Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan| Dear Liberal Feminists, please allow me a little agency???

I read this brilliant review of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s new book Refusing The Veil today. Wow. Although I should probably read the book itself, the review got me thinking about all the ridiculous so-called feminist arguments against Muslim women’s clothing.

Worth a read
Worth a read

From my own point of view, as a British Muslim woman who defines herself as a feminist, I find it abhorrent, absurd and completely patronising that this debate is even going on. We feminists complain almost daily against the policing of women’s bodies, against the culture of victim-blaming and against the objectification of women. And yet, what do we do to Muslim Women’s bodies? We talk about them as passive objects, to be covered or uncovered; we want to police what women do with them, how the way a woman dresses might affect our daily life; we obsess over the lack of agency any woman wearing the veil has, her succumbing to a patriarchal system.

Are we not being hypocrites at all fellow feminists? Are we not setting a double-standard? A standard whereby control of our own bodies only applies to white, middle-class women? A standard wherein we say a woman does not deserve any less respect for the way she is dressed – as long it is not religious dress?

More than your assumptions
More than your assumptions

At its bare bones, the headscarf, or hijab, is a piece of cloth (the veil, although I do not wear it, is only another aspect of this); however, like most things, it gains significance through the meanings we give it. When I first chose to wear the hijab at age 14 the reasons had to do with my surge of interest in the religion I had been brought up in; and a desire to feel a sense of belonging, and to convey, in a symbol, my belief in God. However, six years down the line, my reasons have evolved and accumulated and this piece of cloth is now a symbol of feminism; of anti-capitalism; anti-imperialism and of my values and beliefs about the world.

It concerns me that some feminists are only just realising the feeling of empowerment that many women who wear the head-scarf gain from it. Just as feminists advocate that women should be free to wear what they want; just as they propose that a woman’s body is her own and that only she should be involved in choices regarding it, when I put my headscarf on in the morning I too am making these decisions. I am affirming, in my own way, that this body is mine to cover if I so wish and that I above anyone else, am in control of its fabulous entirety. This triangle of cloth is, to me, a symbol against objectification. A symbol of choice. And a symbol that I am in complete control of the sexualisation of my own body. Because I feel that all people should be respected for who they are, rather than what they look like; to me, my headscarf represents this hope. A hope that we can live in a world where women can wear whatever they want without fear; that the rape-culture of victim-blaming – women being told how to dress to protect themselves – can be destroyed; that a culture of women being bodies first and foremost – think page 3 and how normalised this is – can be destroyed and that someday we will not judge books by their covers.

Choosing to cover rather than uncover is not a fear of our own sexuality; it is not a fear of men; it is not an internalised inferiority-complex; it is not a way to police our bodies – it is an empowering gesture which allows women to control their bodies and assert themselves. A woman who chooses to uncover would probably use similar arguments: that her body is her own, that she refuses to be policed, that she should not be objectified or sexualised just because she has skin showing. The hijab, in my mind, is a way of expressing that exact same belief. Why is uncovering necessarily more empowering than covering? Can women not do what they feel most comfortable with? Must we glorify one mode of empowerment above another?

6 thoughts on “Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan| Dear Liberal Feminists, please allow me a little agency???

  1. The criticism of the veil isn’t really about the clothing itself so much as it is about the role of women in Islam. Whilst you are clearly able to wear your headscarf as a personal choice, free from coercion, many are not so fortunate. Muslim women, especially in the Middle East, are often denied an education in addition to being made to wear the veil, frequently they have had their genitals mutilated and are forced into marriages in which they are expected to be subservient and are beaten, burned, raped or have acid thrown in their faces if they resist. And these practices are extremely widespread (I can cite sources if you wish). So—purely taking a look at the aggregate picture—the veil is not so much a symbol of female empowerment as it is one of ceaseless oppression. Of course people should be free to wear whatever they want, but that doesn’t mean certain items of clothing don’t come with historical and ideological baggage and so can warrant disapproval. The objection is not directed against the triangle of cloth but against the ideology which proscribes it.


