The hijab versus the hoodie – or how to bully dissenters

A tip of the hat to Ophelia Benson for bringing this to our attention. Let’s go through the links:

First, Adele Wilde-Blavatsky writes an article called “To Be Anti-Racist Is To Be Feminist: The Hoodie and the Hijab Are Not Equals”, which is originally published at The Feminist Wire, apparently on 13 April.

Second, only two days later, a “collective response” eventually signed by over 80 self-identified feminists appears on 15 April, replying to Wilde-Blavatsky’s article. It is not clear to me how many of these people signed the letter when it first appeared, but unless I’m missing something it was a rather large number.

Third, Wilde-Blavatsky gets her further reply published at Butterflies and Wheels on 1 May.

As far as the original issues go, I don’t have strong feelings. I’m not especially taken with “the hoodie” as a garment. Hijabs can sometimes be very attractive – and unlike some of the people involved I’m clear on the difference between a hijab (the primary meaning is the Muslim headscarf, though you can read up for yourself about how the expression relates to “modesty” in general) and a niqab (which veils the face). For what it’s worth, I argue in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, against bans on publicly wearing “the burqa” (which is how Westerners tend to refer to various garments or combinations that almost totally cover women’s bodies, including their faces). I also argue that undue deference should not be paid to people’s wishes to wear these various garments/combinations if they are indirectly proscribed, in certain circumstances, by religiously-neutral laws of general application or by, for example, the reasonable work requirements of employers.

So, I’m not out to ban the niqab, let alone the hijab, although I don’t think we should recognise a positive right to wear them that prevails over otherwise-justifiable and generally-applicable laws, work requirements, etc. For more, consult the book. I’m not going to argue it all here. Suffice to say that nothing in this post is motivated by an extreme position, such as wish to ban any of these garments entirely.

Nor do I agree with all of Wilde-Blavatsky’s own extreme rhetoric about all-pervading patriarchy and male power, etc. The subordination of women to men remains common in virtually all extant cultures, but it would be better to refer to its actual extent in different places, social strata, milieux, etc., than to make such sweeping statements (hiding too much away in false moral equivalence). Furthermore, there is a fair bit in Wilde-Blavatsky’s reply that I take issue with, not to mention my dislike of her tone of obsequiousness to her attackers at various points (they’ve effectively waived any claim even to respect and civility from her).

Still … the struggle for gender equality is ongoing, and it merits our support. Also, I do agree with Wilde-Blavatsky that there is a difference between the hoodie (however annoying I might personally find this fashion choice) and the hijab. I.e., only the latter expresses a moral imperative that a woman not show her beauty – in this case her hair – to the world. This imperative can be regarded variously as misogynist, gynophobic, sexually puritanical, and/or offensive to men (who are apparently unable to see female beauty without being gripped by uncontrollable lust). One way or another, I am opposed to the Islamic concept of female “modesty”, and I sympathise with those feminists who look askance at the hijab … and moreso at the niqab, jilbab, chadri, etc. But I don’t want any of these banned.

Whether I agree with Wilde-Blavatsky beyond that, I’m not actually sure. What I want to draw attention to is the way she was treated. Instead of someone writing an article that simply deals with her arguments in a thoughtful manner and on their merits, we see an inflammatory letter produced very quickly and ultimately signed by a very large number of people. This looks more like a lynch mob than someone wanting to engage in reasoned discussion with the original writer. Then, look at the kinds of things that get said in the collective letter, such as this:

a respondent posting as “The Feminist Wire” (who later identified herself to be Wilde-Blavatsky), attempted to counter some of these objections by obfuscating whiteness and showcasing a lack of knowledge of the history and function of the hijab. To defend her position, the author cited her intimate connections with people of colour and informed her critics that “acknowledging the differences between women in terms of race, religion and culture” was politically divisive. We know these to be common defensive responses from those in positions of privilege. And our response is as common: “Listen.”

