In 2010, France passed the bill that bans face coverings such as masks, balaclavas, helmets, niqab, and burqa and it came in effective by 2011. It imposes a fine of 150 euros on an individual wearing a face cover and 15,000 euros on anyone who forces others to wear one. It didn’t come with no backfire, as expected. The public including supporters of human rights such as Amnesty International condemned the bill, saying it is the violation of freedom of expression of women who wear the face covers.
I remember back in 2011 that I mentioned the pass of the law to my friend who is male muslim from Malaysia. My then intention was more about ‘hey, check out this new law. It might mean muslim women are one step closer to free public activities like driving in France,’ although I didn’t express verbally as I wanted to explore how he thinks first and adjust my theory with extra information I probably missed. Because I didn’t know him very well. He said, “yea, I’m really worried about it and other girls I talked to were also worried because they may not be able to visit France with their hijab on.” Although, hijab which doesn’t fully cover face is not on the banned list – except for the case in public schools in France.
A few weeks ago, I came across a news article about a woman, Malak Al Shehri, living in Saudi Arabia who went out on public without covering her hair. The photo of her standing on the street with her hair fully showing went viral online and she was flooded with death threats from highly religious population (not that she isn’t religious). By online people, she was described as a brave protester and a victim of female oppression as lots of people fight for women’s rights. Around that time, one Somali-American woman named Halima Aden competed in Miss Minnesota while wearing her hijab during the pageant. She stated in Star Tribune that “I just want to go on as myself. When you have a lot of women in our state that do wear the hijab, we should be able to see that everywhere.” She was also depicted brave by online population.
Interesting enough, we see two opposite actions for the same goal: freedom of expression and freedom from oppression. Yet, I don’t believe their action can be interchangeable in different contexts. For instance, Halima’s liberal view is not allowed in a country where Malak lives. Malak doesn’t have other legitimate choice but to wear what other women wear, which is not completely based on individual’s choice but mostly on obligations.
What grabbed my attention while I was reading the article was the comment made by Halima’s mother. “I support my daughter. […] I’m very happy to live in the United States where people are free and can wear what they want.” I’m assuming with only few evidences that she was implying the negative sides of the Burkini ban in France, while in contrast, praising the situation where her daughter can wear Burkini in the US Miss Minnesota pageant without any problem. However, I want to interpret this with a bit of different emphasis. If I dig deeper, I think she wanted to say like this: It’s less about WHAT people wear but it’s more about what they WANT.
Why some women suffer from wearing certain clothes while some women strive to wear certain clothes? Because we are able to choose, even though it may not be allowed sometimes. We are able to choose against any oppression and it doesn’t matter if the oppression is about wearing or not wearing. Then can we make it better by legally banning or legally allowing? Solving is a big word but if anybody’s going to make decisions over women’s rights, they better make things better not worse. Should we make laws to make sure we protect those who are being oppressed, or should we empower the oppressed population so that they can overcome the harshness around them then we call them heros of contemporary world, assuming everyone’s able to exert themselves?
Let’s flash back to how Ms Malala became known to the world. Someone tried to kill her but she stood up even after getting shot. If we want more people like her, then we are extremely selfish. Only to compensate their loss and sacrifice do we call them hero, not a victim.
Nonetheless, it keeps happening. The most vicious fights who’s right and who’s wrong I see online. Freedom of expression is an abstract concept and it’s not an action but an idea. On the contrary, wearing or not wearing something is not and it’s an action that brings a result we can see immediately. I believe this is the reason the action can be easily controversy compared to the abstract idea. But if we try to look deeper, it all comes consistent. It’s really not about what to wear – or what to make them wear. It’s about what they want and what they get to wear.
Bottom line is, the logic behind the criticisms on banning burqa, the cheer on losing abaya, and the encouragement on wearing hijab on performance stage is all just about choice. I’m saying women should be treated as an individual not a woman who needs a man – or government – to make choices for her. The world women can freely make choices informed or uninformed. That’s what we need to discuss not what they’re going to wear this summer.