Is it still feminism if it’s forced?

France’s lower house approves sweeping ban on Islamic face veils.

I find myself strangely conflicted about this news.  Time was, not so long ago, that I would’ve cheered legislation like this.  I studied women’s rights in Islamic cultures when I was in college, and I was uniformly horrified about what I learned.  Before the Afghan Taliban was driven from power, maternity wards in Afghan hospitals were completely empty.  Why?  Because women were forbidden to practice medicine, and they were also forbidden to seek medical care from male doctors.  How completely ridiculous!  I was staunch and adamant in my support for Muslim women, and I was quite certain that, given the choice, they would universally opt for the Western model of women’s rights and freedoms.

But then I ran up against my first real case of religious prejudice directed against me, and it really made me stop and think.  I didn’t want to adopt religious views or practices that I believed to be inconsistent with my faith, and I deeply resented being excluded from a so-called “Christian” organization simply because I wasn’t the right kind of Christian.  I began to question if I really had the right idea about feminism and women’s rights in a religious context.  But the real turning point came in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.  I was at the University Health Center to fill a prescription, and a young family walked in – a married couple and their toddler son.  They were clearly Muslim – she was wearing hijab, and their ancestry was obviously Middle Eastern.  Her husband looked worried; he glanced around nervously at everybody in the waiting room and herded his small family into a corner, where he put himself as much between his wife and the rest of us as possible.  She kept her eyes down, focused on her child.

At first I was angry.  How dare this man try to force his wife to hide from the world – behind her husband, behind her veil.  How dare he cow her into keeping her eyes demurely downcast in submission.  How dare either of them defiantly display in a public building that sort of dark age treatment of women in Midwest America mere days after their religious compatriots perpetrated those horrible attacks.

And then she looked up and happened to make eye contact with me.  I’m not sure what she saw in my eyes – anger, perhaps, or pity – but she set her jaw, lifted her chin a notch, and refused to look away.  That brought me quite up short.  This was not the action of a woman beaten into submission.  In fact, her defiance struck me as very brave.  I smiled politely to break the “standoff,” and I waved to the little boy when he looked my way to show I meant no offense.  It got me thinking.

Maybe her husband didn’t require her submission; maybe he was trying to protect her from post-9/11 anti-Muslim sentiment.  She had a perfect opportunity to set her veil aside in the name of personal safety, but she didn’t.  She wore the most recognizable symbol of Islam anyway, and she didn’t let it force her into hiding.  I can respect that.  And even though I know the veil is largely a tribal means of dehumanizing women (and therefore to be opposed), I also understand the choice to stand up for your Faith when confronted with prejudice.

The whole episode brought me to a re-evaluation of what I think “feminism” is.  It’s not just wanting women to have the particular set of rights and freedoms that I happen to agree with; it’s having the freedom to choose how to live.  If I want to support a woman’s right to bare her face to the world and be recognized as a person who matters, I must also support her right to choose to veil her face in deference to her god.  So I think I really must stand opposed to this French legislation.  As much as I want to see women all over the world granted equal rights with men, I must respect a woman’s choice to set herself apart as a woman of faith.  (Note that the two are not mutually exclusive.)

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