I often see people complain that they’re “not allowed to criticize Islam”, that any criticism is framed as Islamophobia, or who voice frustrated and rhetorical questions like “why do liberals defend Islam?” (the feminist version of this is “why do liberal feminists defend Islam?”), and so on. I wrote an answer to someone on social media who posted that it’s “so frustrating when libfems call radfems Islamophobic for critizing the hijab”, along with the image below. Since this topic comes up so frequently I thought I’d also write an answer here.
It is not inherently Islamophobic to criticize the hijab, but when you think that the hijab is the all and everything and absolute pinnacle of women’s oppression, you seem myopic, and yes, likely prejudiced towards a specific group.
Furthermore. The accusation of Islamophobia is not used just because people “criticize the hijab”. This is not a fair characterization of those who speak about Islamophobia and it dismisses valid concerns about bigotry. I know that when I point out Islamophobia, it’s not in response to people’s mere criticism of the hijab. I have no issue with the above quote.
When some of us name Islamophobia, it’s because of things like this:
– Focusing disproportionately on examples of sexism among Muslims in comparison to elsewhere.
– Blowing up the significance of the hijab such that it is assumed to be associated with the most extreme experience of female subservience and oppression. This simply isn’t true.
– Taking examples of news and customs from (frankly) backwater places and presenting them as representative of all Muslims, instead of realizing that like the Christian world, the Muslim world has differences based on country, ethnicity, class, rural/urban, and more.
– Downvoting* the women of Muslim origin who point these things out and tell you that their experiences are not the same as the news story you read (about the honor killing in Pakistan or whatnot), while simultaneously criticizing liberal feminists for not listening to the ex-Muslim women you want them to listen to (who are sometimes the Candace Owenses of the Muslim world).
The queer and liberal feminist whitewashing of Islam can be downright strange, but at least we can appreciate that it stems from something positive: The recognition of the bias and bigotry of much of Western discourse around Muslims, and especially the role that the focus on the oppression of Muslim women has played in right-wing demagoguery, including the drumming up for war in Iraq and Afghanistan. In an alternative timeline where Iran made nice with the US and South Korea was placed in the Axis of Evil, we’d have heard much more about molka than hijabs.
In regards to the hijab specifically, I am not sure liberal feminists are really saying that the hijab itself is inherently empowering. I can see Muslim women, and especially men, making that argument. But I think that what liberal feminists find empowering is simply choice. Any choice, all choice. That includes the choice to wear a hijab but it’s not the hijab in and of itself that they find empowering. They don’t care about the origins of the hijab anymore than they do about analyzing women’s nudity in the West. In fact, celebrating women’s choice through the example of the hijab validates their support for the increasing self-objectification of Western women in today’s porn-saturated culture. By framing feminism around choice, they’ve diverted it from analyzing where our behaviors come from and what their material impacts are.
Radical feminists are usually critical of equating liberation with the freedom to take off one’s clothes. But when it comes to Muslims, they tend to fall right into the long-standing Western view that “we’re civilized and equal because our women are in bikinis, Muslims are savages because their women are covered up”. I don’t view the hijab as a symbol of liberation, but when I see quasi-naked women in the West prancing or twerking or standing like ditzy adornments on TV shows, at parties, or in music videos next to fully clothed men, I can’t fail to see the bias in the notion that women covering their hair is the ultimate indicator of submission.
*Referring to the good old days of Reddit here.