Wilde-Blavatsky rightly objects to this in quite strong words, and she deserves support on that much, at least. We really need to stand up … and call out this sort of thing whenever we see it. It is deeply anti-rational, anti-intellectual, and just plain bullying to attack your intellectual opponents on the basis that their arguments are “common defensive responses from those in positions of privilege” and to tell them, in effect, to shut up and “Listen.” Then, of course, we get this sort of rebarbative and reductive jargon:

In writing this, the author has all but stripped women of colour of an intersectional understanding of violence against women, one that is attuned to both patriarchal and racist violence. Instead, Muslim women and women of colour feminists are reduced to a piece of cloth and the experiences of people of colour and practioners of an increasingly racialized and demonized religion are repeatedly questioned and denied.

Some of the points made in the collective response sound reasonable in themselves – e.g. I agree that ideas of “false consciousness” are problematic and at least need discussion – but it is difficult to take the collective response seriously when it sanctimoniously claims to welcome debate on difficult issues of patriarchy and race. Given the way this response was actually handled, the signatories look more like they want to shut down any dissenters from their political position. Even more troubling, Wilde-Blavatsky was not allowed to reply, and apparently even her original article has been removed from the site where it originally appeared (along, consequently, with the collective response to it). So she has, indeed, been shut up by the bullies, at least in her original forum – which is why her reply has ended up being published at Butterflies and Wheels.

Ophelia Benson has made a good call with this.

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20 Comments.

  1. “This imperative can be regarded variously as misogynist, gynophobic, sexually puritanical, and/or offensive to men”

    You’d have been justified including ‘stupid’ in that list. A lot of these extreme views seem to be built on a deck of cards, where there is some vision of the final goal driving the construction without any regard for the foundations and components on which the argument is built. A complete loss of perspective.

  2. I think that the incident is curious, primarily because I failed to really see quite what was so polarising in the Wilde-Blavatsky article. Perhaps you’re right to note Ophelia Benson’s response and there is, at present, a degree of tension around islamophobia that means rational discussion about the role of the hijab etc is difficult. I read through the Wilde-Blavatsky piece and, to be honest, didn’t find anything particularly unusual or innovative in the piece, it was just a reasonable account of a position in a long-running debate, one the author indicates quite clearly. The ‘cultural relativism’ issue is not exactly new.

    I don’t agree, however, with the characterisation of a collective response as looking like a ‘lynch mob’. There’s a long history to the collective response to cultural and political positions, one that suggests it is an acceptable part of intellectual debate. There’s also the point that the collective response might be thought of as a deliberate tactic to move things from a ‘personal’ to a ‘political’ level, one that deliberately displays a collective response in order to suggest that the issues are socially important. What I do think is disastrous is the removal of the article and response by the TFW collective. That seems entirely bizarre – why profess to encourage debate and then run from that debate when it occurs? I didn’t notice any call from the collective response for Wilde-Blavatsky to be banned so am unclear why TFW did that.

  3. I’m happy to see collective responses to the actions of governments or others who possess real power, in an effort to get them to take notice or to arouse resistance to their abuse of their power – sometimes I even sign petitions (though they can cause worries for other reasons).

    But a collective response on this scale to an individual with no particular power? No.

  4. I find the presence of different dress codes in the same geographical area itself problematic and objectionable. It is perhaps akin to someone insisting on speaking Arabic or Urdu in a French or English-speaking country, but is also a symbol of the settler colonialism that afflicts many western cities. The saying When in Rome, do as the Romans do, seems applicable.

    The gender point seems to be a separable issue. For example, there was a case in England some years ago about the right of Sikh men to wear the Turban (an ethno-religious identifier) whilst working as bus drivers. The right was eventually ceded to them.

  5. swallerstein (amos)

    Internet seems to bring out the inner self-righteous lynch-mob/stone-the-heretic person in many of us.