    1. Lola here,

      Hey Tom, I have a bit of an issue with you trying to articulate the struggles of Muslim women… to a muslim woman. Don’t you think that the author of this article was aware of all of the things you point out before she wrote it? You don’t have to explain anything to her. This post is worrying for a number of reasons. Whilst your concern for the safety of women “In the Middle East” (quite vague and quite a large region you refer to) is of course legitimate, you’re ignoring the fact that those controls and restrictions placed on women were not enforced by Islam… but men. Do you think women are mutilating, beating and burning themselves? Nope, pretty sure it’s men doing that to them. Pretty sure Islam doesn’t stipulate that women have acid thrown on them if they ‘resist.’ I think your problem is the way that men have used religion as a form of patriarchal control, not the religion itself. You also display this worrying tendency to “otherise” – that is to cling to third world examples of the ‘oppressed muslim woman’ to support your point. The veil means different things to different people and of course we cannot ignore context when discussing it, but when you have a Muslim woman who lives in the West TELLING you what the veil means to her, how it is a symbol of empowerment and resistance of patriarchal values, don’t you think you should… listen? By taking the time out to tell us that you think ‘the triangle of cloth’ is oppressive, you’re policing the bodies of muslim women. If you are concerned with muslim women in “The Middle East” : here is how you can help – start by listening to the muslim women in your own country when they tell you that the veil is not oppressive. Understand that when you ignore them, you contribute to the silencing and erasing of their voices from public discourse. Think critically about the importance of power dynamics and the role of men in perpetuating harmful religious practices. Recognise that nuance exists and that not all muslim women are the same; it is reductive and over-simplistic to imply that the veil is a “symbol of ceaseless oppression.”

      From your generalisations I get the impression that you haven’t really examined or looked into Islam that much… maybe try that?

      Hope you understand the above points.


      1. Thanks for taking the time to reply. The fact that she’s a Muslim woman doesn’t preclude her from not considering the plight of Muslim women elsewhere in the world. She may well have been aware of it before writing, but if that was the case then I think I can be forgiven for thinking otherwise, as she didn’t discuss it.

        I’m not policing anyone’s body, that’s not fair. You don’t have to be demanding a Burka ban to note that the picture this writer is painting of the veil’s usage doesn’t square with the aggregate. Put simply, I’m not questioning that she believes the things she says when it comes to her personal experience, I’m contesting the idea that her experience should be taken as representative of that of Muslim women the world over—which is what somebody unfamiliar with the real picture might naively think on reading this article. Statements like “Choosing to cover rather than uncover is not a fear of our own sexuality; it is not a fear of men; it is not an internalised inferiority-complex; it is not a way to police our bodies – it is an empowering gesture which allows women to control their bodies and assert themselves” were accompanied with no discussion of the way in which, for a very great number of women in the Muslim world, nothing could be further from the truth—and as such I think she’s constructing straw men of feminist criticisms of the veil by choosing to ignore the focus of their points.

        I agree the veil means different things to different people, which is precisely why I’m not accepting the account of one person when there’s a whole world out there which we know is very different. I’m not ‘otherising’ so much as keeping a global perspective in mind. There are a few tens of millions of Muslims living in the first world and over a billion in the third, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable of me to remember that.

        For the record I’m not ignoring her, I’ve read what she said quite carefully, disagreed with it and thought I’d post here in the spirit of discussing it. I’d have hoped you’d see it for what it is: taking her article and the wider discussion seriously. That doesn’t mean I have to agree with what she says. I know I’m not a Muslim or a Muslim woman, and you seem to be asserting that this somehow renders what I’m saying invalid. Granted, I would never presume to tell the writer about her religion (the things she believes) as I don’t know her, and can infer only a little from this article. But Islam isn’t *her* religion, or at least it isn’t hers alone. A great many Muslims the world over (again, if you’d like statistics then I can give them to you, but otherwise I’ll treat this as obvious) believe things about women which are very different to the thoughts expressed in this article, and as such I can’t merely take her word for it when it comes to learning about a religion subscribed to by 1.6 billion people—the irony in your comment being the way that you seem perfectly content to do this whilst accusing me of making generalisations. It would be like only listening to the most moderate, progressive communists when formulating an impression of Marxism. And in the same way as I don’t think you have to *be* a Marxist or have a nuanced appreciation for the minutiae of Marxist doctrine to disapprove of and criticise that doctrine for the treatment of people it incites, I don’t think I need to be a Muslim or a Muslim woman with a deep knowledge of the Qur’an to criticise the Islamic doctrine which is clearly causing so much harm in the world (not a generalisation, just an average).

