Atheists, Can We Stop Being So Awful About People Who Wear Hijab?

Recently, I heard of a man of Muslim background who is so offended by headscarf-wearing women that he refuses them entry into his home. While people have the right to freely associate or not associate with whomever they wish for whatever reason, I was disgusted to hear of it as well as the defenses of his behavior. The idea of a man policing women’s clothing in particular seems to me to be an extension of the same patriarchal norms that lie at the root of hijab itself. Obsessing over the garb that women choose to wear or to not wear is to turn women’s bodies into battlegrounds for ideology, a common strategy used by sexists of all stripes.

In other words, forcing women to take it off is just like forcing women to put it on. In both cases, women are being forced to adhere to the norms set by a man who wants her clothing to conform to what he likes or doesn’t like. Why not let them wear what they want to wear?

This was hardly the only or first situation where I found myself in deep discomfort over some man’s obsession with unveiling women to suit his own tastes.

At an atheist meeting, I once came across a man whose face lit up when he found out that I was a former scarf-wearing Muslim. I was then, as I am now, happy to talk to people about my apostasy, so I responded with matching enthusiasm. It was a trap. He wanted to not only tell me about his harassment of women in hijab, he expected that I would approve of it. Given that I am maybe a little bit something of a feminist (couldn’t be), I was not amused by his stories of saying things like “I’d tap that” to headscarf-wearing female strangers.

He seemed surprised by my dour-faced reaction. He proceeded to posit a spirited defense of his behavior. It would “shock” them to the point where they might leave Islam, just as I had, he claimed. In his mind, he thought that if he sexually harassed them, they would see that hijab didn’t protect them from prurient interest, which would lead them to question Islam.

I knew from experience that what he had stated was a patently absurd prospect. I told him about how scared I had been during my first week of college, when a random male student came up to me and asked me if I was a “total freak under there.” I spent the rest of that day hiding in the library and the rest of the week praying to Allah to forgive me for not covering myself enough to have prevented a man from lusting after me. I wept sincere tears and hopes that my fate would lead me to a husband sooner rather than later — a man who, unlike my father, wouldn’t forbid me from covering my face from becoming part of some man’s sexual fantasies.

I may have left Islam less than a year after that, but it wasn’t because of that campus trolling. If anything, I engaged in more religious activity and devotion after it happened.

That led the harasser to argue that what he did was “funny.” Now, where have I heard that one before? The one where men seem to think that if they harass for the lulz rather than for the faps, then the harassment is okay? I wasn’t buying it and continued to look at him questioningly. “Well, I still think it’s funny” were his last words on the matter. He had gone from a self-styled noble liberator to a man going after women with lewd remarks for a laugh.

A man preoccupied with women wearing or not wearing what he thought they ought to wear or not wear for reasons of his own that have nothing to do with them? We have a word for that.

Hiba wrote about the various reasons why someone might be wearing hijab and why you should probably respect them regardless of those reasons. People who wear hijab are not Allah’s ambassadors here for your amusement. Harming them won’t rectify any ills perpetuated by Islam. More people would do well to take the accounts of former hijabis like her and me and many others more seriously when deciding how to treat current ones.

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Atheists, Can We Stop Being So Awful About People Who Wear Hijab?
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19 thoughts on “Atheists, Can We Stop Being So Awful About People Who Wear Hijab?

  1. 2

    1)yeah, I don’t know how people can thing forcing omen to wear less is any less oppressive than forcing them to wear more.

    2)this issue is really where the atheist/skeptic superiority complex does its worst, being combined with sexism and racism :-/

    3)cue people claiming it’s not a “choice” because it’s cultural/religious “brainwashing”, as if any choices we make were free from strong social/cultural/community pressures. (I REALLY need to find a way to write that essay about how agency works; it’s been eluding me for years now)

      1. cue people claiming it’s not a “choice” because it’s cultural/religious “brainwashing”, as if any choices we make were free from strong social/cultural/community pressures.
        I always want to ask those people if they’d be willing to ride the bus in their underwear (weather and law enforcement permitting). After all, it’s only cultural pressure that prevents us from stripping down when it’s hot.

  2. 3

    I’m totally cool with the hijab, there’s lots of ways of wearing it that look cute and although it would suck if women felt forced to wear it, it doesn’t interfere with most social or professional activities. The girls in my area are clearly having a blast with it, and I would no more complain than I would about them wearing make up.

    I don’t feel the same way about the niqab at all and sadly, it’s becoming increasingly popular in my part of the world. Partly, it disturbs me because I was brought up with a strict taboo of against covering one’s face when interacting with people, partly it’s because I’m surprisingly dependent on lip reading, especially if there’s background noise. And it really sucks that you can chat with a neighbour and not know her from Eve the next day. The niqab is just a bad, bad idea.

    1. 3.1

      On tha flip side, I’ve heard people with eating disorder thoughts wishing it was OK to be covered completely, to never have to know they are being seen by others, and even heard the idea put forth that our society is so bent about people’s physical appearance that it could be more humanizing for no one to know what anyone looks like. Kind of the opposite of what filmmakers are thinking when they put bad guys like the stormtroopers in face-covering masks and helmets.

      I don’t know if I agree 100%, but I’d rather see someone being as free and comfortable as possible within their own physical or psychological limitations. That might mean covering a face sometimes. I’ve seen people out in public with horrifying disfigurements, and while they shouldn’t have to cover, they should have the option. And people who feel disfigured even if they aren’t (dysmorphia) should maybe have the option too.