    Before internet, if you wanted to gang up on a heretic or sinner, you had to at least make the effect of throwing an actual stone (which can produce tendinitis in those of us over 60), but now we can stone them virtually.

    There is a lot of virtual stoning done in the name of tolerance too.

  6. swallerstein (amos)

    Here’s an excellent post on epistemological privilege.

    http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=4010

  7. Why is a hoodie an annoying fashion choice? Just wondering. I think a hoodie is an excellent garment–very comfortable, with pockets for storage, hood for warmth, and good associations (if you like hip hop music). I say: what’s not to like?

    p.s. I have two teenagers and there are roughly 20 hoodies in our house.

  8. swallerstein (amos)

    An extraordinarily useful garment, even for those who do not listen to hip hop.

    Possibly the wisest innovation in clothing since blue jeans.

    Warm, low cost, and unlike wool sweaters, can be machine-washed. The pockets, besides having storage capacity, keep hands warm, especially for those with poor circulation.

  9. Ha–I steal my kids’ hoodies all the time. Exactly, they’re just like blue jeans in their all around brilliance. Now I wonder what Russell thinks about blue jeans …

    :-)

  10. Dennis Sceviour

    It was Russell who said the hoodie was an annoying fashion choice. When camping, the hoodie can keep the insects from biting your neck.

  11. Benjamin S Nelson

    It’s pretty remarkable that both sides say, “Let’s have this conversation, it’s important”, and then the forum itself says, “Nope”.

    What a strange decision. It seems to me that it’s kind of essential for social justice activists to talk openly about issues that cut close to the bone.

  12. I rather like hooded sweatshirts. Back in my winter track and cross country days, they kept me reasonably warm. I still have several running related hooded sweatshirts, but it is too hot in Florida to wear them running.

    I assume that all of us runners were pre-cool in this regard.

  13. There is nothing wrong with the garment going under the name of Hoodie. What is important here is the person inside the garment. Unfortunately the nature of the garment is such that it can provide a kind of threatening anonymity for the wearer. People cannot see easily with whom they are dealing. Out of this Thugs or those wishing to give the impression of such, have taken to wearing them. They’re a way to stay invisible in the street, and acts of vandalism or similar crimes are more easily accomplished when dressed as a Hoodie. Even caught on CCTV the wearer is difficult, if not impossible, to identify. The people I speak of here are a World apart from Jean Kazez and her children and their friends.
    So it is not always wise to judge people from what they are wearing. A couple of years ago I was in town and noticed a person wearing a Burka accompanied by three children who were misbehaving. Suddenly from within this clothing a voice rang out in perfect English Cockney reprimanding the children in terms of which I fully approved. It did seem a bit weird at the time.
    In July 2006, David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, made a speech suggesting that the hoodie was worn more for defensive than offensive purposes. The speech was referred to as “hug a hoodie” by the Labour Party. If you are ever tempted to hug a hoodie remember your genitalia will be in great danger of barbarous assault.

  14. I don’t have anything much against the hoodie – take those snarky comments as obiter rather than ratio. But don’t you find it just a leetle bit annoying when people put the hood up indoors or when it’s not actually cold? Other things being equal, I do like to see people’s faces.

    But again, I have nothing much against it and was just being annoyingly old and curmudgeonly. :???: People do get to express themselves through their clothing or lack thereof – so they can generally wear whatever, and however much or little, they like as far as I’m concerned.

  15. Instead of someone writing an article that simply deals with her arguments in a thoughtful manner and on their merits, we see an inflammatory letter produced very quickly and ultimately signed by a very large number of people.

    That kind of collective thought and voice makes sense when it’s an issue of such moral significance that it demands a united response but it’s sort of odd when it’s a reaction to, er – a blogpost. That none of the 80 academics noted its blatant factual error – if they have proof of the circumstances of Trayvon Martin’s death they should provide it to the court – makes that groupthink even more weird. For all their credentials, do they have any critical spirit? The denial of Wilde-Blavatsky’s response – even after inviting dialogue – suggests that even if they have they’ve temporarily suspended it. Which – paging Jonathan Haidt – probably means that for all of that her arguments were contentious she’s offended their rather sacred values rather than their intelligence. Their approach to these issues, then, is extremely questionable.