        “I think your problem is the way that men have used religion as a form of patriarchal control, not the religion itself.” You’re right that my problem is the way that men have used religion as a form of patriarchal control (and as a lot of other types of control, to take a Marxist line) but that doesn’t mean the religion isn’t still a problem. It seems to me you’re saying a variant of ‘guns don’t kill people, people do.’ Well on some level that’s true, but I’d still say the gun is a part of that problem—and as such shouldn’t be ignored. There are ideological reasons (in this case a religious ideology) which continue to be used to justify that sort of anachronistic behaviour in the 21st century. So, for example, I don’t think you can say Islam has nothing to do with the fact that rape victims in Pakistan are routinely imprisoned for adultery because they fail to provide two pious male witnesses in court (up to two thirds of the women in Pakistani jails are thought to have been imprisoned in this way). You can’t ignore the religious ideas about gender and adultery mainstream in Pakistan which feed into this behaviour. And these aren’t generalisations, as I’ve said: Muslim countries in the Middle East and North Africa consistently rank amongst the worst places to be a woman. I’m not saying there aren’t lots of factors involved, but I disagree with the idea that religion can be swept under the carpet in this way.

        Let me know what you think


      2. I just wanted to add that I do appreciate these sorts of sites often function more as support networks than as debating forums, and as such you might not want the two cents of a white male atheist. That’s a perfectly reasonable position to take—there’s a time and a place for this sort of discussion and maybe I misjudged it, it happens. If that’s the case then do tell me to piss off, I won’t be offended. Believe it or not, I’m not just trawling the internet looking for a rise 😉


  2. Hi Tom, Audrey here. You raise some interesting points and, while I can’t help but feel that they have already been covered by Lola, I’ll try and get through them all. Firstly, the fact that the writer didn’t mention the plight of Muslim women was probably down to her wanting to introduce a different narrative of the female Muslim experience, one that’s rarely (if ever) talked about. Of course she’s aware of the struggles of Muslim women across the world, but don’t forget that this is a platform built specifically to allow women to describe their personal and unique experiences. She isn’t writing for all Muslim women, but for herself and for women with lives similar to hers.

    Secondly, the fact that the writer’s experience doesn’t “square with the aggregate” doesn’t make her discussion of it any less valid. Very, very few people would come across her post and naively go on to believe that all Muslim women feel the same way about the hijab because virtually all that anybody ever hears about Muslim women is that the hijab is used to oppress them. This is precisely why posts like hers are so important. When you suggest that her account is misleading, you erase her experience in favour of the view of the majority.

    Thirdly, while I agree it’s important to keep a global perspective, that’s not the one we’re dealing with here. The perspective focused on here is that of a British Muslim woman. And her greatest issue isn’t the hijab. It may, instead, be the fact that the unemployment rate for Muslim women in the UK is four times that of Christian and Jewish women. It could also just as easily be the culture of Islamophobia in the West and the risk that it poses to her livelihood and the lives of those she loves.

    In addition to that, we don’t think that as an atheist man you have no right to engage in this discussion. The problem is in the way your tone could be (and was) interpreted. The idea of a non-Muslim man explaining the experiences of Muslim women to a Muslim woman is what we disagree with. That’s not to say that all Muslim women are experts on their religion, but it goes without saying that there is (to say the very least) a strong presumption that Muslim women know more about their lives than you do, and your tone (which I concede I may have misinterpreted as you seem well-meaning) was slightly paternalistic and patronising.

    Finally, you blame Islam but again you’ve missed an important point which was covered by Lola. Islam can and has been interpreted in misogynistic ways, but here is a Muslim woman telling you that she is reinterpreting her religion in a way that isn’t patriarchal. Why dismiss it? Why is it easier to assume that Islam (or any religion) is inherently oppressive than it is to assume that Islamic writings may have been misinterpreted/abused in order to reinforce the purported legitimacy of patriarchal societies? If this is an issue of real interest to you I’d really recommend reading up on feminist interpretations of the religion. You don’t need to be an expert to talk about this, but I can’t help but feel that you simply haven’t come across enough unbiased information to dismiss Islam as an oppressive religion in itself.

