The government of Sweden, represented by the cabinet of Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, recently declared itself the ‘first feminist government in the world’. In the words of the Social Democrat and Green Party coalition cabinet, this means that gender equality is central to the government’s priorities, both ‘in decision-making and resource allocation’. It wishes to ensure that a gender equality perspective is at the heart of policy-making both nationally and internationally, because it is part of the solution to society’s challenges and part and parcel of the modern welfare state. It came as a shock to several onlookers, therefore, when on an official visit to Iran in February 2017 the women of the Swedish government donned hijabs.
The NGO UN Watch harshly criticised the act, describing the walk before the male representatives as a ‘walk of shame’ because the women did not protest Iran’s compulsory hijab law — the ‘most visible symbol of women’s oppression’. No less than a week later, the French far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen arrived in Lebanon for a three-day visit. She had scheduled to meet with the Grand Mufti of Lebanon, but refused to wear a headscarf for the encounter, which led to the meeting being cancelled.
The hijab in European cultures
The hijab has been a highly controversial cultural and socio-political issue in many European countries. In France, for instance, advocates of strictly secular politics refuse to authorise wearing the veil in schools, as it purportedly appears as a distinct marker of religion in a republican environment that should not encourage the promotion of cultural-religious identity. The hijab also frequently surfaces in questions of intersectionality: can one be feminist, and still wear the hijab because one is Muslim?
Nudity empowers some, modesty empowers some, smooth skin empowers some, and so on. Different things empower different women, and it’s nobody’s place to tell them which one it is.
The answer is yes. Although I am not a Muslim woman and therefore do not speak from experience, I believe that arguing that the veil is solely an instrument of female oppression in a patriarchal society entirely disregards the notion that women can happily appropriate these devices out of choice. Women who wear more make-up than others, or have made a hobby out of achieving the perfect contour are not slaves to the patriarchal society that idealises made-up women in fashion advertisements. They have merely appropriated something which initially was instrumentalised by the patriarchy in order to objectify women as purely sexual beings, but which they now have the freedom to enjoy and claim as their own. Similarly, wearing a short skirt or a low-cut top does not make a woman a slave to the patriarchy by virtue of the fact that heterosexual men generally enjoy seeing female flesh; nor does shaving exist purely as submission to the general images of smooth-skinned women who must by any means tend to their body hair before engaging in any sort of sexual act. In reality, nudity empowers some, modesty empowers some, smooth skin empowers some, and so on. Different things empower different women, and it’s nobody’s place to tell them which one it is – and this statement applies to the numerous women who wear the hijab out of choice, too.
The hijab as political tool?
Marine Le Pen’s refusal to wear the hijab upon her visit to the Grand Mufti was not motivated by a desire to stand in solidarity with the oppressed women of Lebanon in their effort to achieve more freedom in their appearance. Lebanon is a highly liberal country in the Levant: women are very in touch with the fashion trends of the West and are not forced to wear the hijab, except in specifically religious contexts such as a Muslim ceremony. Le Pen was required to wear the hijab for her meeting with the Grand Mufti in precisely such a context. As the self-proclaimed advocate of French Christian values in the face of what she describes as the creeping and oppressive tenets of Islam, Le Pen forgets that Christian France can impose rules upon its women, too. For example, a woman is required to cover her shoulders upon entering a Catholic church in many European countries; and whether or not a woman holds the religious beliefs in question is irrelevant. Thus, the debate surrounding Le Pen’s calculated act of ‘resistance’ does not regard the status or oppression of women in Islam; rather, it poses the question whether liberal democracies in the West who wish to strive for the freedom of women will allow various religions – be they Christian, Muslim, Jewish or any other – to apply rules to women specifically in the private sphere of their religious gatherings.
The women of the Swedish government certainly utilised the mandatory wearing of the hijab during their trade deal negotiations as a means to demonstrate their support to Muslim women at home in Sweden. But what they failed to consider was that, in attempting to adapt and project an image of a cooperative Swedish government, they disregarded the struggle of those women who are oppressed in their daily lives by the strict enforcements of the law in the Islamic republic of Iran.
The women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad recently created a Facebook paged named ‘My Stealthy Freedom’, encouraging Iranian women to resist the law by photographing themselves showing their hair. The page now has over one million followers. After the Swedish visit, Alinejad urged European female politicians to stand for their own dignity and refuse to bow down before the compulsory hijab rule upon their visits to Iran. She claimed that, whereas the Swedish government opposed the burkini ban because it was based on compulsion and coercion, and because it negated the basis of liberal democracy which allows individuals to choose how to live their own lives, upon their visit in Iran they were appeased by the money and the prospect of striking up a favourable trade deal.
Though their act in Iran cannot be characterised as a ‘walk of shame’ – because employing sexist language usually associated with shaming women for their sexuality is brazenly anti-feminist – the Swedish government should have known better than to compromise their usual engagement for the advancement of gender equality with the demonstration of an acutely political strategy aimed at closing a trade deal. Needless to say, whether the Swedish government had donned the veil or not, their agreement to engage in trade talks inevitably furthers the status of Iran as a legitimate global power, despite its avowed refusal to adopt progressive stances on women’s freedom, human rights and too many other socio-political issues.