Nudity, Niqab and the illusion of 'free choice'

“When a woman is the total of her headscarf and hymen - then nakedness, sex become weapons of political resistance.”

Bina Shah November 28, 2011
Today, I read what are possibly the most beautiful opening words of any essay or opinion piece ever. It went like this:
 “When a woman is the sum total of her headscarf and hymen – that is, what’s on her head and what is between her legs – then nakedness and sex become weapons of political resistance.”

This comes from a powerful essay by Mona Eltahawy in the Guardian, called “Egypt’s Naked Blogger is a Bomb Aimed at the Patriarchs in Our Mind” (Eltahawy was recently sexually assaulted and beaten by police in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, her left hand and right arm broken by the force of their blows).

The background is that a young woman blogger in Egypt posted a photograph of herself, naked, as a symbol of resistance against the patriarchal conservative forces that are threatening to overwhelm Egypt in the post-Mubarak era.

The response has been incendiary; read it for yourself. But it proves that women’s bodies are still seen as public property, to be violated by soldiers, discussed and debated on by men as if they were the experts on women and their feelings, thoughts, sensations, inclinations. Our minds are seen as weak, unable to reason, to think for ourselves. Instead of believing that women have moral agency, we are seen as morally inferior in every way to men.

 Is the real war against terrorism, or against patriarchy?

What men do to women on a daily basis, demeaning, insulting, patronizing, and physically and mentally hurting them, IS terrorism, plain and simple.

It reminds me of a news clip I saw several days ago, in which it was declared that Saudi Arabia might enact a new law in which women who are deemed to have “tempting eyes” and “tempting faces” would be forced to cover them up.


Because one of the men behind this bill saw a woman with “tempting eyes”, felt attracted to her, and ended up having a fight with her husband. Then he stabbed the man in the hand. The logical conclusion was that the woman who tempted him with her eyes was at fault, so such eyes can and should be hidden away from view.

I brought this up on Twitter, adding my own comment that perhaps it was the men who should be covered up instead of the women, so that they couldn’t see the tempting eyes, faces, hands, and perhaps the entire existence of women on this planet to avoid being tempted by them.

A young man decided to take up this argument with me, accusing me of being against women choosing the hijab and niqab of their own free will. He said he was sure that the majority of women who take up these coverings do it voluntarily. I decided to respond by asking this man if he would consent to covering himself up to avoid arousing the lust of homosexual men. He wouldn’t answer.

My point: why do men believe women are so willing to choose the bars of their prison so happily?

What justifications have taken place in their mind to make them believe that women are not coerced into wearing the veil? After all, coercion takes many forms: Legal. Physical. Mental. Emotional. Social.  Many people use blackmail to convince women to wear hijab or niqab: you won’t be a good Muslim, you’ll go to hell, you’re pleasing God, you’ll be subject to harassment and molestation if you go outside without a veil. By playing on women’s vulnerabilities, by bringing up the imagery of women being sexually violated or bringing shame upon their families by walking around unveiled, by implying a woman’s morality is linked to how she dresses, women are coerced into believing they are making a free choice in the thousands and millions, every day of their lives.

The hidden pearls. The precious jewels in velvet boxes. The sweets that attract flies without a wrapper. The metaphors used to convince women that their worth is higher if they remain covered makes clever use of a great deceit: that women are objects to be kept on shelves, their value directly correlated to their shininess, their newness. When are people going to realize that women are not objects or things or possessions? That we are human beings with as much autonomy, independence, sovereignty as men? That we must be left alone, to make our own decisions about what we do with our lives, our bodies, our selves?

The truth is that mental, emotional, physical, social or legal coercion over the issue of the veil immediately takes away the "freedom" of the "choice."

Men have no right to exercise control over women in any way, shape, or form. Their opinions have no validity in what concerns women’s bodies and lives. Recruiting, paying, or giving some women a portion of the patriarchal privilege in order that they may influence and coerce other women over the issue of the veil, whether by "gentle persuasion" or out-and-out blackmail, is merely another trick men use to exercise control over and dominate women.

Here's what freedom of choice really looks like when it comes to the niqab, the hijab, the burqa, and the abaya:
"Nothing happens if you wear it. Nothing happens if you don't wear it. Now, it's up to you."

Then stand back and let the woman decide for herself. And stay out of it, for good.

And for those of you who feel a hijab or a niqab or a burqa or an abaya is not a prison, but a symbol of empowerment, I want to ask you why a piece of cloth on your head or face has so much sway over your lives that it transforms you from a whore into a virtuous woman.

Remember that in Pakistan, even the prostitutes wear veils.
Bina Shah Author of A Season For Martyrs. She tweets @BinaShah (
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.