    The condescension of the piece doesn’t remind me of a lynch mob, though, so much as an intervention. An intervention on behalf of someone that the interveners don’t really care about.

  16. michael reidy

    Russell:

    Taking a position is not like taking hemlock, you don’t die of it.

    So the burqa: I find it offensive both to me and to the women who wear it. Coming from a culture where polygamy is o.k. the defense that it is a matter of modesty is not credible. In effect what it is saying is ‘this is my woman, I own her, I own the vision of her’, as it were.

    To leave yourself legal wriggle room to ban it in practice but not in theory is just pathetic temporizing. The French have their view on this and I understand it. In effect they are saying: ‘We have had revolutions, wars and civil strife to get where we are today, like it or lump it’, as it were.

  17. Michael, I’m sorry but of course I take a position. What’s more it’s a principled one. You have no basis whatsoever to suggest otherwise.

    That position is argued for in the book in the context of larger arguments – go and borrow it in the library and read what it actually says before you say any more stupid and insulting things to me.

    I realise that you don’t agree with my position. Fine. But you don’t get to accuse me of “pathetic temporizing”. If you make another comment like that, I’ll do my best to ensure that it’s your last comment on this blog. Dissent is allowed here, unlike in some places, but some kinds of rhetoric don’t go down well with me – and I don’t think I’m alone.

  18. Just to reiterate what Russell has said, while dissent is welcome here (and inevitable since our bloggers disagree about many issues), it absolutely is not okay to accuse anybody of “pathetic temporizing” (or anything else like that).

    A strong principle of charity is in play at all times here. Of course, it’s understood that sometimes people will fall short in this regard (arguments can get heated) but ad hominems, etc., won’t be tolerated, and if they are employed with anything like regularity (or after a warning, etc), then they will result – and have resulted in the past – in people being prevented from commenting.

  19. michael reidy

    Russell:
    I’m sure the position in your book is complex and closely argued and if I ever come across it I shall read it with interest.

    Ophelia Benson’s position as per your link would be one which I am in agreement with. It has the strength of simplicity and clarity.

  20. Well, it’s closely argued, and I can’t put the fall argument here. However, it’s not ultimately all that complex. I judge these questions about banning things by fairly standard liberal principles such as freedom of speech and the Millian harm principle. Judged by those standards, I don’t think there’s a case for sweeping bans on certain kinds of apparel.

    OTOH, I don’t think you have a positive right to practice your religious or cultural standards no matter what the general law says. If those standards – such as a requirement to wear the burka – conflict with ordinary laws, etc., that are justified (according to liberal principles, etc.) and of general application, you can’t thereby claim to be persecuted. Prima facie, you are just being required to follow the same laws as everyone else.

    Yes, it gets a little bit more complicated than that, but the above seems to me to be a very defensible starting point – not just regarding the burqa but regarding many other issues. There’s nothing contrived or dishonest or wishy-washy or anything of the kind about it.

    Indeed, I think that applying these political principles, with whatever small tweaks are necessary, would serve our society well. But that’s the argument set out in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, not what I was arguing in the original post.

    I doubt that Ophelia has a very simple position on “the burqa”, though I definitely can’t speak for her. Just because she is morally opposed to certain garments such as the niqab, chadri, and so on, and just because she opposes bullying or excluding people from forums because they want these garments legally banned, it does not follow that she herself wants them legally banned.

    Maybe she does, but she’s usually well aware of the gap between moral disapproval of something (and supporting the free expression of others who want to denounce it or lobby against it), on the one hand, and, on the other hand, wanting the “something” actually made illegal. But anyway, she can speak for herself about what she thinks we should do in Western societies – at the level of government policy – about the burqa.

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