    Hope this helps.

    NB: it is FLY (the group) that is primarily a support network. The Fly blog was set up to allow us to air our thoughts publicly without damaging the integrity of our safe space. So please feel free to comment should you feel the need.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks for your reply. I didn’t mean to come across as patronising, I think I often forget how easily tone can be misread when the other person can’t hear or see you. And I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that her experience was unimportant and worthy of erasing. But she wasn’t merely describing her own experience, she was purporting to criticise (quite strongly) feminist attitudes to the veil, and I thought (and think) that she was being unfair in that regard.

    I’m not making any assumptions about Islam. I think all that a non-Muslim can really mean when they say ‘Islam’ is the tapestry of things Muslims think, say and do, and there is a lot of evidence on that topic, see the Pew and Gallup polls for example, so no assumptions are necessary. I’m certainly not denying that there is much disagreement and nuance in Muslim ideology—as evidenced by the writer of this article, who is clearly very progressive in her beliefs, along with a very great many other moderates. But unfortunately hundreds of millions of the world’s Muslims have very different ideas when it comes to gays, apostates, women and Jews, and are far more violent and politically active than the moderates within their religion (and my reading up on feminist interpretations of Islam would do nothing to change that). Anyone discussing this topic who entirely omits to mention this fact—as this writer did—comes across as either unaware of it or unwilling to come to terms with it. So she may well know about the suffering of Muslim women, but the content of the article suggested that she hadn’t really considered it because it’s the basis of feminist views concerning the veil and so important to talk about when criticising them. This is why I accused her of making straw men of those views.

    Does the writer, for example, know about the rapid rise in honour violence in the UK in recent years? There were 2823 attacks in 2010, according to the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation. Maybe she does, but she didn’t discuss it or anything like it and that suggests she either doesn’t know or doesn’t consider these issues relevant, which they definitely are. I won’t try to deny that British Muslim women have a better time of it than those in the Middle East and North Africa when it comes to being oppressed by their religion—though that really isn’t saying much—or that they have other issues to contend with in the UK, but statistics like this one make it hard to swallow the rosy picture of British Islam being painted in this article. I agree we shouldn’t generalise—Western Islam is no more a monolith than global Islam—but that means we should consider the views and experiences of all affected rather than just the one expressed in this piece. To do otherwise is to erase them from our discourse. So I’m not dismissing her experience in favour of the majority’s, just pointing out that she should think about that of the majority in addition to her own when challenging feminist attitudes to the veil.

    Regarding the idea that my objection should not be with Islam but with the patriarchal forces behind it, I agree that there is merit to peering past the surface ideology to the social motives which underpin it—the reinforcement of Patriarchy or white supremacy etc.—but not if you do it to the point where you no longer consider the ideology itself important or worth objecting to. The belief systems of individuals and cultures do have an impact on their behaviour, and often feed into the social motives as much as they are fed by them. The Christian theological arguments for the slave trade in part arose to justify that trade, but had the theology been different (had the Bible not contained allusions to the inferiority of dark-skinned peoples and had instead preached unequivocal racial equality) then things would have been very different, and a slave trade would be impossible in the context of a society embracing other religious ideologies, for example Jainism. A culture’s ideological landscape can have an influence on the social backdrop as much as the social backdrop can shape the ideological landscape: both are important. This is why I’m not happy ignoring Islamic ideology and laying all my criticism at the feet of male patriarchal impulses: if Islam wasn’t the way it was then the patriarchal impulses might be different or absent. There’s the temptation to think that people just naturally have controlling or dominant instincts and invent belief systems to rationalise their behaviour, but this ignores the fact that—through adopting certain belief systems or changing existing ones—those instincts can be diminished. People like the writer of this article are living proof that Islam can change in this way and become something more progressive, but we won’t get very far pretending that it is a religion without problems.

    Let me know if you have any criticism


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