The RSA



Hijab, Pornography and Sexual Freedom

Recent debates about women wearing hijab and the sexualisation of young girls, can elicit strong and frequently contradictory responses, argues Juliana Farha FRSA.

When I was an undergraduate, ‘between a rock and a hard place’ followed by a colon was my favourite essay title. It so neatly summed up the ‘this’ and ‘that’ we were required to prove in papers about politics and gender issues. It assured my tutors that I had looked at all the angles and arrived at a reasoned and judicious view, which reflected the fact that there were rarely tidy answers to moral and ethical questions. Clever me.

This essay title came back to me recently when I was stuck in the car and tuned in to Julia Hartley-Brewer’s call-in programme on LBC. That day’s topic was the intention by a Muslim couple in south London to sue their daughter’s school for forbidding her to wear a headscarf with her uniform. I felt profoundly conflicted and disagreed with virtually everyone who called in (admittedly, a pretty common experience with LBC). ‘What do I think?’ I kept asking myself with the rising sense of urgency that plagues those of us who feel obligated to generate an opinion about everything under the sun. I wanted resolution, closure, to nail down My View. But I felt caught between a rock and a very hard place.

Like Julia, I am a lifelong feminist and I regard hijab as a symbol of oppression. I am also an Arab-Canadian who is keenly attuned to anti-Arab racism dressed up in liberal values. I’m a strong believer in liberal democracy and I think people should be able to wear (and say and believe) what they want. But I resent the tolerance at the heart of that view being exploited by people who wear what they want, and then try to deny others that right.

But I got really stuck on the question of free will. Countless LBC callers questioned whether this eight year-old girl was wearing a headscarf because she ‘really’ wanted to. If that is the issue I would ask them to stand at the gates of any church in the land on a Sunday morning, and interrogate all the bleary-eyed kids whose parents dragged them there to assess the sincerity of their faith. Callers tried to make this issue of choice in childhood as the central question; it struck me as a digression.

I was still pondering free will a few days ago when I read the MP Diane Abbott’s thoughts about ‘Pornified Britain’, an expression – which I embrace wholeheartedly – that Abbott uses to sum up the commodification of sexuality

In agreeing with Abbott, I am sure I will be deemed a prude. Nonetheless, when I see young women in their late teens and early 20s drunkenly weaving their way across Leicester Square on a Friday night wearing hooker heels and a glorified belt where a skirt should be, I wonder whether this is really what free will looks like.

And, if the eight year-old in south London is being influenced by her Muslim parents to embrace their values, whose values do these young women reflect?

Abbott’s focus is on younger girls, but surely the commodification of their sexuality is what grooms them for this debauched display when they are older? We need to ask whether this is the sexual liberation women fought long and hard for: the freedom to wallow in our own objectification, to tell ourselves we ‘own’ it? As my husband asked about the young women who dress and behave in an undignified way in city centres around the UK on a Friday night: ‘Who are they doing this for? The question is not rhetorical.

This is where I see a connection with hijab. While it might not be meaningful to parse the motives of eight year-old girls, I admit that I’ve often expressed scepticism when Muslim women say they are ‘choosing’ hijab, especially when we hear about the vicious punishment meted out in some countries when they choose not to wear it. Still, if wearing a head scarf is predicated on the belief that hair can be sexually alluring and should therefore be hidden, then surely hooker heels and a micro mini are predicated on the same belief except that the effect is deemed desirable?

I am certainly not implying that this intention to attract obviates a woman’s right to say no to sexual advances. Instead, I am suggesting that like young Muslims in hijab, these barely-clad women are organising their sexual identities in relation to (perceived) male desire rather than their own. I do not see what’s so liberated about that.

This question becomes all the more urgent in light of the commercial interests and unprecedented access to sexual imagery Diane Abbott identifies. If you throw in the disproportionate effect of austerity measures on women’s work, the sky-high costs of childcare that can (paradoxically) make work unaffordable, and the concurrent baby boom, it feels as though the repertoire of identities available to women and trickling down to their daughters is shrinking and becoming once again more gender-based.

Some time ago, I promised myself that I would not become a ‘parenting writer’ who connects everything back to her own children, thereby laying claim to the moral high ground and some special authority. It does seem relevant here, though. As a woman, feminist concerns have never been an abstraction to me, of course. But now that I have a daughter and a son, I find myself both speechless with wonder at their boundless and unmediated curiosity about the world, and painfully conscious of their increasing awareness of other people’s reactions to them, the behaviours that are approved and those that are discouraged.

In light of Diane Abbott’s compelling observations and my own sharpened outlook, then, it seems that my task as a parent is to help my children discover who they are and what they desire at a time when those questions are answered for them, insistently and seductively, everywhere they turn.

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  • Nigel Rayment

    A thoughtful piece, Juliana, thanks. I always struggle with the concept of free will; not the least the question of when it becomes justifiable to intercede on the grounds that something is stimulated by cultural conditioning rather than authentic individual choice. Given the complexity surrounding the subject and the poverty of our understanding of free-choice, it doesn’t seem to be a solid basis for making decisions on behalf of others. Having said that, I’m very suspicious of paternalism and hidden nudge-style apporaches to managing human behaviour. A rock and hard place for sure. A final observation, I wonder, how many parents of 8-year olds genuinely pay full regard to the free-will of their children.