My heart hurts

Reading the news today made my heart ache, a hollow pit in my chest cavity slowly filling with a tumbling nausea that didn’t have an outlet.

If you don’t follow me on Twitter or aren’t a friend of my personal profile on Facebook, you probably won’t know that I wear a head scarf. It’s not for religious reasons, it’s for personal, aesthetic and, sometimes, socio-political reasons. I don’t wrap at the office but it’s the first thing I do when I get home in the afternoon and, at the weekend, it’s the first thing I do when I get up.

A big part of wrapping my hair, for me, is the community that goes with it. It’s a warm community, a loving community, a community of fantastic, charitable, kind, generous and culturally diverse women that choose to wrap their hair for every reason imaginable. There are Jews, Christians, Muslims, Cancer Warriors, People with alopecia, Dreadlocked Amazons and those like me who do it for a multitude of reasons that don’t fit neatly into a box…you name it, there’ll be one in my most active group.

It’s hard to explain to people on the outside, but on the inside, it feels like a sisterhood. We ARE a sisterhood, bound together by strips of cloth in a thousand colours and a thousand fabrics. Even for someone like me who isn’t spiritual in any tangible sense, I can sometimes feel it pressing around me in love and support when I need it the most. When I recently had a kidney stone blasted I was lying on the operating table crying my eyes out because it hurt so badly and the painkillers weren’t working. My hand brushed the loose tail of my wrap and it was as if my sisters were suddenly all there with me, a silent chorus of uplifting strength and support. It pulled me through it when I would have otherwise terminated the procedure early. I knew they were thinking of me, in some cases offering up prayer. Many of them had messaged me that morning. A number had worn my favourite colours in my honour to let me know that I was in their thoughts and hearts that day. It was a powerful moment.

So when I read the news that women wearing hijabs were being accosted, fined and in one notable case forced to undress on the beaches of France, my heart broke for them. These sisters I’ve never met and will probably never know, these women to whom modesty is a way of life, are being unfairly targeted and if you think it has anything to do with religion, you’d be sorely (and sadly) wrong.

This isn’t an assault on secular faith. It’s certainly nothing to do with morality (because in what world is forcing a woman to wear fewer clothes moral??). It has not one iota of bearing on national security. Don’t kid yourselves.

This is an assault on feminism. It’s an assault on a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body. It is an assault on human rights that we should be horrified at, regardless of our background, faith or colour.

To understand why I say that, you maybe need to understand a little about why women wrap. I know women who wear burkinis. They’re some of the calmest, most well-adjusted, beautiful and confident women I know. Choosing to wrap and to dress modestly has nothing to do with oppression and, if you think it does, you need to take a good long look at how you perceive the value of women.

To oppress someone is to remove their power from them. A woman’s hair is her outward symbol of beauty – it’s the first thing you notice usually. It’s been a symbol of a woman’s marital status for centuries. To display long hair is, in the universal subconscious, a signal of our availability to the opposite sex. If you say that covering our hair takes away our power, you are essentially saying that our ONLY power and singular value lies in our availability to the eyes of men. Take a long moment to think about how screwed up that is.

On the inside, as someone who wraps partly for reasons of personal autonomy and as a big “screw you” to the patriarchy, I think those who choose not to wrap are almost more oppressed than any woman in a headscarf because of the conformation to the norm, the open display of physical assets. The acceptance of availability to anyone that wishes to look. I have absolute control over who sees my body and that lies within my power.

That philosophy extends to covering the body as well as the hair. Again, you should look at the definitions. There is a big difference between “beautiful” and “sexy”. You can be one or the other. You can be a mixture of both. There is no right or wrong, but it is, and always should be, up to a woman to decide where she wants to stand on that sliding scale. Personally, I love the modesty of wrapping, but I still occasionally wear tank tops because that’s how I’m comfortable.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, the important theme running through these paragraphs is that it is the woman’s choice. It is always the woman’s choice. No-one makes us wrap, in fact some of us have encountered huge resistance to the idea of wrapping from our friends and loved ones. No-one makes us decide to be modest. There’s a quiet but magnificent power that comes from walking in the beauty of our minds and personalities rather than our outward appearance. It is empowering. It is uplifting. It is ours and we choose it.

Culturally there are places where almost all the women wrap, but again that doesn’t mean they are oppressed. It’s only in recent history (within living memory, up to the 60s and 70s in some cases) that women in the Western world stopped wearing hats or turbans and gloves whenever they left the house. In many communities, notably the Arab communities, woman are treated as treasured and precious jewels. They are cossetted and protected at all costs. On the outside it may look like they have limited freedoms and liberties, but you should never judge by the standards by which you live because ignorance often leads to incorrect assumptions. Women have their own power – you only have to look at Sheikha Mozah as an example. Whether you agree with her policies, family or background or not, you cannot deny that she is a formidable and incredibly powerful woman, from one of the most notably conservative regimes in the world. She is never seen in public without her head covered. To assume that any article of clothing denotes a woman as oppressed is foolish in the extreme.

So if a woman has made a personal choice, whether that be between her and her God, or her and her own free will, to live and dress in a modest fashion, how dare anyone surround her and demand that she display herself to the world? Imagine the outrage if armed police stormed your office tomorrow and demanded that you take off your outerwear and wander around in your underwear, because that’s what it feels like. It’s that same level of violation and shame and is equally as irrational as demanding you wander around unclothed. Targeting women for wearing the burkini or hijab is nothing to do with terrorism or faith and everything to do with a direct assault on a woman’s right to choose.

I cry shame on anyone involved in this awful situation. Shame. Shame on you. Shame on your ignorance and persecution of innocent women. Shame.

2 thoughts on “My heart hurts

  1. I heard an interview with a hat shop owner on NPR many years ago. He blamed JFK’s inauguration for men no longer wearing hats. Indeed JFK was the first president to be sworn in without a hat.

    I wonder if there’s a correlation between the two, because feminism was in full swing near or shortly after that time and if men were uncovering then feminists would naturally want to follow suit.

    Which is one of my complaints about feminism. Sometimes it feels like feminists think that if we squeeze women into the male stereotype we’ll be liberated.

    No offense to you or anyone else who is a feminist. I just have no desire to try and switch from one stereotypical gender role to another.

    • I think there are many different layers to feminism and I take no offence 🙂 In many ways you’re right. Gender equality should only extend so far because we are fundamentally different, not least because of our biology and the difference in mothering and fathering instincts. My personal favoured brand of feminism is one that allows me to be individual and feminine at the same time.

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