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Debating the Hijab

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Last week, France’s Minister for Women’s Rights Laurence Rossignol made a controversial comment about Muslim women who don hijabs, calling them “American negroes,” and comparing them to the American slaves who supported slavery.    

Rossignol made the comment while slamming retailers like H&M, and Dolce & Gabbana for deciding to create a line of modest clothing for Muslim women, stating that these companies were “promoting the confinement of women’s bodies.”  

Since many Westerners subscribe to the idea that modest dress is oppressive because it seeks to hide women’s bodies because they are viewed as shameful or even sinful, comments like these are not difficult to understand.  The West prides itself on freedom, and anything that appears to stand in the way of freedom, including prescribed ways of dressing, is going to be met with great criticism.  

But is wearing a hijab a form of oppression?  Or, are things much more complicated?

First and foremost, any country that considers itself a place where freedom is valued, should extend that value to dress – in other words, people should be allowed to wear what they want in these liberal democracies, even if it means covering more. To do otherwise is hypocritical.  

Furthermore, as one analyst points out, “While the minister has been concerned about French women from the Muslim faith who choose freely to follow the Islamic dress codes, it is remarkable that we don’t hear a critical stance about the exploitation of women’s body in advertising campaigns for instance. The modern advertising industry capitalizes on the woman’s body as a marketing tool.” Therefore, even choosing to show more of one’s body can be construed as a form of oppression.  It seems that it is not what a woman chooses to wear that is oppressive, but rather the circumstances surrounding her choice.  

Is she being heavily influenced by others? This could be religious or not. Or, does she have a reason that comes mostly from her?  Maybe she views dressing modestly as allowing her to interact with others more as a whole human as opposed to a sexual object. Or maybe she rather be more private with her body.

Regardless, it’s more about her reason for wearing whatever she wears, assuming that it was she herself who made that decision.

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org