Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Freedom to Wear What You Want

Men should not be telling women how to dress.

In fact, let me extend that: people should not be telling other people how to dress.

The only reason why i might dislike the hijab, niqab and burka is because i know that around the world many women are forced to wear them, this obligation often justified by a sexist and heterosexist logic regarding male sexuality (i.e. the idea that unveiled women are responsible for men getting all hot and bothered, and that this horniness leaves guys no choice but to act inappropriately).

But i also know - from my own personal experience - that clothing can symbolize different things to different people. An oppressive patriarchal symbol - let's say high heels and make-up - can become a symbol of resistance in other situations... for instance when a man chooses to wear them, or when to wear such femme attire means defying the priest or rabbi or imam.

Likewise, the entire punk movement took on semi-militaristic and violent imagery, even by so-called "peace punks." i think both Sid and Siouxie deserved to be punched in the face for playing with swastikas, but i'd be the moron if i thought they were actual nazis. (Muslim punks in the novel The Taqwacores wear israeli flags for much the same effect.)

I can remember when some comrades argued that drag queens should be banned from the movement because they were dressing in a "sexist" fashion, and i can remember when certain peace groups would not allow punks to join because of their "sado-masochistic" clothing (i won't even go into what actual sado-masochists got told!)

So i'm obviously not a Muslim woman, and none of the women i know wear niqabs or burkas. But i'm willing to bet that in the current racist climate gripping Quebec, more than a few women are feeling they should cover up - not because some misogynistic cleric tells them to, but because a bunch of misogynists from the white dominant society are telling them not to.

Defiance may not be the most sophisticated emotion, but it certainly is easy to understand, and impossible for me to condemn.

In fact, i'd written the above before reading the following article from today's Montreal Gazette, in which a young Muslim woman explains that if she doesn't wear niqab, and in the current context if she did she would be scared... and as a result, she is planning on wearing the niqab in future.


So what's someone like me to think? Not only me, but most of my family and friends would be killed under sharia law, so i certainly don't want to encourage the rise of right-wing Islam. The fact that i don't live in an Islamic society, that i'm stuck in a different corner of the capitalist patriarchy, doesn't give me a pass to forget the fact that around the world thousands upon thousands of brave and beautiful comrades have been murdered by the Islamic right.

Yet still: in Quebec as elsewhere in North America, the "anti-sexism" of Bush and Harper (and Charest) has about as much progressive content as the anti-zionism of Ahmadinejad or Nasrallah. And to side with the "secular" State in its attacks on Muslim women is to feed the dynamic tension that exists between "sexually liberated imperialism" and "patriarchal anti-imperialism", squabbling siblings who puff themselves up with declarations of hatred for each other while actually concentrating their fire on those of us who hate them both.

All i can propose is that with which i started: nobody should be telling other people how to dress. Most especially, no man should be telling women how to dress. No ayatollah, no imam, no rabbi, no priest and no "chief returning officer."

Here's the article from the morning paper:


Controversy is unfounded, activist says – women remove their veils when necessary

A Muslim woman says the abrupt change to Quebec election rules for veiled voters will fuel a growing hostility toward Muslim women in the province.

“If I was wearing a face veil I likely wouldn’t go and vote on Monday,” Sarah Elgazzar of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Canada said in an interview yesterday. “I’d be scared.” A ruling by chief returning officer Marcel Blanchet on Friday means the face of anyone who votes Monday must be visible before a ballot is cast. That includes Muslim women, a scenario Elgazzar believes will keep many at home on election day.

Elgazzar said there has never been a problem with Muslim women who wear face veils.

“These women regularly uncover their faces to identify themselves, and they never asked for any kind of accommodation,” she said. “This controversy kind of hunted them down and they didn’t have anything to do with it.”

The issue blew into the open a few days ago when the Journal de Montréal published a story saying Muslim women could vote tomorrow even if their faces were covered.

Blanchet then changed the rules after he received threatening phone calls and read reports that some citizens were planning to wear masks to the polls.

Elgazzar said Muslim women who wear veils show their faces when necessary, including visits to banks, crossing the border and when dealing with police.

She said the current Quebec environment is “very hostile” toward veiled Muslim women.

“People here have the impression that they (Muslim women) weren’t ready to comply and that they (Quebecers) have won some kind of victory,” she said of Blanchet’s ruling.

Elections Quebec spokesperson Denis Dion said all voters will have to show a piece of photo identification at polling stations. If they don’t have photo ID, they must provide two other pieces of ID and sign a document before being able to vote.

He said there is no guarantee female returning officers will be available to check the identification of veiled Muslim women at polling stations.

Debate over reasonable accommodation of racial, cultural and religious minorities has surfaced several times during the election campaign, with Action démocratique du Québec leader Mario Dumont often leading the charge. Dumont has been hoping to tap into the unease many small-c conservative Quebecers feel about how far the province goes to accommodate ethnic minorities.


  1. many good points. but i think thats its also important that we do stand up to defend secularism and to try to define where an anti-racist secularism stands. my only problem is that there is an ever increasing trend to excuse peoples behavior or dress on religious grounds. religion should not be privileged in any way or given any more legitimacy than any other way of looking at things. and if you can wear one kind of face covering to the poll booth or wherever, you should be able to wear any type of face cover (whether religious or not.) fundamentally i agree that no-one should be telling other how to dress. but we have to make sure not to make exceptions which privilege religion in any way.

  2. i agree completely with your point "anonymous" - whether it is a religious face covering or a freddie krueger mask, or if someone wants to go topless or whatever, should make no difference: we should challenge the idea that the State (or "the community") should be regulating personal behaviour.