Is feminism all about choice?

There was a great post on Womanist Musings this week about turning the hijab into something sexy, that gives women power over their own appearance, rather than being a symbol of oppression (Pious Sexy Hijab).  I really enjoyed the post, and admired the moves that this feminist is making to push women’s rights as a Muslim.  But I did question whether actually the Hijab could ever be adopted by feminists, or whether it is too much a symbol of oppression, putting all the responsibility for modesty onto females, and so many women are bullied into wearing it (even if others chose to).  I haven’t kept the discussion on that post going, as I obviously upset people there, and really didn’t mean to be trolling on someone else’s blog.

But the responses have been really thought-provoking for me.  They argue that feminism is all about giving women choices.  And I’m not sure that I agree with this.

Oppression is all about having choice taken away from you.  That is why incarceration is used as a punishment – it not only prevents you harming wider society, but you are no longer able to make your own choices about how you live your life.  Similarly, poverty can so undermine people because they have no choice over their life, and so removing people from poverty is giving them control over their lives, and the ability to make their own decisions.

But is feminism the same thing as freedom from oppression?  Is it enough to want women living under extreme regimes the right to chose how they position their hijab?   While this is obviously an incredibly important right, to be free from oppression, it is a different argument to the feminist argument of equality.

Because although the hijab can be a choice that some women make, it will never be a symbol of equality.  Men are still not asked to cover up to preserve their modesty.

Sometimes, equality isn’t about choices.  To take a completely different example, some women choose to work in lap-dancing clubs, and say that they feel empowered by making this choice.  But as a feminist, I’m always going to argue against these clubs.  This is because of the wider implications about how women are viewed, for the safety records around lap-dancing clubs, and for the women who are exploited through the normalisation of the sex industry.   So although it is preventing a choice for some women, as a feminist I will argue against lap-dancing.

I’m not trying to equate wearing a Hijab with lap-dancing, as I know they are completely different issues.  But I do argue that feminism isn’t about giving women the right to choose anything they want.  It is about fighting for women to be treated equally to men.  To not be discriminated against, to not be judged by their sex, to not be treated differently because they are women.  And perhaps we have to give up some choices for that to happen.

I’m also not really saying that feminism is more important than freedom from oppression.  I’m lucky that I live in the privileged position I do, so that feminism can be so important to me.   And I am sure that @woodturtle_blog (the author of the Pious Sexy Hijab post) is having a much greater impact on the world than I am.  The issue of oppression and poverty is immediate and hugely important.  But I don’t think it’s the same as feminism.

For me, feminism isn’t about choice.  It’s about equality.

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5 Comments on “Is feminism all about choice?”

  1. Joanna Pollard says:

    I grew up in Burnley and had a lot of Muslim friends at Sixth Form in the early 90s. None of them wore a hijab; although most wore shalwar kameez and a scarf around their necks which they put over their hair outdoors. I now work in central Manchester and most of the young Muslim women I see wear hijabs with Western clothing. It’s a fashion choice. I have no problem with this. Older women still tend to wear the shalwar kameez and scarf combo of what I assume was the 90s fashion. However I am disconcerted by women I see wearing niqabs, or even chadors – ie veils which cover most of their faces – most of these seem to be in their 20s and 30s (at a guess based on their children’s ages) The women who are completely covered are normally with their husbands and young children of both sexes who wear jeans and T shirts. While we all have bad hair days when we’d love to go out without letting people see our spots etc, I find it hard to imagine that any woman would choose to be so simultaneously visible and invisible, but I can only assume this is a choice they make. Red China tried to introduce complete parity of appearance between men and women, but cultural preferences of male children over female children remained and has caused a demographic timebomb. I suppose what I’m saying is that what women choose to wear is less important than the other choices they make. If a woman is not allowed to choose to work, to choose how many children to have, to choose who to marry, I feel these are much more important things to examine than what women choose to wear.

  2. Mandy says:

    This post made me think. Perhaps I have used the word ‘choice’ to often. Without equality, which I now appreciate I have not had, how can my choices be free?

  3. RenKiss says:

    Hi, I came here via Feministe. This is also something I’ve been thinking about. At times OTOH I’m all for choice, but at the same time, what about those choices that enforce the patriarchy? This is why feminists are divided on the issues of sex work. To me, perhaps a better way is having personal agency?

  4. Kyra says:

    I tend to see choice as one of the manifestations of equality (or partial equality), which can also be manifested by certain works of oppression, or can be utilized by oppressors to further oppression.

    The end goal includes choice—truly free and un-co-opted choice—but the existence of choice does not always mean there is equality supporting it. Sometimes oppression denies us a choice by refusing to allow the option; other times oppression undermines a choice by enforcing that option, taking away our ability to say Yes and have our Yes be the part that matters, turning it into a redundant and irrelevant agreement—and then utilizing the women who would freely choose it in a free system in order to help coerce others.

    A truly equal society will have lots and lots of choice, and it will all be ours, of our making, to our benefit. In the world we live in now, though, some choices, even some choices we want and demand and call for, will be built not by us but by the enemy, to its benefit, and those of us who wish to utilize them have to live with the fact that it pays someone else’s toll.

  5. ghaweyriao says:

    Got here via Feministe as well.

    “But I do argue that feminism isn’t about giving women the right to choose anything they want. It is about fighting for women to be treated equally to men.”

    I’m really not sure why these two things have to be opposed. Myself, I think part of feminism is allowing women to make decisions about how to navigate this screwed-up world we live in for themselves. I find the idea of separating feminism from the right to be free of oppression to be
    rather confusing.

    Anyway, if a Muslim woman sees wearing hijab as an important part of her religion, who am I to tell her differently? Isn’t she in a better position than non-Muslims to decide whether or not it’s something that can be reclaimed?

    And as to your lap-dancing example: it’s not really about whether or not something is ’empowering’ to women. For some women, doing sex work is a better alternative to other kinds of jobs. The problems of the sex industry should be addressed by *fixing the sex industry,* not trying to pretend it’s all just going to disappear one day. Sue abusive club owners, fight sex trafficking, challenge how women are viewed, sure. But a prerequisite to all of those things is having respect for the women (and men, too, sometimes!) who work in the sex industry and listening to what they have to say, instead of assuming they’ve all made a choice that’s ‘bad for women as a whole’ or whatever. And put the responsibility for changing people’s views of women on the people who assume bigoted things about women because they wear hijab or work in strip clubs, not on the women themselves.

    Also, you make references to taking away/giving up choices. Who exactly is going to be taking away these choices? The state? The feminist movement? Society at large? And who decides which capitulations to the patriarchy are acceptable and which aren’t?


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