On Burqas and Being Subordinate

1By Zaineb Alkhaleef

Last Halloween I saw a white teenage boy dressed as an Arab man. His friend wore a burqa — and a rope around (his/her?) neck, which the “Arab man” held as a leash. He kept pulling “her” around and shouting orders. I was shocked and wondered what their motive could be.

It got me thinking about women and rights.

I am a devout Muslim woman who wears hijab, a scarf to cover my hair.

Why do I do this? Because I am inferior and subordinate? Because it is my job to control men’s sexuality?


I grew up hearing that men are sexual predators who are incapable of looking at a woman who isn’t covered from head to toe without wanting to rape them, or “mentally rape” them.

But that’s not why I cover my hair.

In fact, while some say women must dress modestly to keep uncontrollable men from sinning, I don’t buy it.

I believe that men’s lust is not a problem for women to solve — or a problem that we could possibly solve. After all, most men who rape do so to feel powerful and manly. So shifting the blame to women just enables sexual assault.

And covering shouldn’t be about protection from harassment. It doesn’t work anyway. Egyptian women are some of the most sexually harassed women in the world.

Covering up doesn’t solve anything. Men can always get worked up over necks and calves, hands and whatever they can lay their eyes on.

No. Everyone – men and women – must learn self-discipline, and nurture their mental health to avoid harming themselves and others. We should all respect and honor everyone as human beings.

I stumbled upon a comic that brilliantly addresses the issue. A bikini-clad girl passes a fully draped woman and thinks, “Everything covered but her eyes, what a cruel male-dominated culture!” The covered-up girl is thinking, “Nothing covered but her eyes! What a cruel male-dominated culture!”

I believe women from both kinds of societies seek the validation and approval of men in different ways. For me that is where the issue lies. The problem isn’t modesty, it’s men telling women what to wear and denying our autonomy.

Girls should have freedom over their bodies, beginning at a young age. My own mother let me cut my hair if I wanted to, and so I got command over my own body. And I was never forced – or even encouraged – to cover my hair. In fact, my parents tried to dissuade me from wearing a scarf when I put one on after 9/11. They worried for my safety. But I wanted to proclaim pride in my religion. I also felt the headscarf gave me power to control what men could see.

This type of freedom teaches a young girl that she is in control of her own body, and free to celebrate her personality and express herself through what she wears — covered up or not.

One of my students wrote this and gave permission to post on my blog.

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Women’s Sexuality in Islam
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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on October 30, 2013, in feminism, psychology, race/ethnicity, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 28 Comments.

  1. “Everyone – men and women – must learn self-discipline”

    You’re a devout Muslim who believes strongly in self discipline. So you follow a “prophet” who had 11 wives, and according to the muslim holy texts, he did the deed with every one of them every day (1) AND his extra slave girls as well. One of his wives was 6 years old (2) (Aisha), another one he stole off his adopted son (3) when he lusted after her. Another time he saw a new born baby(4) and asked that it should be his wife if he was still alive when it grew up a bit more. (He was nearly 60 at the time). Another time he advised his colleagues it was foolish to bother marrying grown women, when you could take a young child and “play with her”. In addition to which, the law specified that after each violent jihad, the women taken captive were to be taken back to Mecca and Muhammad was to be given first choice of which he would take as sex slaves. (5) Furthermore it was made Islamic law that if someone was to be in the presence of a woman not his wife (e.g. tradesman, guard, businessman etc), then he must suckle on her breasts 10 times so that he would be her “son” and thus nothing would be wrong with them being together! (6) Now in Islam, it is mandatory that you treat Muhammad as the prime example of who you should imitate. (7)

    Question: As “devout” Muslim, how can you ask for men to have self-control when it is clearly not what Muhammad wanted from his followers? Can you think of anyone in all of history who lived with less sexual self control than Muhammad?

    (1) Al-Bukhari, Muhammad bin Isma’il, al-Saḥīḥ, Hadith 284
    (2) Al-Bukhari, Book of Qualities of the Ansar, chapter: ‘The Holy Prophet’s marriage with Aisha, and his coming to Madina and the consummation of marriage with her’.
    (3) Surah 33:37, Tabari VIII:
    (4) Sirat Rasul ii.79
    (5) Al-Bukhari Vol. 1 Book 2 Nr 35.
    (6) Al-Bukhaari (2645) , Sahih Muslim (1425)
    (7) Quran 33:21

    • The only thing that matters to me is whether you are causing harm. Examples you give cause harm. Pretty much every religion has something in it that causes harm but not every practitioner follows those harmful practices.

  2. Reading a lot of the comments in response to this article made me want to put in my opinion based on my background knowledge.

