Burqa Bans and an Iranian Muslim Feminist.

I first heard of Sara Haghdoosti when she contacted me to appear at a Mental Health Vigil for GetUp! I couldn’t make it but what intrigued me about Sara was that she described herself as an Iranian Muslim feminist. I interviewed her at the Loft shortly after the election …

This article was written by Sara Haghdoosti for The Punch and has been used here with full permission.

A woman in a burqa

If a woman walks down the street in a mini skirt and someone calls her a slut, feminists will be quick to object.  However if a Muslim woman walks down in a burqa then many feminists are happy to concede that she is oppressed, submissive and brainwashed.

Unfortunately many feminists still believe that no Muslim woman could ever choose to wear the veil of her own free will.

As a Muslim feminist I find this infuriating, condescending and patronising.

Such ideas are even more alarming when they are insidious, rather than outwardly, honestly expressed. Feminists argue that Muslim women ‘say’ they choose to wear the hijab but these women could have only reached that position through cultural influence.  That they didn’t have the intellect or gumption to stand up.

This is just as offensive as claiming that any woman who chooses to engage in heterosexual relationships has been duped by the patriarchy.

That we either have no free will and if we do we are doomed to never be able to exercise it.

Now I’m not saying all women who wear the veil choose to do so. Not at all: I’ll be the first to critique state enforced religion, or parental pressure to adopt religious behaviours.

I find the fact the Christian parents in Western Australia can force their girls not to have abortions if they want one equally as abhorrent as Muslim parents forcing their children to wear the veil.

I know what it’s like to be forced to wear the veil – I had to wear it to school every day for two years while I lived in Iran.

But to say that no woman, anywhere, under any circumstances can choose to express her faith in her choice of clothing is ludicrous.

The very fact that women who aren’t from Islamic backgrounds, can convert to Islam without pressure and often to the distaste of their families shows that women are indeed able to make the decision to wear the veil. As feminists we need to respect the fact that women have the ability and the right to make decisions and be in control of their own bodies – this includes a woman’s decision to wear the hijab.  Anything less is pure, unadulterated sexism – and yes female feminists are just as capable of this as anyone else.

Women who wear the veil by choice are innovative, creative and able to tailor the hijab to suit their individual lifestyles.  The invention of the ‘berkini’ is a clear testament to this.  This subtle reform is what we should be supporting and encouraging so that Muslim women don’t face discrimination and are able to do all that they desire.

Sadly this hasn’t always been the case.  The most recent example is the ban on girls playing soccer in the hijab, or more famously the ban on burquas in France.
People who support such draconian policies complain that Muslim women can’t integrate in western society and then turn around and destroy their methods of doing just that.

Banning the veil, either entirely or for a particular event, such as during soccer games, doesn’t encourage women to stop wearing it. It just encourages them to stay home, where they don’t have to constantly defend their decisions, where they’re not being constantly monitored with shifting demands of what constitutes an “appropriate” or “excessive” tribute to their own faith.

These policies also encourage Islamic moderates to believe that women’s bodies are cultural battlegrounds.  So that if any Muslim woman participates in supposedly ‘western’ activities or opinions is automatically an embarrassment for betraying their culture and internalising imperialism.

By denying Muslim women agency, we miss out on seeing their resilience, strength and passion.  When I tell people that I’m an Iranian Feminist most people assume that my fervent passion for defending women’s rights came from witnessing the way the government oppresses women in Iran.  That’s not the case.

I’m not a feminist because I witnessed first hand how bad things could be for women.  I’m a feminist because I had the privilege of watching women fight for their rights without compromise.

Seeing photos from the Green Movement to reform Iran shows this – at the forefront of most protests are women, donned in hijab, fighting not to have it obliterated but for their right to choose whether to wear it.  If the hijab isn’t a hindrance in fighting for democracy, freedom and basic human rights then its certainly not a barrier against playing sport.

In the end I want the sisterhood to acknowledge that I can control my destiny, not despite my religion, family or place of birth but because of them.

I want them to celebrate my achievements not tokenise them.  I won’t accept anything less than a unqualified acknowledgement of my agency, power and ability to make decisions in regard to my body and my life.

With thanks to The Loft, Sydney.