I Still Shave My Legs: Why Islam and Liberalism are Not Incompatible

By Lindsay Riddoch

“How can you, a liberal, stand here defending the misogyny of Islam?”

I am a feminist and, I think, a pretty well-rounded one. I am also a historian of the Islamic world. I have studied the development of the Islamic faith from a historical point of view, and inherent in that is an understanding of the theology of the faith. I am not Muslim. This means, I guess, that my viewpoint is different from that of people raised within that culture and faith, but I think it is still a valid one, particularly in the understanding and acceptance of the Islamic faith within the British culture to which I do belong.

In discussions in pubs and arguments in classrooms I have often had the above accusation thrown at me. I have been laughed out of the room whilst upholding the idea of being a feminist and defending the Islamic faith. This has made me so frustrated and disappointed, that I am going to defend it here. I hope that through my explanation I will once and for all answer this accusation and explain how these two standpoints in no way lead to cognitive dissonance.

I am a liberal. Not a neo-liberal. A Liberal. I believe that within freedom – freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of individuality – we can find the answers to most of humanity’s problems. The reason I believe this is because I think it unlikely that any one individual holds all the answers – myself included. Therefore in order to reach the furthest point of ‘development’ or ‘harmony’ or whatever you want to call it, we need to share as many different points of view as possible. Obviously this comes from an inherent belief that when it comes down to it, most people are good, or capable of good, and that reason can triumph. This isn’t an article to defend my liberalism, people can take task with that if they wish, but to justify that it doesn’t clash with my defence of the Islamic faith.

So, to Islam. The times when I am accused of ‘betraying’ my liberal values when it comes to Islam are particularly in relation to female garments – so I will use that to make my point. The hijab, the niqab and the various other forms of female Islamic dress are, in this country, not enforced by law. There is no law whatsoever – thankfully – dictating what I, or anyone else, can or can’t wear as we walk down the street. This is not because there are no cultural norms about what people should wear – the number of times I’ve discussed the suitability of certain necklines for job interviews is a case in point – but because we, as a society, have decided that freedom to dress as one pleases is more important than enforcing any kind of cultural norm. I believe that this freedom should, as it does, extend to the right to wear religious garments and cover up as much, or as little, as one may so choose. On this point many people agree with me, except those of a more aggressive liberal leaning, such as that which has been seen in France. It is the next step of the argument where I lose them.

This is, I believe, due to the fact that many people have a hazy area of ‘things-that-we-shouldn’t-legislate-against-but-are-just-wrong’. I won’t go into this further because, as previously stated, I don’t believe I have the monopoly on right and wrong. This means I will defend Islamic clothing above and beyond the somewhat simpler discussion of whether or not we should make it illegal. My reason for this is simple: I do not believe that Islam is inherently misogynistic. That is not to say that it hasn’t been interpreted and channelled for many years by misogynistic scholars, but merely to say that one does not have to either be a liberated feminist or a Muslim. And I know that there are many empowered Muslim women who still choose to wear the hijab as a sign of their faith.

There are areas in the interpretation of Q’uran which need challenging from a gender point of view, and which many organisations are indeed challenging. In a large part this comes down to a distinction between sharia – the inalienable and eternal laws laid out in the Qu’ran and Sunna – and fiqh the very human interpretation of this into human law, which is questionable and transient. On areas such as violence against women, early marriage and forced marriage there is a lot of room for reform in fiqh, and from female preachers in Morocco to international Islamic women rights organisations, this reform is slowly coming.

Vitally, however, this challenging does not need to come from an outside, non-Islamic force. There is plenty of ammunition within the Islamic tradition for fighting for gender equality. From Aisha’s triumphant leading of soldiers, to Khadija making the decision to marry Mohammed regardless of what her father thought. Furthermore this challenging often does not extend to deciding not to wear the hijab. Obviously for some Muslim girls it does, but for many the free choice to wear the hijab is a statement of their devotion to their faith, and has little to do with the men around them. I have in fact met many girls in the UK whose parents disapproved of their decision to wear it – but for whom it was a vital sign of strength and conviction in a society that often treats them as victims.

Whether or not the hijab is necessary according to the Qu’ran is the source of much debate. But that is not the argument I want to get into in this article. I have two choices when I see a Muslim woman wearing a hijab or niqab on the streets of London. One is to say that because it doesn’t fit into my narrow interpretation of ‘liberation’ and ‘womanhood’ she must be being forced into wearing it, and thus she shouldn’t. The other is to look at her as an equally intelligent, free and thinking agent, and thus conclude that her decision to wear that, whether or not informed by her social norms, was a decision nonetheless and thus one I should respect.

At this point during our argument, one of my friends started raising the issue of internalised misogyny – the fact that we should protect women from their own socialised norms. I have many problems with this statement, but the key one is best explained by discussing another (often argued about) facet of western feminism – shaving. I know that there is no health-related or logical reason that I should shave my legs. I am wholly aware that the idea that I should has been implanted in my brain through all manner of subtle and not-so-subtle conditioning of my need to be as ‘child-like’ as possible to be attractive to men. I know all of this – but I still shave my legs. I still shave my legs because regardless of the ‘falseness’ of the fear and self-consciousness that comes from not doing it, that fear and self-consciousness is very real to me. I am not a passive victim of that conditioning, I have experienced it, and taken the active decision that for my own wellbeing within society as it stands I want to shave my legs. If – and it is a big if – the woman you see walking down the street wearing a niqab is doing so as a result of a certain level of social conditioning, it does not follow that she was not an agent in making the decision that on balance, for her own wellbeing, wearing it is the right decision. And no-one, least of all non-Muslims, has the right to tell her that that decision was not hers to make.

As soon as you start to take the first approach to this woman walking down the street you are standing for a sort of ‘liberalism’ or ‘feminism’ that I don’t want to be associated with. In Britain we live in a (somewhat-flawed) liberal society. The aim of a liberal society is not to enforce our certain concepts of liberalism on everyone, but to allow everyone to express their own versions. The teachings of Islam form a completely different system for understanding and relating to one’s own world. This is a system that is no more or less perfect than our own. It is a system that is constantly questioning itself, being debated and reformed. It is a system that has been interpreted in as many different ways as the ‘West’ has interpreted the concept of a Christian neoliberal democracy. It is in reacting to and dealing with this large divide that liberalism meets its real test, for liberalism is not just about accepting the voicing of those opinions or ideas that we completely understand: it is about accepting and defending those which on first impression seem to contradict something we hold dear. And maybe then when we listen we can learn a lot more about what it means to truly stand up for these values that we are so quick to preach.

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Intersectional Feminist digital magazine

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