lena-headey-body-doubleIf a woman wants to wear a long dress, because she doesn’t like showing a lot of leg, is that OK?

If she wants to go topless on the beach, is that OK? What if the wants to go to Ikea topless, is that OK? Why? Or why not?

If she wants to wear a hat, is that OK? If she wants to show her hair, is that OK? Why? Or why not?

Shame. It’s a funny thing. What determines which parts of our bodies we can show at which times and in which places? We all know the answer – society. Societal norms. Our culture. Our peers. And we all do it, and we largely all conform.

If a woman (or a man for that matter) walks down an English street, in an English town, on an English Sunday afternoon, and did so bereft of all clothing, what do you think would happen?

The state would dispatch its enforcers, who would assault the woman, grab her, bundle her into a car and drive off with her. What we call an “arrest”. And this is the point I want to get across.

Most societies, not just conservative societies, not just Middle Eastern societies, not just “Muslim” societies – most societies are perfectly OK with physical coercion being used to force people to cover parts of their bodies. All that differs is which parts, and in which situations.

So why all the commotion about the hijab, the niqab, the burqa? Yes, many women are coerced into covering their hair, or their face who would rather not do so, but peer shaming and sometimes physical coercion compel them to do so. All us westerners who are chanting #weareallmuslims are overlooking the fact that we too are coerced into covering our bodies.

To illustrate how odd the hijab-solidarity is, can you imagine places in Africa where women would cover their breasts in solidarity with Western women who are coerced into doing so? It would be weird, right?

So what’s really going on?

The hijab, rightly or wrongly is associated with a religion. All of the Abrahamic faiths have their own body-shaming or ‘modesty’ requirements and garments, used to varying degrees – but yes, it is Muslims who suffer the most from religiously-driven body-shaming, this ‘modesty’ – and suffer most visibly.

We have Muslim women (not usually men) attacked by other Muslims for not being ‘Muslim enough’ – by people who want them to cover more of their bodies. This can range from gossip and scolding, to capital punishment.

We have Muslim women who are attacked in the West because they cover parts of their bodies we wished they wouldn’t cover, and do so for reasons we don’t agree with.

I have to say that this is faulty thinking. We are ALL coerced into covering parts of our bodies. We are conditioned to feel shame from very early on. And very few of us realise it.

Why are ‘our’ requirements for body-shaming and body-covering intrinsically superior and preferable to ‘their’ requirements for body-shaming and body-covering?

And there’s an obvious answer – they aren’t. If you think that it’s OK to criticise women for wearing the hijab, to criticise men for shaming women into wearing the hijab, but think it’s OK to shame a woman into covering her breasts, you’re being a tad myopic and ethno-centric.

Do I think that a woman should be shamed into wearing the hijab? No. Should she be assaulted if she doesn’t? No.

Do I think that a woman should be shamed into covering her breasts? No. Should she be assaulted if she doesn’t? No.

I think until you’re prepared to walk down the street naked, you shouldn’t be criticising people for covering any part of their body. And until you’re prepared to don a burqa, you shouldn’t be criticising anyone for showing parts of their body.

It’s perfectly fine to criticise people who coerce others, who shame others, but I suggest that to do so is largley hypocritical unless you realise that you too are being coerced into covering parts of your body.

I guess the take-away question is this:

If religiously motivated body-shaming and coerced body-covering is a bad thing, why are we OK with secular body-shaming and coerced body-covering?