    Religion and culture are two separate things. In the Islamic religion, covering hair is something based on modesty. Yes, to us westerners it looks odd and weird. It’s easy to criticize it. However, trends here such as distressed jeans, (who in the world wants to wear damaged pants to look stylish..?), 5 inch wedges (helllllo, you’re just making yourself a candidate for a sprained ankle), or mini skirts (a 2 inch piece of fabric is certainly not comfortable, nor really looks that good on anyone, to begin with), are so WEIRD to others from different cultures. Everywhere we see different kinds of hair styles, and so on. I mean look at Miley Cyrus choice of clothing or Lady Gaga’s from an African or Asian point of view. How is it that simply choosing to cover someone’s hair is outlandish when there are so many other things out there that are easier to judge? When I went to LA recently, non-Muslims were wearing the hijab because it’s trendy now. I asked a girl why she did it, and she said to prove a point that women and trends are cute in its own way. Can you believe it? It’s so quick to judge cultures that are different than our own if it looks and appears different. Ultimately, both the western culture and middle eastern culture have very different ways in which patriarchy is instilled, however it is so unnecessary and irrelevant to feminism and women’s rights to criticize something that is merely a choice of apparel.

  3. I used to believe that the burqa was another way to control women because it just did not make any sense to me why only the women were told to cover themselves. It was not just the fact that only women would wear a burqa but in my experiences women would not be allowed to stay out late or spend the night over at a friends house. Men on the other hand were free to do pretty much whatever they wanted which is different from how I was raised. In my house, we were all treated the same no matter what our gender was. Since then my opinion about the burqa has changed very little but I do feel different about the hijab (only covers hair), because the people I have met who wear a hijab usually have more freedom. Some girls that I know will wear it sometimes and go without it other times and they all wear it because they want to and they have the option to stop wearing it at any time.
    However, people should be free to do, believe in and wear whatever they want and if they want to wear a burqa, then it is not my place to judge them.

  4. Wearing burqa has nothing to do with protecting men from “sinning”.

    Patriarchal society wants to sexualize female body for no reason. Even though some women have internalized the idea of wearing burqa to protect men from harassment and/rape, they must know this is an evidence of oppression on them. They need to stand up in order to take back their freedom.

    And we men have got your back!

    I wonder why they don’t make the same rule for men.

  5. Yes, while we’re about it, let’s start covering up sunsets or works of art, anything that appeals to the senses – why not eat your food in the dark, or cover your childrens eyes, to protect their fragile selves from the ghastly sensuality that is life?

    Let’s all wear dark glasses and cross the street to avoid looking at a woman’s body parts, even her hair? This stuff is crazy! It’s like telling the creator that beauty and sensual pleasure is wrong!

    If a woman covers herself – for whatever reason – it is a denial of her physical reality. Perhaps ‘attractive ‘personality’ should be covered with ‘modesty? Give me a break! Uniqueness, is an expression of the creativity of Life, God – the creative source of life. This is a physical reality, we have physical senses, it should be celebrated and wollowed in – not hidden from each other,

    As a man, I consider the beauty of women, to be the most wonderful creation I can imagine! The physical universe and all its wonders, don’t come close to it. To cover this beauty, is to deny it. Be what you actually are (In physical terms) while you are here in that form, there is no shame in nakedness – that is how you are created! Celebrate it!

  6. The media seems so convinced that women dress for men. I often hear that we cover up because men make us or that we wear revealing clothing to attract men’s attention. We style our hair, wear makeup, or high heels to make men notice us. While that may be true for some women, I can assure you that it is not true for most. More often than not, women dress for women and more specifically we dress for ourselves. There are not many straight men out there that could give a hoot if a woman is carrying a purse from Coach, Prada, or Target. The majority of men say they actually find women to be more attractive with little to no makeup on. Some men find revealing clothing to be trashy and repulsive and some men find modest clothing to be prudish and unattractive. Women aren’t dumb, they realize all of this, they just don’t care. Some women dress up for other women- to show off to strangers and to impress their friends. A confident woman gets up in the morning and puts on what she wants, for herself. That could mean choosing to wear certain garments for a religion that is important to them, wearing a special dress that makes her feel happy, or putting on a favorite pair of jeans because they make her feel comforted.

  7. I completely agree with the author of this blog! As a Muslim woman who wears a headscarf, I always receive negative feedback from society. 3 years ago on Halloween I stopped by Chipotle and I saw a man standing with a white long dress, (Cultural Arabian men attire) with a fake bomb tied around his body and “Allahu Akbar” written on a paper taped to his chest. I was appalled, and disgusted. I was more disgusted with society than I were with him–because it is society that influences these actions, the media portraying Muslims as oppressed, terrorists, suicide bombers.
    I couldn’t believe my eyes. How could someone choose something so ludicrous and offensive as their costume? But then, I decided let me keep my mouth shut, as I represent my religion and come from peace. However, the man approached me, and exclaimed, “Hey, is that your halloween costume or are you really Muslim?” I responded, “I am a MUSLIM. Your costume is horrific and offensive.” and he replied, “Hey you’re in America now, you can take that off!!” At this point I knew this man was ignorant and uneducated. I wanted to take time to explain myself and my peaceful religion however he reeked of alcohol and I thought it would be pointless to waste my time on an intoxicated, ignorant individual.
    I was born and raised in California and similarly to the author, I decided to put on my head scarf after 9/11 because I love my religion and am prouder than ever to represent it. The logic behind “ignorance is bliss” infuriates me. But in the end, there will always be that one person who will call me a “terrorist” or “towel-head” and you just can’t change anything about it. All you can do is pray for them, pray for society, and pray for the world.

