Over the past two years I have been seeing more women in my neighbourhood wearing clothing of arab fashions - that is, completely covered in heavy material, heads covered, and, more and more often, faces completely covered except for the eyes peeking out. It's been jarring for me, it's taken adjustment.
Having rejected my own religion initially and primarily on the grounds that it discriminated against me as a woman, I find it hard to find my okay-ness with women having any set of rules applied to them that are not equally applied to men. To me, that fundamental discrimination is simply unacceptable.
I feel a little lucky that I don't believe in a religion that holds me to uncomfortable standards only because I reside in a woman's body. I think it would be hard to live with cultural expectations that make me hide my smile, never feel the breeze on my cheeks, see every man outside my family as someone from whom to hide my body.
I think it would be even harder to hold an honest belief that there is one true god and he wants me to completely cover myself in the heat of day, despite having sent me to the planet naked. Knowing me, I would especially agonize over thought that, in following the will of that god, my visible choice could also symbolize and institutionalize inequality between the sexes for myself and the next generation. If I really believed in that god, and I really believed this is what he wanted from me, I would have no choice but to comply.
Maybe I wouldn't mind the head cover, the half-mask that creates distance from people who can't see me smile back at them. Maybe I would take pride, even joy, in keeping my modesty intact, saving my body for the appropriate place and time. Maybe I wouldn't feel as hot in there as I imagine; maybe I wouldn't constantly itch to just rip it off. Maybe it could truly be the most comfortable thing I have to wear. Maybe it would keep me feeling safe.
As hard as it is for me, I hold those possibilities true, and allow that they, or other positive spins that I didn't think of, could be the experience of the women I see. I will give the respect of assuming that, if people are dressed in a particular way, it's because they want to be, because they like it or choose it. In that way, I can tolerate the choice. That doesn't mean I like it.
I don't like the message it sends to my children and the other girls and boys of their generation, when females are told through visual cues that their bodies are meant to be hidden, that men can't be trusted to interact with them as humans unless they are covered up, that there is something secret, shameful or unsightly about their natural form. To me, it's just the other side of the sexualization coin.
I'm a feminist. I don't agree with being held to more stringent rules of anything, including dress, simply because I find myself in a woman's body. I don't have a belief system to honour, I don't believe in a god that cares how I dress more than he cares about how men dress. I don't have a culture to respect - women in my culture dress in all kinds of ways. I have pressures from media and society, but I have choices, and if I wanted to cover myself totally I would be allowed, just as I'd be allowed to wear a bikini if I wanted. I know my choices have limits, but I have them because of my situation.
I want to give everyone the respect of believing that they also have the same choices I do and are making theirs, but I fear that the structures, social expectations and interpretations of particular leaders through history have affected those choices, infected them with patriarchy, limited them by gender. Even feeling that fear feels wrong to me, because I can't know another woman's experience, but given what I've read and studied, I gather that not every woman who dresses fully covered is choosing it freely, or would choose it without the social prohibitions in place around her.
Still, it feels condescending to consider freedom of choice, since we're all steeped in our own culture's tea, so I come back to respect. I have a choice how I dress. The covered women I see have a choice how they dress. Their choice honours their beliefs, but symbolizes, for me, institutionalized inequality. As a feminist, I have to accept that. I have to believe in their personhood and their right to choose.
But I have a hard time moving from tolerance to acceptance. Because I didn't accept institutionalized inequality in my laws. I didn't accept institutionalized inequality in my schools. I didn't accept institutionalized inequality in my workplaces. I didn't accept institutionalized inequality in my own inherited religion. I don't accept institutionalized inequality in the world.
For more than a century, people in Canada and elsewhere have been fighting for equal rights, and equal choices for all. For women, a big part of that has been the right to dress and look how we choose and be treated with respect. We expect/respect that men will take care of themselves, we believe in them and trust that they are capable of interacting with us as equals. Together with our men, women have pressured systems to protect us properly; we have stepped up and asked men to take responsibility for their violence, their sexualization of women, their role in using the patriarchy to hold us as a second class. We have demanded the same rights and freedoms men enjoy, This is an ongoing struggle, far from won.
When anyone wears symbols of institutionalized inequality in everyday view as something to be celebrated and proud of, it's very hard for those of use who fight those symbols in every other aspect of life to say, hey, I'm proud of your choice, sister. I want to, I really do, but I feel about headscarves and face-covers the way I feel about a guy walking around in a "no fatties" t-shirt. To me, they both symbolize aspects of culture that patriarchy has used to bind and control women, keep them from pursuing their own full personhood outside of gender-based social roles, and ensure that men maintain authority.
I live with this cognitive and emotional dissonance every day. I don't talk about it - I don't trust people to understand the nuance of my concerns. I also realize that my view is painted with privilege, probably rife with prejudices I haven't learned enough to see or overcome yet. I work hard to see.
I know that I need to defend the rights of free speech and choice even when I don't agree with what is being said. But I don't like feeling like my philosophical objections to the objectifications of patriarchy can't be addressed because they apply to people coming from other cultures or races, or simply because they are "religious." Religion has been a tool of the patriarchy for all time - both Christians and Muslims are far from exempt in this regard. How will we ever get to real conversations if I can't assert my belief in equality without being told I'm religiously or culturally intolerant? It seems like just another way to isolate women from each other.
In the end, I support the rights of all people to choose what they wear. There are a lot of people wearing things I don't support - sexist jokes on t-shirts, overly sexualized bathing suits on young kids, people covered head to toe with just their eyes peeking out - to me, it's all the same problem. I don't like to see any of it, because to me these modes of dress all point to a large-scale epidemic of institutionalized gender inequality. But despite that, because of it, fundamentally, I support the right of every person to choose how they express through clothing. That's where I sit, today. That's the best I can do.