a brightly coloured scarf. Having one of those days when your hair resembles a troll doll and nothing you do can tame it? You know the answer. Have a hideous pulsing growth on the back of your neck? You should probably get that checked out by a doctor. But in the meantime, shove a scarf over that mofo! Not to mention, there is a near endless possibilities with different colours, patterns and styles. It’s so much easier that cutting and dying your hair all the time. Alternatively, if you DO feel like dying your hair and do a really shitty job like I did once (it was an awful orangey pink) and want no one to see the disaster area on your head, wearing the hijab is also a great way to conceal that.

Having said that, it isn’t always easy wearing one in public in Western countries. I rarely have any trouble here in Scotland. Most people seem to be fairly used to seeing hijabis in my adopted city and I’m treated as normally as I would if I had been wearing a hat. The same goes for London in general. The center is so diverse that you can wear almost any garment from anywhere in the world and still blend in. The part of London I grew up in has a more suburban feel to it with not all that many people who don’t look “native” so to speak. I was never harassed or made to feel unwelcome, but I did attract a lot of stares on a regular basis when I first started wearing my hijab. Then again, that may have been because people were used to seeing me without it.

The the places where I DO get hassled tend to be either in the small villagers where people tend to be naturally insular, the US, Korea and continental Europe.  For example, when I was in Orlando, Florida last year, I had several people come up to me and say along the lines of “Honey, you know you don’t have to wear that anymore? You’re in America!” Why yes! I did know exactly which country I was in. Good for me. I don’t feel badly towards the few who said that. They may have been grossly misinformed, but they were just trying to be helpful. Perhaps I should have let them know that they didn’t have to show their hair if they didn’t want to either. Others were less friendly and told me the usual “Go back to your own country, terrorist!” Unsettling, but again, not too bad.

One of the worst experiences I’ve had while wearing a headscarf in public was on a street in Spain. I was on holiday with several mates and wee were wandering around looking for somewhere to eat at(i.e. minding our own business). I was the only one of us wearing a scarf. We stood chatting for a moment trying to decide whether to pick a restaurant on close by or keep trying to find this particular place for tapas. I noticed a woman staring at me intently slightly further up the road. I figured she was just another starer, so ignored her. We eventually decided on a place and continued to walk up the road, the woman’s eyes still locked onto me. As we were about to pass she called out in Spanish “Why do you wear that? This is Spain, not a place for barbarians. Take that rag off your head!” We then started to move more quickly. She called out again “I said take it off!” and just as I was passing her she lunged forward and grabbed a hold of my hijab, yanking it hard. I yelped in pain a surprise and felt myself flying towards her. She then proceeded to tug at my scarf and hair, chocking me in the process. My friends all tried to bat her off and shouted threats towards her. She became maddened and started to scratch me and bite my ear. In the end I was able to throw her off, knocking the air out of her and we all made a run for it. Needless to say, my pals and I were all in a state of shock straight afterwards.

We found our way to the restaurant and tried to look as composed as possible when the waiter appeared and lead us to our seats. He clearly noticed something was up. He kept glancing at us nervously and asked if we were okay. Once we had all sat down and the dazed feeling started to fade and I felt a sharp pain in my right ear where the mad woman had bitten me. Before long, much to my embarrassment, I started to cry like a little girl. The waiter returned and asked what was wrong and so we (or rather my pals since I was still blubbering like a baby) told him what had just happened outside. He was absolutely wonderful. Not only did he have lots of comforting words and offer to fetch the police, but he organised for my meal to be on the house. I left him a massive tip.

I suppose what it boils down to is that there are both ugly and generous people wherever you go. Nevertheless, it is definitely a different experience when you wear a hijab and when you don’t. It’s a shame how wearing one can bring out the worst in some people. What I find strange is that the same piece of clothing provokes such different reactions depending on whether you wear a scarf over your hair or around your neck. Whether you do or whether you don’t wear it, it is a personal choice to make. Be sure it is for the reasons you feel rather than fear of those around you. The choice is yours and yours alone.