When I first heard about the McCain campaign’s protectiveness of Sarah Palin, and their cloaking her in mystery in response to the alleged lack of “deference” shown by the media, I thought—this is crazy, she’s being swathed in hijab. Metaphorically.
I am no expert on Muslim culture, or the attire of Muslim women, but I recently read the fascinating novel Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea. This is a book that has been called, albeit somewhat misleadingly, "Sex and the City" set in a major Saudi metropolis, and it’s a window into the life of (seriously upper-class) young women in a nation that is governed strictly by Islamic doctrine. What’s super-interesting is that despite what you would think, these girls are definitely body-image-obsessed fashionistas...Did you know that nowadays there are major high fashion designers creating hijab clothing? Awash in the sea of U.S.-generated anti-Arabic propaganda, I seriously had no idea about this. (For more info: high fashion hjiab). There are kind of two levels to this thing, one is the growing trend toward less traditional, more haute couture or hip hijab clothing, and the other is the fact that underneath the drape of an abaya over-garment, plenty of Muslim women are decked out in tank tops and jeans, minidresses and razor-sharp stilettos. That’s because hijab only has to be worn outside the home and in the presence of non-family member males. So there are all these really important women’s spaces, where no men are present, where the abayas come off and the latest fashion trends are in full view. It’s these all-women spaces that really interest me.
There is a common perception among Americans and Europeans that women who wear hijab are oppressed and forced to do so. I live in a neighborhood that is home to many Pakistani and Bengali women who wear the veil, and there have been times, say in August, where I’ve seen women on the subway platform wearing what looks like a sweltering outfit, and it can be hard for me to understand the logic behind it all. But there are lots of Muslim women who say it’s their choice to wear hijab (interesting to find the liberal feminists’ preferred vocabulary in a way that seems to rub against the very tenets of liberal feminism...more on this below). I will say that the burqa (outfit with the veil that covers the entire face) is intense, and admittedly hard for me to relate to from an American perspective. But I think it’s important not to extract one element of an entire society and demand that it change without taking into consideration that entire context and the role of women on a variety of levels within that society, in order to avoid just spouting stereotypic generalizations. It’s one thing to be mandated by law to wear a certain kind of clothing, and it’s another to opt to wear it in a context where you will certainly stand out.
Some women who wear hijab, even outside the Arabic world, say that they feel freer in their loose-fitting clothing, they feel like they are safer from the judgments of others, especially male others, and that they feel more confident of being assessed for their intellect and behavior than for their appearance alone. From this perspective, trotting around all day in a bikini like those perkily interchangeable reality show girls we all have to endure is not a sign of freedom at all but is in fact its own form of oppression. Not to trivialize an experience that, for many, comes from a deep faith decision (It cannot be easy to wear hijab in the U.S. in these times. Come on.) but I imagine it’s kind of like how I feel safer and more powerful when I’m wearing my sunglasses, and why I’m reluctant to put them away even though I know it’s fall and I honestly don’t need them anymore.
Another reason women cite for wearing the hijab is that it makes them recognizably Muslim. It’s an affirmation of spiritual and cultural identity. I can also imagine that one would feel seriously amazing identifying with the women who wear these gorgeous outfits.
So here’s the thing. At first I was raging: I can’t believe this, they are cloaking Sarah Palin in this oppressive burqa, what kind of madness is this, how can they suggest that the American media viewership is lustful (“not-deferential”) and that we all have to be protected from actually knowing this woman for our own good, yada yada...and doesn’t that presume that the American public is male, is considering her from a male gaze anyways, and how jacked up is that?
But what this rage doesn’t take into consideration is the fact that so many (white) American women are responding so strongly to Sarah Palin. There is a women-only community that she is invoking, even with her “modesty” in shielding herself from the presumed invasiveness of the media. Women look at her and think: “I know her, her experience is similar to mine, we share the same space...she’s the quintessential working-class white woman: she popped out a baby and went back to work three days later, she is no-nonsense enough to juggle work and family life without complaining, she doesn’t hold a Hillary-style Ivy League degree, she goes to church every Sunday and believes in the same God I do.” So that, even if the McCain campaign does presume a male gaze, what both they and the Democrats probably have not considered is the power encapsulated in these all-women spaces. These take-off-the-modest-clothing, chill-with-the-other-hockey-moms spaces. Just because conservative women don’t embrace liberal feminism doesn’t mean they don’t understand themselves as defined by all-women spaces or sectors of the community. And it doesn’t mean that they hesitate to appropriate feminist tactics when it comes to activism on behalf of conservative causes. It turns out I can’t entirely blame those good old boys for secreting Sarah away and indoctrinating her into McBushRovian political strategy. She signed up for it herself, and I’m sure there are other women within the “safe” sphere of the McCain campaign community, like Nancy Pfotenhauer, former president of the conservative Independent Women's Forum and current senior policy adviser for that campaign, who are standing side-by-side with her in conservative feminist solidarity.
As political science scholar Ronnee Schreiber, author of Righting Feminism, points out: “It is a huge mistake to think of conservative women as pawns of right-wing men who will matter little in this election.”
More stuff on this topic:
Ronnee Schreiber on Palin’s appeal to women
Rajaaa Alsanea (author of Girls of Riyadh) on Valentine’s Day
All-women beach trends in Egypt
France denies citizenship to a burqa-wearing woman