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Clothing conceals religious patriarchy

Through fashion, women historically objectified

By Othman O'Malley

Posted: 3/31/08 Section:

Quite often when thinking about the hijab, the head and body covering worn by Muslim women, we do not think of how it affects the male mindset. It is not enough to think of the hijab as an institution, a cultural institution that affects women. The hijab is a visible manifestation of deep-seated patriarchal tendencies within religion itself, especially within the three Abrahamic faiths. Women may wear the hijab, but the hijab is much more about men than women.

The concept of women covering their hair for the sake of modesty is not an exclusively Muslim concept. Look at Mary's outfit in any nativity scene. She is wearing long and loose fitting cloths and invariably, she has a scarf on her head. She would fit right into crowds in Cairo or Tehran.

When women hold an audience with the pope, as Condoleezza Rice and Lady Bush of Crawford know, they must place a bit of fabric on their heads and it is usually lace and usually black, much like at a funeral. Quite dour colors for a meeting with the vicar of Christ, no? Orthodox Jewish women are required to cover their hair with a piece of fabric, the tichel.

So here we are. All three Abrahamic faiths lay some claim to women's clothing. Who says fashion is not a religion? So why is it that the obvious claim that these faiths are misogynistic (strongly prejudiced against women) is so controversial?

Abrahamic religions were revealed to men, led by men and interpreted by men. Sure, there are prominent women in these faiths. Christians, Jews and Muslims cite Mary, Esther or Khadija respectively. But think of what they are celebrated for.

In reverse order, Khadija is prominent because she was the wife of the Prophet Mohammed. Esther is prominent for saving the Jews of Persia through her capacity as the wife of a powerful man. Mary is notable for giving birth to Jesus. So we have three women who are revered for doing things that men cannot do, namely giving birth and marrying men.


One can only imagine who would have received credit for bringing Jesus in the world if both men and women could reproduce. And even Mary could not have given birth the way that all women do. She had to remain a virgin for her to be accepted by the patriarchy.

So why am I mentioning the hijab as it relates to Arab and Muslim society and its women? It is because this practice which is universal in the Abrahamic tradition is most prominently practiced in the Arab and Muslim world. The spiritual assault on women by men who guard religious interpretation as their exclusive province is not unique to Islam, but it exists within Islam.

Do women need men to define for them what is modest and what is not? And does she need to suppress her own sexual identity and vitality so that men, as I have so often heard, do not succumb to temptation? This mindset places all responsibility to remain modest on women and absolutely none on men. It is, after all, a patriarchy. This, I contend, is absolute poison.

What is more absurd than the religious conception of women are the supposed benefits of wearing the hijab. It supposedly prevents women from being objectified.

Excuse me?

The suppression of sexual identity and preoccupation with the moral leanings of women does not objectify women? The very premise of this fabric-based sexual segregation is that men and women are objects. They are sexual objects that must be kept apart because of their nature.

Enough of these silly revisions of what the hijab is. Sure, the hijab is freely worn by millions of Muslim women. But let us not fool ourselves and forget its history. It is a descendant of the religious patriarchal claims on the female mind and body. These religious assaults on women not only affect women, but corrode the minds of men as well.

Othman is a senior in political science and as immodest as he is, even he cannot gather the strength to wear a Speedo.

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