Saturday, October 07, 2006

Feminists don't wear clothes that prevent them from working

I've been a little irritated by the argument from some muslim women that wearing the niqab is a feminist action. If they'd simply argued that they had the right to choose how to dress themselves, fine. Women who insist on wearing ballerina dresses in public or something unsuitable straight off the catwalk, are also excercising their freedom to dress themselves how they like, but they are not feminists, because you can only wear such clothes if you don't work (the exception being those in the fashion industry).

Women who wear the niqab can't work, they can't even have a cup of tea in a public restaurant. Therefore they can only dress themselves this way if someone else is picking up the bill, either their fathers or their husbands.

Work empowers women because it means they have money of their own, they can choose who to marry or not marry for reasons other than money, they don't have to be nice to this or that man in order to live. Work also opens doors to meeting people from other walks of life, to making friends independent of your family and husband, to making decisions and contributing to the wider society at large. Countries where large proportions of women work - Sweden, Denmark, France, Britain, tend to be more stable. Prosperity and progress depend on women participating in the workplace, not least because it eases the burden on men to earn enough to feed their families.

Feminism has gone hand in hand with throwing off the restrictions of clothing that hinder work. It's no accident that for about a thousand years, women wore cumbersome clothes that prevented work, but since women won the franchise, women's clothes have become lighter and less restrictive. It's no accident that during the First World War, when women manned the factories in large numbers for the first time, cumbersome bustles with their yards and yards of cloth that hobbled you and got caught everywhere were abandoned, in favour of a simple blouse and straight skirt. And after the war, shirts got shorter to ease movement and walking, women started wearing trousers, and these developments not only allowed women to work, but to participate in sport like tennis for the first time (imagine trying to play tennis in a crinoline to understand the change involved).

And during this entire period, you had some women arguing against the vote and against women working, saying that they felt more empowered "working behind the scenes" in the traditional manner. This false argument is being presented again by some Islamic women.

On last night's Newsnight, there was a veiled woman insisting that she was veiled because she wanted people to judge her for herself not her appearance - only it was impossible to judge her for herself as you couldn't see her at all, all you could see was a bundle of cloth topped with glasses that reflected the light - it could have been a plastic dummy with a tape-recording under the cloth. It had the same effect as trying to judge someone in a balaclava "for themselves" - these things are designed to hide identity, rather than let others judge the real person. She also argued that dressing normally meant "wearing skirts that got shorter and shorter", which is nonsense. There is no prescribed skirt length anymore, you simply dress according to what suits your shape, and can easily wear trousers instead if you want - and it's certainly no reason to veil your face.

I'm from the post-feminist generation, and have taken the world of female freedom for granted. I like clothes and make-up and I like having my own money. It strikes me that muslim women who are cloistered behind the niqab are denied all these pleasures. They can't work, they haven't money of their own, they can't mix with people outside their families and communities, they can't look good, they can't even have coffee with friends at M&S. Perhaps the feminist movement needs to be revived to fight to free these women, the way the rest of us were freed in the early part of the 20th century.


jams o donnell said...

Excellent post Snowflake. I have taken the liberty of linking to your blog.

Political Umpire said...

Very interesting post. I'm sure you've followed the debate in the Times letters page over the last couple of days. One contributor wonders if there will be a movement by Islamic women similar to the suffragete movement here last century.

What annoys me about the debate is that so much comment (especially on CiF) descends into attacking Straw over Iraq - which does not bear on the issue at all - or suggesting that it is simply an 'attack on Islam' when in fact the very same debate occurs in Islamic countries including Turkey, where the wearing of the veil is strictly prohibited in schools.

Anonymous said...

Aside from the fact that women did play tennis in the 19th century (bustles and all) I agree - very clever deductions (and thank God you did not mention "bra burning" which never happened in the first place). Keep going.

Aaron Murin-Heath said...


You know me; the very word feminist meant I never gave this post a chance. But having seen all the recommendations it got on B4L, I gave it a go. It’s the best, most reasoned argument I have come across on the subject.

The way you have tackled this from a completely rational view is inspiring. Sorry if this comment is a bit gushing, but, as you can tell, I’m very impressed.

Political Umpire said...

Snowflake I wonder if you've seen this post by Mary Anne Sieghart of the Times:,,1071-2432347,00.html

This is an interesting clash: that of feminism v multiculturalism, or respecting women as a group v respecting other cultures' rights not to have sexual equality as we see it. I'm sure we haven't seen the last of it.

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