A new symbol of feminism : the hijab

Modestly dressed, martial-arts-trained Muslim girls set new standards

www.montrealgazette.com
jeudi 19 avril 2007

The strong showing in last month’s election by Action democratique du Quebec, a party noted for skepticism toward "reasonable accommodation," appears to be giving new legitimacy to hostility to "foreign" ways.

You can see that in the public response this week to a ruling by officials of a girls’ tae kwon do tournament. Their decision to bar participants from wearing hijabs caused several Muslim girls, the oldest of whom was 13, to withdraw from the Longueuil competition.

Of the seven letters on the issue published in La Presse, all were critical. "I’m fed up with capricious, unreasonable Muslims," said a typical letter writer.

And when the same newspaper asked on its website whether hijabs should be probited from tae kwon do tournaments, Yes responses crushed No votes by an 8-to-1 ratio. Unscientific ? Sure. But 7,000 responses are hard to ignore.

It’s an amazing situation.

Here we are in a society where girls’ exhibitionism is all too common. Maclean’s magazine recently ran a cover story on girls dressed like sluts. "Eight-year-olds in fishnets, padded bras and thong panties," it began. "Welcome to the Junior Miss version of raunch culture."

High-school girls with bare midriffs and low-slung jeans are starting to look old-fashioned. I recently saw one walking through the Montreal Trust shopping concourse in a tee-shirt that said, "I’d fcuk me," the centre word coyly misspelled.

My point here is not to denounce such displays. Rather, it’s to express puzzlement why it’s girls at the other end of the range who are stirring controversy - that is, girls who wear hijabs and other forms of conservative clothing.

You’d almost think that modesty is the new taboo.

It’s far-fetched to think there’s something unsporting or unsafe about wearing cloth under one’s tae kwon do helmet, which was the grounds cited by tournament officials in invoking the seldom-enforced rule. It’s equally absurd to think a hijab presents a danger in soccer, which was the reason for disallowing an 11-year-old Muslim girl from competing in a Quebec athletic contest.

Of course, safety isn’t the real issue. The real issue is that many well-meaning non-Muslims tend to see the hijab as a symbol of patriarchical Muslim culture’s control of women. By resisting the hijab, many people feel they are resisting oppression of women. They think they’re being progressive.

But it’s not quite that simple. An insightful book on the hijab, The Muslim Veil in North America, published by Women’s Press, notes that older Muslim women here seldom wear the hijab. For younger women, the headgear can be "empowering and in some contexts even subversive." How can that be ?

The book observes that many young Muslim women in Canada come from immigrant families that frown on them staying out at night, socializing with non-Muslims, playing sports, pursuing higher education or striving to have professional careers. For such young women, adopting the hijab is often a signal to their families that they respect religious values but that they will pursue such unconventional activities nonetheless.

Paradoxically, then, the old-fashioned headgear is a licence to become modern.

Though published in Toronto, the book is largely about Montreal and was edited by three McGill and Concordia academics - Sajida Sultana Alvi, Homa Hoodfar and Sheila McDonough. Their book makes the point that a woman who covers her hair and wears unrevealing clothing can also be trying to be seen as "a ’person’ rather than an object of male scrutiny."

Hey, isn’t this what feminism is all about ? Careers. Not being seen as a sex object.

As well, please note that the martial-arts sport of tae kwon is one of the most assertive sports around. Did you see these slight Muslim girls’ moves on TV the other night ? They were whirling, delivering side kicks, roundhouse kicks and jump, spin and skip kicks. Astonishing. Forget the stereotype of the meek, passive Muslim females.

Come on, Quebec, lighten up.

The burning bra might have been a symbol of feminism a generation ago. Today, it’s the hijab.

haubin@thegazette.canwest.com

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