I just finished teaching “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi to my high school sophomore English classes, and they absolutely loved it. It truly gave them a perspective of what war and revolution look like from a child’s perspective, and it tapped into their sense of injustice and their knowledge of intolerance and unfairness. Needless to say, there was a lot to talk about as we progressed through the book, but, perhaps not surprisingly, my students were most interested in discussing the very first chapter of the book, “The Veil.” This chapter is not only the introduction to all of the characters in the book, but also very clearly shows the difference between pre-revolutionary Iran and post-revolutionary Iran, using the mandatory wearing of the veil as the most marked difference between the time periods.
The veil is a common theme throughout the book. We see scenes of Satrapi nearly escaping arrest because she is not wearing the veil properly, and we are also privy to many varying opinions of the veil, Satrapi’s being that being forced to wear it is an infringement of her rights. This brought up many conversations about their own school dress code and what America would look like if it were taken over by a religious group.
Since many of my students keep up with current events, the conversation inevitably turned to France’s burqa ban and whether or not that was a fair policy for their government to take. Surprisingly, only one or two students in every class thought that veils of all sorts should be banned in public; the rest were very adamant that women should be able to wear what they want. As one student noted, “If we’re going to say that the government shouldn’t force the veil on women in Iran, we can’t say that the government should force women not to wear it in France.”
But a new controversy is arising, and this time over the hijab. One side of a new protest is asking Muslim women to bare their breasts to show that women who are uncovered are not impure or anti-religious. The other side is saying that wearing the hijab is actually liberating when it is done in a free country; it is a way to express a religious affiliation in spite of stereotypes and hate crimes following terrorist attacks such as the recent Boston Marathon bombings.
The debate now is about whether or not the hijab is worth fighting over. Is it something that feminists and Muslim women around the world need to focus on, or is it a meaningless symbol that tells us nothing of the state of Muslim women’s rights? According to Hind Makki, this fight is distracting. She writes, “A headscarf doesn’t tell me anything about a particular woman’s access to medical care for herself or her children. An uncovered head doesn’t tell me anything about a woman’s access to legal recourse if she is sexually assaulted. A piece of cloth does not tell me how safe a woman feels in her society to protest her political leaders, enjoy a night out with friends or choose her own spouse.”
While this is true, after reading and teaching “Persepolis,” I can’t help but think that the hijab is something worth fighting over. Yes, it might be counterproductive for two groups of Muslim women to be fighting about whether or not to wear it constantly, but it is no more counterproductive than feminist women fighting about whether or not women should change their names when they get married or continue to work outside the home after they have children.
These arguments may not be productive in the traditional sense of getting something done, but they are productive in bringing these important issues to the public as well as asking people to think carefully about what decisions they are making and why. Feminism for all women — Muslim women included — should be about choice, but it should also be about making well-informed choices. In order to do that, we need to argue a little bit about what current policies are in place for women around the world.
Photo Credit: NeilsPhotography