If Muslim women’s clothing makes them consenting slaves, who are their slave masters?

by Shohana Khan

Last week French Women’s Rights Minister Laurence Rossignol likened how Muslim women dress to being in collusion with slavery, roundly offending a vast number of groups. Quite an achievement. She was closely followed by the co-founder of Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Berge, who claimed that the fashion world should not get their hands dirty by colluding in this enslavement.

So as Muslim women in Europe are catapulted into the limelight once again, to stand now in the shadow of one of the greatest acts of oppression upon mankind – slavery – there is just one question that springs to mind: If extended Lycra swimsuits and flowing gowns are a means to make Muslim women ‘slaves’, then who is it that is enforcing this wardrobe-related slavery?

If this was a multiple-choice quiz-night question, then the answer to this could probably range from a camouflaged Muslamic monster puppeteer in the sky who has attached his strings to burkas and burkinis, to hackers in an Islamist cyber-world who send microchips to all Muslim clothing suppliers to sew into every garment. Neither, I have to say, are that difficult to believe as possible slave masters — and of course, both are wholly plausible when it comes to Muslims.

But it’s not quiz night – and being a Muslim woman myself, I thought I should get my dish cloth out yet again and try to wipe down the murky mist left on the window I look out of. Frankly I’m a bit fed up of it all, but then I forgot: being enslaved I don’t actually have a mind or feelings to feel fed up about anything, do I?

So who is the slave master? The first and most overwhelming option must be the Muslim man. The Muslim man who has duct-taped these garments onto his wife/sister/daughter/mother’s bodies so that they remember who is boss. These women must wear them as a reminder that when they exit the house once every few years, they belong to this obsessive controller in the same way he owns his car, shoes and vacuum cleaner.

However, in this country in particular, this answer doesn’t tally with reality. Firstly, if Muslim men were the unanimous slave masters, then the sharp increase in the adornment of Islamic clothing must be directly correlated to the increase in slave-master Muslim men. But studies such as the one conducted by multi-faith group Faith Matters in 2011 showed that the average convert to Islam in the UK was a 27-year-old woman. So for these scores of women converting to Islam, where are the correlating Muslim man in the background doing the enslaving?

For the many other adherent Muslim women born from South Asian first-generation immigrants in this country, the Islamic sense of hijab was virtually alien in family life. A light, see-through cloth tossed on a part of the hair, or no hair covering at all, was the norm for that generation. In fact, in many cases many of these young women had to struggle against families who did not see the hijab as a norm in the family or community.

One may look at somewhere like Saudi Arabia where women are undeniably subjugated and robbed of basic rights. They are treated like objects that are covered up as possessions outside of the home, and exploited inside it. However, this level of misogyny of women is not about the Islamic dress code, but is derived from the society and culture of the country itself — just like societies and cultures across the world have problems with regards to the exploitation of women such as sex trafficking, epidemic rape, and prostitution. The Islamic dress code in such cases has been exploited as a measure to fulfil the needs of men from a particularly abusive national culture, as high heels may be enforced upon an exploited woman to fulfil the need of a sex trafficker.

So if the slave master is not Muslim men, the only other option as an answer is the religion of Islam itself. But there is something fundamentally bizarre and inconsistent about this condemnation. Because religion is a belief that shapes the way we live our lives, like every other core belief whether founded by a belief in God or not.

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Some believe there is a God that shapes the way they dress, from turbans for Sikh men to head coverings for Christian nuns. Some dress – whether they believe in a God or not – according to the dictates of fashion, a fact with which Mr Berge will be familiar. Others believe that their choice of attire is a means of self-expression. Every human being dresses according to a belief about their lives, and French society, due to its founding values, is supposed to be the first to acknowledge this fact.

But in stark contradiction, it boils down to this in France today – if Berge tells you how to dress, then this is liberation; but if Islam tells you how to dress, then this is enslavement. If someone adorns their body with tattoos or piercings – this is liberation. But dressing with a metre more of fabric on your body, because it’s in the name of Islam, is not.

Islam is as much the slave master as every other religion, belief or fashion fad. The vast majority of Muslim women take an active decision to dress in this particular way according to their values (*really you should talk to some). And in reality, this is a process every other woman in society engages in. However, for individuals like Berge (perhaps because he is so used to dictating women’s dresscodes), it is creeping Islamophobia that has legitimised his view, which against any other group of women would be deemed wholly misogynistic.

So I have a final plea to such individuals: if we, Muslim women, decide to continue with our self-inflicted slavery, would you at least please let us be? The only individuals trying to tug the chains on our supposedly shackled necks, it seems, have been you.

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A graduate of English, *Shohana Khan writes about issues affecting women in contemporary society and specialises in explaining Islamic values in a modern society, seen in a blog with the Huffington Post. She has written about issues affecting the Muslim community in the UK.

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2 replies

  1. It’s funny, but I never hear anything about Jewish women being oppressed by their clothes. Haredi women follow ‘tzniut’ rules that are much like rules of hijab (in the sense of a hijabi as a modest person, not just the rrstricted use of ‘hijab’ to mean ‘veil’) and, in fact, can be much more rigid.

    Haredi girls must cover completely (neck to toes, full sleeves, no trousers ever) from the age of three. Most women actually start covering their daughters (according to tzniut) from twelve months, rather than letting them “get used to” leggings or uncovered skin. These girls may not, once they are three, act “immodestly”. So no running around, no sports, no being around unrelated boys or men, etc.

    Married women must cover their hair entirely, with a wig (shaitel), a scarf (tichel), or a snood. Many women shave their heads on the eve of their wedding, and maintain that throughout married life. Some wig wearers will ‘double cover’, or wear a hat or headscarf over their wig, to make sure nobody thinks their wig is their hair Hair is ‘ervah’ (nakedness), so only her husband must see it.

    I never, ever see these women being described as “subjugated” or “enslaved”. Instead they are called “dignified” or “empowered”. The Beis Din, the parallel law system, is never treated like Sharia is, despite being exactly the same thing Jewish children born in the UK, who speak only Yiddish and hebrew are never described as “refusing to integrate”, and Jewish youths who spit on “immodest” non-jewish women are never described as “radicalised”. The contradictions make my head hurt.

    I left the religion of my birth because I was oppressed, indoctrinated into believing that the “other” was evil, less than human, and wanted to do me harm. Luckily, as a girl, I was allowed to learn English and maths (boys only learn Jewish law in their illegal cheders which, unlike madrasas, are never targeted) so I can survive in the real world, thrive even.

    We are no man’s slaves.

    Like

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