Within the elite circles in Bangladesh, a veiled woman is often framed in irrationality or presumed to be religious and possess intolerant views for she dresses to convey transcendence. Her dormant sexuality creates the perception of being enslaved or repressed. Some view her as an embodiment of virtue, some as an epithet of enslavement; she may be a feminist, her decision to be veiled could be non-religious and non-spiritual, nonetheless her choice is framed in binary within the framework of patriarchal religious interpretation or irrationality. The choice is never hers, her decision to wear the dress is imposed on her through her surroundings-her attire deeply politicized and socialized.
Her choice to embrace the new attire makes her an object of ridicule in elite faction, otherness embedded in her existence. She is categorized as possessing values that are threat to inter-faith solidarity; she is securitized, viewed with suspicion. On the other hand, certain religious people (mostly the middle-class) view her choice as a submission to virtue, the choice assessed in view of her loyalty to the patriarchal interpretation of Islam. To these religious Muslims, hijab epitomizes the pinnacle of a woman’s Islamic faith, which makes her complete and succumbs her in virtue and chastity; her destiny is thus constituted on embracing the hijab.
Both these views are deeply problematic! These views echo deep desire for patriarchal control on women’s clothing; both sides reflect their own ideals on women’s attire. None believes in her freedom to choose, her choice not to wear or to wear the hijab is deeply criticized either by the religious factions or by the elitists (who are often Muslims). They share the commonality of critiquing women’s dresses. The deep feminist interpretation of hijab is often undermined and orientalized under the cloak of misinterpretation. Hijab desexualizes a woman’s existence, and through her desexualization she attains freedom arriving at the same pedestal as a man.
Concerning the sexualization of women across societies, Simone De Beauvoir writes in her influential book The Second Sex, “a man’s clothes must convey his transcendence not attract attention; for him neither elegance nor beauty constitutes him as object. By contrast, society even requires woman to make herself an erotic object.” Across most societies societal norms and values dictate woman to make an object of her. When she goes out, she is required to adorn herself with make-up, wear attractive clothes, and sensual perfumes to depict the ideal portrait of feminine beauty in a male construct.
Society does not directly impose on her to live up to the beauty ideals, she submits readily through the messages engraved in her existence through social interaction as well as through the meanings she derives about herself through traditional and social media. She willingly submits to receive appreciation for her charms, for her beauty. The focus on her physical entity makes her believe in her own inferiority, as she loses confidence in her body, in her sexuality. She often suffers from eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia to stay in ‘shape’ which affects the growth of her intellect. A study published in the August 2014 edition of the British Journal of Psychology shows women wearing hijab in Britain have higher body appreciation and are not vulnerable to eating disorders, proving the role of hijab in promoting gender equality. Even though hijab over the recent years is being increasingly sexualized through inclusion in Playboy magazine and in pornography, it largely maintains its status quo as a barrier to self-objectification, objectification by others. The entirety of hijab in most occasions is a rebellion against the oppression of the capitalist fashion industry.
On wearing hijab, a woman loses her physical consciousness; it makes her less physically appealing shifting her focus from beautifying her physical existence to nurturing intellect and moral integrity.Psychological research suggests that both the male and the female minds view man as complete individual while woman as isolated sexualized body parts. By embracing veil, a woman escapes from sexualization of herself which elevates her self-confidence in addition to improving her cognition. Furthermore, hijab also brings forth the concept of class equality, limiting class distinction among women enabling her to be judged exclusively on her rational faculty and moral integrity.
While in western society, hijab mostly frees a woman from objectification, in Bangladeshi society it might not necessarily be the circumstance, since misogyny of the society is perpetuated through the ‘scrutinizing male gaze’. Hence regardless of how she dresses, at her presence most men experiencea euphoric burst of testosterone hormones. Nonetheless, the hijab offers her an escape from reality and facilitates her freedom of movement. In a society, where a woman’s chastity is assessed through her dress, wearing a hijab gives her a divine aura, placing her at a supreme pedestal, making her gain societal advantages at most occasions. Thus she makes a conscious choice of submission through which she attains her independence. Dressing to convey transcendence gives her a supreme position, allowing her to limit obstacles in terms of achieving her goals.
In Bangladesh, hijab is a woman’s easy escape from reality; it frees her from the patriarchal chains as she chooses to submit to the societal concept of chastity that is largely judged through her attire. Through her conscious act of submission, she attains the freedom that hijab allows in enabling her to pursue her dreams and ambitions. The hijab gives her wings she never experienced before-the wings to experience life. Nonetheless, life for her is still a battle as she fights sexism in every step, from the fundamentalist Muslims who desire to chain her to the kitchen and from the Hijabophobics who ridicule her through subtle criticisms and in worst case deny her opportunities because of what she wears on her head.
By Namia Akhtar
Namia is a Masters student of South Asian Studies at Universität Heidelberg. Currently, she works as a translator for a DFID funded project. Prior coming to Heidelberg she worked as a Communications Officer at Helen Keller International in Dhaka. Furthermore, she also worked as a researcher on state security at Bangladesh Enterprise Institute (BEI), an advocacy think-tank based in Bangladesh. She can be contacted through her email: firstname.lastname@example.org