When Ted Cruz jumps to stand with you, you may be in trouble:
I saw this item Wednesday morning just before I went to work, and it intrigued me. On the one hand, right-wing Republicans have thrown tantrums before when they imagined that the Obamas were violating royal protocol; surely they would be upset that Mrs. Obama should do it now, and to one of America's most important allies in the Middle East. On the other hand, she was defying "sharia law," which is good, but she's a Democrat and married to a black man, which is bad. especially since her husband is widely believed by Republicans to be a Muslim bent on imposing sharia law on Christian America. What to do?
But consider the dilemma for the Democrats. On the one hand, Mrs. Obama defied patriarchal Muslim norms and totally destroyed the Saudi oppression of women! -- at the same time that her husband was defending US intimacy with one of the nastier dictatorships in the world, and his administration (along with the corporate media and other minor elements) was fawning on the late King Abdullah as a "man of wisdom and vision," even a "man of peace" who "nudged Saudi Arabia forward." On the other hand, she disrespected another culture, which objectively put her on the side of the Islamophobes. As far as I can tell, except for Cruz, most people chose to solve the problem by falling back on knee-jerk cheerleading. Since the Right mostly did not mount an offensive, liberals didn't have to get defensive. So when I looked around after work that day, I didn't find the slapfight I'd half-hoped to find.
What I did find was that Mrs. Obama's behavior was not unprecedented. In fact, it was routine and bipartisan. Neither Laura Bush nor Condoleezza Rice (who later referred to the headscarf as a "sign of oppression") wore a headscarf when they traveled to Saudi Arabia and met King Adbullah, and according to this Washington Post article, other foreign women have done likewise. As foreigners and non-Muslims, they aren't even expected to cover their heads. So why did Mrs. Obama's attire get all this attention (via)? There was a fuss on Twitter by some Saudis, that's why: about 1500 tweets, some of which were critical, while others defended her. A tempest in a teapot.
So, good for Michelle Obama, though it doesn't seem she was making a bold political statement. Like her predecessors, she went with the flow, followed precedent, didn't make waves.
This item interested me, though, because lately I've been seeing a number of feel-good multiculti memes which declare that wearing a headscarf is a personal choice or an individual choice.
Which is, of course, nonsense. Using a Hello Kitty lunchbox as a briefcase is a personal decision. Dyeing your hair green is a personal decision. Wearing a hijab, or other form of female head covering, is a custom tied to the status of women in a particular culture or religious sect (as shown by the fact that men aren't required to wear one), it's a declaration of one's religious affiliation and makes a statement about the status of women in that affiliation. (If people were required to use a Hello Kitty lunchbox as a briefcase for religious or culture reasons, it would cease to be a personal choice.) It's not a universal Muslim custom, nor is the covering of women's heads as a cultural requirement limited to Islam; and outside of certain Islamist environments a woman can usually go bare-headed without being penalized for it, though even in Europe or the US she could come into conflict with her family or her mosque if she makes the personal choice not to wear the scarf. It could be a personal decision if a non-Muslim chose to wear one in a non-Muslim society because they thought it looked cool, but how often does that happen?
This iteration of the meme is particularly dishonest, not just because it ignores the cultural context in which many women must cover themselves, but because of that bit about its being "oppressive to strip you of your freedom of choice" by calling the head covering a sign of oppression. Discussing a cultural sign, criticizing it for what it signifies, does not strip a person of their freedom of choice. Assaulting a woman and tearing off her headscarf would strip her of her freedom of choice -- but so would assaulting a woman who chooses not to cover her head. So would laws or regulations forbidding (or requiring) women to wear the hijab. By this logic, criticizing, say, antigay or antichoice Christians would strip them of their freedom of choice. Such Christians and their apologists might very well try to claim that it does. (As do ultraorthodox Jewish males who assault little orthodox Jewish girls for not meeting their standards of female attire.) People of the mindset represented by this meme mostly reply that their faith is not legitimate, it's a religion of hate, and therefore their faith doesn't deserve respect. As I've noted before, such people are highly selective in their implementation of freedom. I suspect that they are so tolerant of the hijab because it has no hegemonic cultural significance in the US yet: it seems exotic, and they can fantasize about the inner lives of the women who wear it. To some extent the hijab is a personal choice here, though young girls whose parents require them to wear it, or grown women pressured by their communities to wear it, could plausibly argue otherwise.
While it would be obnoxious to hector women who cover their heads, or accuse them of collaboration with the patriarchy, etc., such criticism does not strip them of their freedom of choice, any more than this meme strips me of my freedom of choice by trying to tell me how to think about the hijab. We live in a pluralistic society, however much many people find that uncomfortable, and in a pluralistic society people are free not just to behave and believe differently, they are free to talk and disagree and argue about their differences. Unfortunately the level of debate is generally very low on all sides, but the remedy for that is to raise the level, not to throw out debate altogether.
According to the meme, "Susan wears a hijab out of choice". This is laziness, or as Bertrand Russell said about postulating, it has all the advantages of theft over honest toil. Susan is a fictional character, created to grind the meme-maker's axe. Real women's reasons for wearing headscarves will likely be more complex than that. People have often chosen to go along with systems that oppress them. The women in the anti-choice movement, for example, are as eager to police other women's bodies as any patriarch. Or take as simple an example of female gender-cop behavior as women calling other women sluts. I'm reminded of Richard Trexler, who wrote in Sex and Conquest (Polity Press, 1995) of claims that children chose to become 'two-spirit': "Compare these protestations that a child exercised 'free will’ to those in any traditional Catholic society that young girls married of their own free will, when of course they did not" (225 n14). In the American culture of therapy, moreover, choice is highly suspect: it's only okay to be gay, for example, if it was forced on you by your genes; as this meme shows, choice is okay when it's an exotic multicultural manifestation, forced on you only by your parents and your imam.
I think it's time to reread Susan Miller Okun's Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?, in which she and several other writer / scholars grapple with questions like this one.