We’ve moved beyond that tired stereotype of the “oppressed” woman who needs to be de-veiled and liberated, says Hafsa Lodi.
Last weekend, the Taliban decreed that women must cover their faces in public, preferably in chadors or head-to-toe burkas that include face veils. It was what many people have been dreading since its takeover of Afghanistan in 2021, especially as we’ve come a long way since the post-9/11 depictions of Muslim women in the media as faceless masses.
These events should not cast a shadow on progress being made in terms of representation in fashion and media. From hijabi models of colour walking at global fashion weeks to Western retailers designing modest clothing collections specifically for Ramadan, we’ve moved beyond that tired stereotype of the “oppressed” woman who needs to be de-veiled and liberated. Muslim women have proven they are a force to be reckoned with in fashion, and that our style is beautiful, vibrant, and extremely diverse.
The history of veiling is complex, with roots in Judaism and Christianity, as well as Islam. When the Qur’anic verse advising Muslim women to veil was first revealed in 7th century Arabia, it was directed to the Prophet’s wives, to protect them from harassment from his enemies, before extending to the ‘elite’ women of the Prophet’s early community. Women in slavery (a common practice in the 7th century), meanwhile, were forbidden from veiling.
In my view, forcing women to cover up is a form of enslavement that can be argued as entirely un-Islamic: witness the Qur’anic injunction that states: “There is no compulsion in religion.” The Taliban’s latest decree has less to do with piety and more to do with perpetuating a perverse form of patriarchy masquerading under the labels of Islam and culture.
Motivated by patriarchy, not spirituality
The decree came from the Taliban’s Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue – something that sounds like it came out of Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix, where the Ministry of Magic sought to repress dissenting voices. Unfortunately, this isn’t fiction. A spokesman for the Ministry said: “We want our sisters to live with dignity and safety.” Yet, as I discovered while writing my book, Modesty: A Fashion Paradox, burkas offer no protection from sexual assault or rape. Imposing garments on women that rob them of their agency and essentially erase their identities by no means grants them any form of “dignity”.
Malala Yousafzai said that the burka decree signalled the extremist group’s motives to “erase girls and women from all public life in Afghanistan”. I’d add that it directly contradicts the Prophet Muhammad’s attempts to include and welcome women in public affairs in his early Muslim community.
The onus of modesty is often placed on women in Eastern cultures, with women told to cover up to avoid inappropriate behaviour from men. Indeed, the Taliban’s decree states that if women refuse to cover their bodies and faces in public, their male guardians will be jailed – a punishment that is at odds with the Qur’anic statement that “each soul is responsible for its own actions; no soul will bear the burden of another”.
The burka decree is the latest in a string of setbacks for Afghan women, who have been barred from schools for more than 230 days, despite promises that educational institutions would be accessible to young women. Yet burkas were not always the traditional, national ‘uniform’ that the Taliban makes them out to be. After the extremist group regained power last year, Afghan women filled social media with the #DoNotTouchMyClothes campaign, showing images of themselves in colourful cultural clothing, with ornate jewellery and optional head coverings. The Taliban does a serious disservice to women by claiming the burka is an ‘Islamic’ or even an ‘Afghan’ garment.
Forcing women to cover – or uncover – violates their rights
It may seem absolutely mind-boggling that, in 2022, a country can impose full face and body covers on its women. However, it’s important to note that women around the world who do choose to cover up should be granted the freedom to do so.
The fashion preferences of Muslim women are layered with nuance and, when politicised by countries like Iran and Afghanistan, can become confusing to outsiders. The issue is one of agency and choice – not about the garment itself, which is welcomed by some women, whether for spiritual, political or personal reasons.
It’s easy to fall into a trap of white feminist discourse when the burka is involved – a garment that is estranged from contemporary Western culture and values – but these conversations shouldn’t fuel white-saviour arguments about Muslim women who practise modest fashion and veiling by choice. Bans on burka, burkini niqab and hijab have been implemented in places across Europe and North America over the past few years, despite face-covering style trends like balaclavas gaining widespread acceptance and popularity – and that’s to say nothing of much of the world masking up against Covid.
We must recognise how, on one hand, patriarchy influences dress codes, and on the other, how politicians seek to imprint their own ideals on Muslim women’s clothing choices. Whether it’s the Taliban enforcing veiling or one of France’s various bans on veiling, both extremes serve as legal barriers to women’s rights. And if we’re truly feminists, we’ll be in equal uproar about both.