Women and their bodies have been big news of late.
Just a few weeks after the public outcry about Miley Cyrus ‘twerking’ in a ‘nude’ bikini at the MTV Video Awards the last two weeks have seen a similar public outcry gaining apace about the wearing – or more precisely the banning – of the face veil worn by Muslim women. Let me clarify, the face veil worn that is worn by a somewhat insignificant number of Muslim women in Britain today.
For Cyrus, the outcry focused on what the Daily Mail described as a “jaw-droppingly lewd dance routine”, clarifying its disgust by noting how Cyrus’s performance was little more than an “excrutiating display of pornographic innuendo”.
Conversely for that handful of Muslim women, the outcry has been about them covering up too much. For Birmingham Metropolitan College, Liberal Democrat MP Jeremy Browneand Conservative MP Philip Hollobone among others, too much covering is clearly as much a matter for concern as it is our security. For Browne, it’s also about protection, prompting him to call for a national debate about whether the state should step in to protect young Muslim women from having the veil “imposed” on them to ensure their “freedom of choice”.
In both settings it is interesting how gender has been played out, in particular the role of men within them.
Whilst the focus was undoubtedly on Cyrus many seemed to overlook or just plain ignore that her performance was played out – or should I say, played up against – Robin Thicke, a thirty-something married father who was singing his worldwide hit, “Blurred Lines”. This hit being the same one that the University of Edinburgh’s Student Union this week banned for glorifying sexual violence, non-consensual sex and promoting rape culture.
That same thirty-something father also said in an interview for GQ magazine:
“People say, ‘Hey, do you think this is degrading to women?’ I’m like, ‘Of course it is. What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman.'”
Surprising therefore that there has not been a rush to ‘protect’ Cyrus or indeed any other ‘young women’ from having the message of his song ‘imposed’ on them despite it being played repeatedly on radio and television.
Unlike Muslim women who cover however, these young women are not perceived to be victims.
For Browne and his ilk, veil-wearing Muslim women undoubtedly are: the victims of Islam’s patriarchy, backwardness and barbarity but most importantly, of Muslim men. Citing Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Browne’s desire to protect is therefore nothing more than another in the long line of white men trying to save brown women from brown men. How noble.
But when it comes to the veil, there is even more at stake. Despite the best efforts of the protectors to save this small number of Muslim women who wear veils, they continue to refuse to take them off. Not believing that such women might be merely exercising their ‘freedom of choice’, they are instead seen to at the mercy of – as also visual embodiments of – extremist Islam and that is perceived to entail.
No surprise then that they seek to ban the veil, something that Maleiha Malik in theGuardian argues is tantamount to criminalising Muslim women albeit – in the minds of their protectors at least – “for their own good”.
Which funnily enough highlights another similarity with Thicke’s hit, in particular the line:”Just let me liberate you”.
Most problematic for me is the way in which politicians and public figures have sought to appropriate Muslim women for political and ideological purposes over the past decade or so. Indeed, I would suggest some are continuing to do so. From research undertaken with my colleague Surinder Guru a few years ago, we found clear evidence of this, what we described as the instrumental use of gender in the government’s engagement with Muslim communities. So much so that we concluded that the impact was to relegate Muslim women to little more than a novelty sideshow, one that as we put it, was being scripted entirely from above.
In our liberal democracy, there is nothing wrong or indeed contentious about having a debate about the wearing of the veil especially given the understandable anxieties some have about it. But that debate has to take place in a safe setting to ensure legitimacy, balance and understanding. More so because as our research also showed, if it is not then it is likely that such uninformed approaches serve only to divide and disappoint.
And to do this, it is absolutely essential that any debates must include and be able to hear the real voices Muslim women who wear the veil and who are valued as equal and legitimate partners, whose views and opinions have to also be listened to. They cannot say one thing only for politicians and others to interpret them as meaning something quite different.
In essence, there can be no ‘blurred lines’.