It is a strange position to find myself in, trying to reconcile my values as an atheist and as an intersectional feminist. Allow me to explain.
In the beginning of this month, the French Senate passed a bill that, if made into a law, would enforce a sort of “secular dress code”. This amendment applies very specifically toward the rights of Muslim women, including:
- banning the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols for those accompanying school trips
- banning all under the age of 18 in the public space from wearing religious symbols, or any cloth that would mean the inferiority of women under men
- rules and regulations of swimming pools and bathing spaces ensuring the neutrality of the public service and secularism (a.k.a. banning burkinis)
This might sound like a good thing for women’s rights. But is it?
As atheists, we may have knee-jerk positive reactions to learning about fewer hijabs or burkas being worn or about secular governments who stand behind their values. However, the more I thought about these hijab restrictions and learned about the French president’s relationship with Islam, the less respect I had for him. This page contains a great video explaining this history.
Firstly, it is important to remember what secularism actually means and what it should do. In my experience, to be a secular society is to be a society that treats citizens of any religion or no religion equally. I’ve found that Christian nationalists in America tend to get the idea of a secular society mixed up with the idea of an atheist society. An atheist society would favor the rights of atheists over those of religious folk, perhaps by doing things like banning citizens from donning religious symbols. A secular society would allow public citizens to express their religion as they please, so long as it does not actively harm others.
This is where this French bill goes too far—obviously, since it literally does ban people from wearing religious symbols. I do not believe that this is the solution to religious nationalism. Not surprisingly, the solution is equality. Plain and simple. In any context, when in doubt, equality is probably the answer.
When you are talking about the tension of gender equality, and trying to use a complementarian (often equated with being sexist) religion in some respects as the beacon of equality, things can get muddled quickly. Many atheists will argue that the entire concept of hijab exists to strip women of their freedom and their power and that it is inherently tied to sexism. As an atheist, I agree. As an intersectional feminist, I must step back and look at this from a different perspective.
I will take a moment here to explain what intersectional feminism means to me: it means fighting for and standing in solidarity with women-identifying folk no matter who they are. It has to do with standing up for women regardless of race, religion, age, country, size, ability, sexual orientation, or anything else that might otherwise differentiate them from one another. (And no, you do not have to be a woman to be an intersectional feminist!)
This tension—is hijab empowering or degrading for women?—reminds me of this anti-hijab video from Drew McCoy that was released two years ago in protest of World Hijab Day. When I first watched it, I wholeheartedly agreed with him, seeing it fully through his atheist point of view. While I still agreed with his overall message watching it again today, I’m finding that it leaves much to be desired.
If you did not watch the video: The general premise is that Drew opposes World Hijab Day, because it treats hijab like an empowering choice that women make, when it is neither empowering nor is it a choice. He and three ex-hijabi guest speakers refute these three claims that people use to argue that hijab is empowering:
Premise #1: Hijab is a choice. This is refuted by Mimzy Vids, who shares her experience being forced to wear hijab at Muslim school as a child and being explicitly threatened with torture and hellfire if she did not wear it. Women who do not wear it are seen as attention-seeking, and this belief leads to a slut-shaming culture. In countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia, wearing hijab is mandatory by law.
Premise #2: The historical and ideological basis of hijab is benign. This is refuted by Zara Kay. She claims that embracing hijab can be harmful to subjugated women. It was invented as a way to segregate Muslim women from free women, who were then taken as slaves. Movements like Free in Hijab and World Hijab Day suppress the rights of those who disagree with hijab. Embracing it feeds into oppression, because the alternative is often ostracism, abuse, threats of hellfire, or even being stoned to death in certain countries.
Premise #3: Supporting hijab is the best way to fight for women’s rights. Drew argues that World Hijab Day is counterproductive in promoting women’s rights. It supports modesty culture and objectification of women, and it acts like it is standing up for victims when it is instead crushing them. It pretends to be a beacon of progress when it stands for women to have the right to cover in the West where they already have that right while ignoring the women who legitimately don’t have the right to choose what they wear. The movement has it backwards. It pacifies goodhearted people with fear of being labeled Islamophobic, so they are no help to the oppressed. We need an alternative movement that promotes equality. Ex-Muslim women who are crying out for basic human rights are labeled as toxic and bigoted.
Yasmine Mohammed elaborates with her story, saying that hijab was forced on her when she was 9. She was told that with hijab, she was like a wrapped up, clean candy as opposed to a dirty unwrapped candy covered in flies and dirt. When she was older and chose to no longer wear hijab, her family threatened to kill her, then disowned her—and this was in Canada! She expresses her solidarity with the women that are still fighting for freedom from hijab, saying that she hears them, she sees them, and she cheers them on.
Hearing these stories was heartbreaking. I hope that my argument in this post does not invalidate how truly disgusting it is to see women being treated this way by oppressive Islamic culture. I can absolutely see where Drew is coming from, and I’m glad that he amplified the voices of these ex-Muslim women instead of speaking for them. In many respects, I agree with their point: celebrating and promoting hijab can sound impressively tone deaf when so many women, mostly in Eastern countries, are fighting to escape the chokehold of hijab to this day.
My greatest problem is that the women fighting against hijab want the same thing as the women in France who are fighting for it: religious freedom. I took issue with the three premises that Drew refuted, because (while I might not go so far as to call it straw-manning) I don’t think that these three premises are why people are pro-hijab. To me, it isn’t about the hijab itself being a symbol of female empowerment, or Islam being feminist, but it is about the ability to choose whether or not to cover. It is about religious freedom and intersectional feminism.
Yes, it can feel complicated as a non-Muslim woman to be fighting for women to choose to identify with a religion that is often used to strip away the rights of non-Muslim women. But I think there is an element here of trusting Muslim women to know what is best for themselves in their own lives. Whether someone wants to wear hijab is not up to me or to you. It is up to her, the hijabi. I might not understand why one would choose hijab, but all that means is that I don’t wear one. Simple as that.
To help myself, as an American, understand this, I thought of what this might look like in Christian terms. Many Christian women live in a culture where “purity” is forced on them, complete with analogies similar to that used to scare Yasmine. Purity culture can look like anything from being told to dress modestly to being told that one’s only purpose in life is to be a housewife, to please and serve her husband, and to have tons of kids. Having experienced parts of this culture myself, I know it is oppressive. I know that it is damaging to tell a woman that her only worth is being a wife and mother.
At the same time, many women choose to devote their lives to this. Those who don’t may not understand it, but we must respect that that is what many people want. I don’t see a problem with it as long as the domestic life is the woman’s choice. So would it be right for society to force women to pursue careers or to ban this domestic lifestyle? Of course not. If this happened, engaging in intersectional feminism would mean that even child-free atheist women with careers would fight for the rights of those Christians who desire to be housewives, and vice versa. (Similarly, women in France and in Saudi Arabia ought to stand in solidarity with each other and support those facing problems opposite theirs. They are fighting the same fight.)
All in all, I think that World Hijab Day and No Hijab Day are striving for the same thing: religious freedom as well as freedom of expression. Drew seemed to think that true equality always means no hijab, but it really means women making their own choices. Women should be allowed to choose whether or not they want to observe a religion or wear religious symbols, whether that means freedom from hijab or freedom to wear hijab. Banning hijab in the name of secularism is an abuse of the concept altogether. Secularism should be synonymous with freedom—freedom to wear as much or as little as you please, to practice any religion or none.