  3. 4

    I am always deeply suspicious when women’s bodies are made the battlefield. You cannot “liberate” women by telling them what to do, especially not women from a non-western background. That’s colonialism, pure and simple. Come here stupid savage girl, let me bring you civilisation.
    There are several issues with the whole Hijab debate and policing women’s bodies is just one of that.
    There’s also the misogyny of “she’s being forced to wear it, because if she wasn’t she wouldn’t”. They deny women agency, see them only as poor oppressed victimswho cannot own their choice.
    It’S also fundamentally wrong to make assumptions about any other aspect of that woman’s ideas and ideology beyond “she thinks as a muslim woman she should cover her hair.” The hijab will tell you nothing about her gender politics or her home life or her opportunities in life. There are many girls in German schools who suffer under their patriarchal muslim fathers and brothers* who are not wearing any type of headscarves. Whose fathers openly tell teachers that they won’t let their daughters get a highschool degree or participate in extra-curricular activities because they don’t want them to get ideas and have opportunities.
    So why should I automatically suppose that the women I meet in college who are wearing a hijab (and most women I meet who are wearing a hijab ARE in college) are less free, more oppressed, less liberal than the girl who’s being denied the chance to ever go to college because her father has other plans?

    *as there are many non-muslim girls who suffer. I don’t want to imply that this is a problem that only exist among German muslims.

    And finally, it’s of course something that only scrutinises and assumes things about women. Nobody demands that muslim men shave their beards cause the Taliban wear beards. Their being a “good muslim” does not depend on their choice of clothing.

    1. xyz
      4.1

      “I am always deeply suspicious when women’s bodies are made the battlefield.”

      Yep. Exactly. It’s so telling that men out there take atheism as an excuse to harass women in hijab.

  4. 5

    Hijab and particularly chador are associated in my mind with women who have found a way to use their phones hands free. But saying that drifts perilously close to Notes from my Boner territory, at least in spirit.

    I like the way Giliell put it: “You cannot ‘liberate’ women by telling them what to do.” I’m also reminded of discussions I’ve seen about sex-positivity being used to justify telling women (especially) that they ought to be sexual, even though the opposite of “ought not to” should be “may.”

  5. 7

    Well, never really cared if women wore hijabs, burqahs or not. As a teen, one could not ogle what one didn’t see. As an adult, and an atheist, one could not care less.

    Now, depending on where one saw someone donning one, it would trigger different reactions. In a “free” country like the US, it’d appear by choice; in other places it could very well be forced by culture.

    So whether someone chooses to wear it or that silly yarmulke, my response in the US would be, “Fine, if you want to devolve, your choice, keep it on, you seem happier”

  6. 8

    How about this: We should simply judge all dudes who are wearing pants.
    Clearly, that men should not wear dresses and skirts is a patriarchal western imposition on the appearance of men and hindering them in their free expression (it actually IS).We clearly need to stage a protest and subsequently treat every man who wears pants as a poor opressed fella who doesn’t know how good he’d look in a skirt and how liberating it would be for him. Just make sure you have the right amounts of pity and condescention mixed into it.
    The fact that I totally dig men in skirts has nothing to do with this.

  7. 9

    Shripathi Kamath says

    February 5, 2015 at 10:44 PM

    Well, never really cared if women wore hijabs, burqahs or not. As a teen, one could not ogle what one didn’t see. As an adult, and an atheist, one could not care less.

    Now, depending on where one saw someone donning one, it would trigger different reactions. In a “free” country like the US, it’d appear by choice; in other places it could very well be forced by culture.

    So whether someone chooses to wear it or that silly yarmulke, my response in the US would be, “Fine, if you want to devolve, your choice, keep it on, you seem happier”

    You were doing so well there, for a moment. Calling someone’s free choice a decision to ‘devolve’ is exactly the wrong attitude, and what Heina is justly railing against, here.

    1: Even here in the ‘free’ U.S., a woman can be very vulnerable to cultural and societal pressures, especially a woman of color, of a religious minority.

    2: Alternately, a woman may choose to wear these garments just because she doesn’t feel like being ogled or harassed by street-callers.

    3: Or, perhaps she just likes the way it looks (I’ve seen a number of headscarves that were so stunningly beautiful in design that calling them ‘modest’ almost felt like an ironic joke), and so fuck your ‘evolved’ self, because her decision to wear it has nothing to do with you.

  8. 10

    I would never treat a woman poorly for wearing this clothing (the man you describe is a complete ass) and agree that women should wear whatever they want. But I do have an internal reaction to this clothing. Clothes often send a message, albeit imperfectly. The message I get is this:
    1) This person is very religious
    2) This person thinks that men can’t handle seeing women who aren’t covered (or has people in her life who dominate her and think this)
    3) This person might be uncomfortable talking to an unrelated man

    Based on the above three things, I am much less likely to talk to this person.

    Of course I don’t know for sure that these things are true, but I think we all make hasty estimations about people. If you see a person in hunting gear, you probably think, “this person likes hunting”, or if you see someone with a sports jersey on, then it is likely that this person likes to play or watch sporting events. If you see a guy in a suit, then you can reasonably estimate that he is not a coal miner.

    1. 10.1

      I’m definitely not against making fairly safe assumptions based on clothing choice. When I wore hijab, it was nice when men knew without my telling them that I wouldn’t be hugging them or shaking their hands. My point wasn’t about assumptions, more about the grossness of trying to force women to wear or not wear things.

  9. 13

    If the topic comes up, I will gladly explain why I am against the hijab. However, I wouldn’t think of telling a woman not to wear it.

    The topic rarely comes up, so I keep my mouth shut. I’m seeing women in hijab more and more when I go shopping. It’s just becoming normal. (Wikipedia claims my community is 0.1% Muslim. I don’t believe that figure for a moment.)

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