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The headscarf is no innocent piece of clothing

By Kees Bakhuijzen - posted Friday, 18 April 2008

In The Sydney Morning Herald on April 12, I came across a small article on Shakira Hussein, who did fieldwork among the women of Pakistan for her PhD. In Australia, Shakira Hussein is a prominent figure in debates on Islam-related issues and as such I always appreciate her participation, even though I mostly disagree with her. What I like about Shakira Hussein is her style of debating, which - as far as I have seen - is calm while stressing her points of view, well argued and doesn’t revert to the cheap overuse of the r-words - “racism” and “right-wing”.

However, in the article I came across some lines that immediately raised some question marks:

For Hussein [...] going overseas was crucial to her research. "It has given me a different understanding on a lot of the issues that Muslim women face," she says. "For example, the way in which wearing the hijab is seen in Australia: Australians see it as women being oppressed because they have to wear it in Muslim countries, whereas Muslim countries see Australian women being oppressed because they don't wear it."


That's it. I know it is a small article, but I am annoyed by the lack of background in stating this. Which are these “Muslim countries”? Is Hussein talking about the authorities, about the religious leaders, or is she talking about the women in these countries? And if so, which women? What is their background? Whom do they represent?

Did Hussein speak to the Pakistani women who are forced by their husbands, brothers, mothers, wider family and community to wear the veil? I don't believe that all Pakistani women share the above vision, I simply don't buy it.

What annoys me most of all is that a quote like this one taps into the conversation that has been going on for years and that has - as have all Islam-related issues - been given extra weight since September 11.

The question is whether Muslim women wear the veil out of their own free will or whether they are forced to wear it. Insight-type discussion programs like to portray the idea that it's Muslim women's own choice: but the girls and women who hate it and are unable to leave their homes without it - let alone appear on Insight - have no voice.

It reminds me of of the time when Senator Natasha Stott Despoja appeared in parliament wearing a veil in support of Muslim women. I once asked her what her thoughts were on Muslim girls and women who were forced to wear the veil and unable to engage in public life without it. "As a feminist, I find that a real problem," she said, "but I don't have an answer."

Well, I thought, the answer definitely doesn't involve appearing in parliament wearing a headscarf.


Why do “Muslim countries” think Australian women are oppressed? The only thing I can think of is that Western women are perceived as objects of desire. But, in fact, the same applies to Muslim women wearing a veil: wearing the veil is based on the idea that women are dangerous creatures that have to do everything to prevent men, who can't control themselves, from assaulting them.

“Every pre-marital sexual attempt by a man is the woman's fault,” says French-Iranian writer Chahdortt Djavann - who fled from Iranian oppression and the headscarf in the 90s - in her book Bas les voiles! (Down with the veil!). It is a shame that this book is not available in English translation. It could incite some healthy debate into the stifled discussion about the headscarf, especially on the fact that girls as young as five are, in effect, degraded to the status of sexual objects by having to wear the headscarf, which is far from an innocent cultural piece of clothing.

I hope it is clear that I think Shakira Hussein can explain and defend any point of view with good arguments and a solid background about how, why and when. But selective quotes like the above only enforce the view that is forced upon the public by all politically correct media: i.e. the view that we are not to engage in any debate on the headscarf because all Muslim women wear them out of their own free will.

Not only does this idea - and the continuous blame of “racism” and “Islamophobia” - stifle any healthy discussion, it also doesn't help women in Muslim societies who are forced to wear the veil while they long for the freedom Western women have. Just look at any program on Iranian women and their persecution by the authorities and you know what I am talking about.

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About the Author

Kees Bakhuijzen is a Sydney-based freelance business and creative writer, translator, editor and proofreader. His articles have appeared in The Weekend Australian and several Dutch broadsheets. You can contact him by email:

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