  8. Ashley Steffenson

    I definitely agree that the problem isn’t modesty at all when a women dresses herself. It’s certainly not a women’s job to try to prevent a man from not being able to control his lust. It’s his own lust or urges, therefore it’s up to the man to take control of that. It’s completely ludicrous and silly to think that it’s a woman’s job to control a man’s sexual prowess. It’s the same teaching as “Don’t get raped” verses “Don’t rape” that we unfortunately face every day as women all throughout the world. This is yet another perfect example of how women are in a double bind. If they dress provocatively, then they are sluts who are asking for it. If they dress modestly then they are prudes, who to some, are still asking for it. It’s misogynistic male entitled thinking to think that a man has any sort of right to criticize and deem what’s acceptable moreover what is “proper” attire for a woman. I think a lot of men should go back to the grade school teaching of “Treat others the way you would like to be treated.” Because I’m sure that most of these men would certainly not appreciate women to try to dictate to them what’s right or wrong attire. Dressing one’s self, whether that is provocatively or modestly, is not only a matter of personal preference and freedom but that of also one’s own personal human rights. Every one in the world, regardless of gender or ethnicity should be able to chose how they want to present themselves to the world. Dressing one’s self can be liberating and simply apart of our own self expression. These things all together seem to intimidate, threaten, and challenge a lot of people’s way of thinking. It’s really unfortunate that people are so judgmental over something that really shouldn’t affect them personally at all because it isn’t themselves(their own person) in the first place. And really, as long as you aren’t hurting anyone else then people really shouldn’t care about how other people live their life let alone their attire. Most everyone feels entitled to lead their own life whichever way that they wish to so we really ought to allow the same freedom to everyone else as well.

  9. Great post. And definitely a perspective that needs to be heard more often.

  10. What is it about ‘hair’ that gets people so riled up?

  11. Great post, and yes the comic really says it all! Both men and women will always suffer in any social set up where normal, healthy regulation of sexual desire is stifled, shamed or hidden. With that said, it is never right to blame women for a man’s inability to control his own actions.

    Thanks for sharing!


  12. This is something that every young female should see. Going through high school I had a lot of female friends and they were always confused in some sort of way because they where always worried about what other people thought. People say they will do what they want they don’t care but if you think about no one is truly free everyone thinks about how others might judge them. So I respect and commend this person for finding there freedom.

  13. Great cartoon! So true! It’s all a matter of perspective. A whole book could be written about that cartoon. We humans have been around for a long time and we’ve come a long way technologically, but when it comes to ourselves, we haven’t learned much.

  14. There’s something wrong with a religion (Islam), when dressing all covered up with hair and body shows respect for the religion. If a religion disaproves of women showing their bodies or hair, then it’s kind of flawed. But then again most organized religions have their flaws and propagandas. But she likes to wear all that clothes for her religion? She’s going to get all hot in the summer doing that just for some stupid clause in her religion? Yeah she’s not forced to or doesnt feel she has to, but the fact she wants to BECAUSE, it’s something that agrees with her religion. Eh.

  15. I completely agree with the author of this blog. It is not up to us to control others thoughts, to a degree! Everything in moderation, no? You don’t go in daisy dukes to the prison visiting room to see someone, and you don’t walk around after two in the morning in 5 inch stilettos, in a mini skirt -drunk-alone. However when women cannot control a man’s thoughts. And I learned in a program that to keep a man’s interest you must not always show everything like walking around naked. Apparently men get more aroused if you cover up and let them take off a certain amount, not all. So this author is right, if all they see is a hand or a cheek, then they will get curious, and possibly aroused. There is a saying that goes: Don’t worry about what you can’t control. And as with everything in the world, use that with moderation as well.

  16. I really love when you post student work. I’m always so impressed.

  17. This was a really interesting perspective to read… And it makes a lot of sense. The comic was perfect.

  18. Interesting viewpoint. Many religions – including Christianity – have rules or recommendations about covering one’s hair for modesty and to show respect in holy places. Not sure how covering one’s HAIR translates into full face coverage?

    • Yeah, things can go off in a tangent.

      Interestingly,there’s actually nothing in the Quran that requests covering. The Quran only asks women and men to be modest. What is considered modest varies from place to place–and has grown more extreme in some places than others.

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