On the importance of images: the hijab and women’s soccer
I ran across the following headline this morning—”Feminists line up against football veil ruling"—from a publication that covers French news in the English language. Besides disagreeing with the basic premise of the article, I was especially taken aback by the photograph chosen to illustrate it. The photo (see below) is a rather generic headshot of an unnamed woman in full niqab—the complete facial veil associated with especially devout religious practice and/or oppressive Islamist government in some parts of the Muslim world.
I was struck by this choice of photograph because it appears to have very little to do with the facts of the underlying story. Instead, the choice of images has everything to do with the symbolic messages that are being read into the story by otherwise liberal-minded observers.
Some background: the worldwide governing body for amateur and professional soccer, FIFA, earlier this month lifted its ban on players wearing Muslim headscarves, generally known as hijab, during international matches. This ban long had been controversial, especially within the Muslim world, and it infamously led to the premature termination of the Iranian national team’s campaign to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games, when the women were forced to forfeit their match versus Jordan due to their refusal to play without headscarves. While the recent lifting of the ban won’t restore the Iranians’ Olympic dreams, it has nonetheless been celebrated as a major step forward for religious freedom and women’s rights within the Muslim world. Yes, you read that correctly: a step forward, not backward, for women’s rights.
That’s not, however, how some self-described feminists in France and elsewhere choose to see it. Instead, they see the lifting of the ban as an affirmation of policies that oppress women and reinforce a global patriarchy which views women’s bodies as nothing more (or less) than a seductive object presented for male desire—a desire that men might try to satisfy or instead cover up in an effort to resist such “evil” temptation. But this feminist critique misses the point, for it assumes that the patriarchal, male outsider’s view is the same view held by the women in hijab themselves. To the contrary, rather than symbols of their oppression, wearing hijab on the field can be a symbol of personal faith and a tool that facilitates personal liberty, rather than stamps upon it. The simple act of playing soccer itself can be a very powerful feminist act that subverts a patriarchy seeking to sharply confine a woman’s role to “traditional” spheres of female life. Recent films such as Bend it Like Beckham and Offside have powerfully told the story of soccer’s liberating potential for girls and young women in rigidly gendered societies. And the argument for lifting this and other headscarf bans doesn’t need to be any more complicated than the following plea made elsewhere on Tumblr by Right2Wear:
As young Muslim woman we have one request: get out of our wardrobes! We are tired of everyone - governments, our families, religious scholars, the justice system, our peers - being obsessed with what we wear. Muslim women and girls [have] the right to choose how we outwardly express our faith and religion. We have the right to wear what we please!
Led by Canadian activist, Farrah Khan, Right2Wear was a leading voice advocating for the lifting of FIFA’s ban. Which brings us back to image. Look at the photograph below, which accompanied a recent CBC story on the ban’s lifting, and provides a much more truthful illustration of the issue at hand. There are no veils here, no disembodied, distant, dehumanized eyes. Instead, what we see are soccer players, Iranian soccer players, whose headwear you almost stop noticing after just a few moments.
This is not a picture of oppressed women, is it? These are athletes, practicing a sport they love and at which they excel. Given the country they represent, it’s not unreasonable to assume that at least some of them would indeed prefer to play without the headscarf, and would opt to do so if freely given the option. But it’s not reasonable, either, to assume that all, or even most, of them would choose to remove the headscarf if playing, say, for the United States or Germany. How much easier, then, it is to turn our attention from this more accurate, but also more ambiguous, image, to the one of the niqab above. In that image’s near-total blackness, we on the outside looking in have virtually unfettered freedom to imagine what these pieces of clothing “really” mean, tempered only by a pair of eyes looking off in another direction. Thus, I encourage those who would like to maintain this and/or other headscarf bans to turn their outsider’s gaze back upon themselves. Is your discomfort with the hijab really that of a liberal-minded feminist concerned for women’s freedom? Or is your discomfort instead that of a secular-minded modern who is uneasy with any outward display of religious devotion, especially of the Muslim kind?