For what it's worth, I heard a version of this argument from a Human Terrain Team social scientist who happened to be female. She put on a hijab to go out and talk to Muslim women in Iraq. What most surprised her, she told me, was the way in which it stopped soldiers from treating her as a sexual being. It's a strange fact, since it's just a piece of cloth, but for whatever reason covering the hair and head somehow disconnected the sex drive even in young soldiers long deployed at war and forbidden other avenues of sexual relief.

So maybe there's something to it. Perhaps a symbol, under the right circumstances, doesn't have to mean what we ordinarily expect it to mean. Perhaps a lot has to do, as she says, with the choice of the person who wields it.

In any case, the social scientist I knew kind of liked the effect. She didn't wear it otherwise, probably because everyone would have thought it a bit weird. But she did like the effect it had on the young soldiers around her.


douglas said...

Similar garments were common throughout the west, and not just for Nuns. Of course, the big difference is that for Nuns, it's a means of separating themselves from worldly pursuits (like husbands) and offering themselves only to God.

Was the hijab the only difference in her appearance- no change in make-up? There's also the possibility that she also behaved differently while wearing it- much the same way one feels a little different in a suit than in shorts and a t-shirt, and behaves accordingly. Of course, there's also the fact that those soldiers, at least the ones who had been off base, have become trained to not look at veiled women in a way that might be deemed offensive. Conditioning can explain a lot.

Anonymous said...

A woman's business suit serves this function.


Grim said...

Does it work as well?

Douglas is right: in the West, Christian women long elected to wear veils including the wimple. Sir Walter Scott has Rowena drop her veil over her face when the Templar is too ardent in his gaze. At least in the scene as Scott wrote it, it's a method she uses to control how much sexual attention she is prepared to accept (though the Templar ought to be controlled by his vows of celibacy, he turns out not to be).

Texan99 said...

Two other things that work well: locking yourself in a closet, and choosing the company of men who are capable of subordinating their sexual response to their ordinary human obligations.

E Hines said...

Perhaps a lot has to do, as she says, with the choice of the person who wields it.

Perhaps, also, the symbol has to do with the culture within which it's worn.

And what does it say about a culture that views men and women as slaves to their hormones, wholly incapable of governing themselves rationally without such physical blocks?

I'm with T on this one. If we're allowed, without a male member of her family to chaperone us, because hormones and slavery, that is.

Eric Hines

MikeD said...

Two other things that work well: locking yourself in a closet, and choosing the company of men who are capable of subordinating their sexual response to their ordinary human obligations.

/slow clap

That is brilliant, Tex! +1

Grim said...

Yes, but the argument was that it was a good feminist choice. No one is saying she hasn't got the right to wear a scarf, right? She's doing it for her own reasons, and they're reasons we think are valid, and it's probably pretty effective. So -- no problem, right? The hijab is good feminism.

Texan99 said...

She may allow herself to be driven to any extremity she likes rather than confront the need for change in the people who are actually causing the problem, but that won't make it a "feminist" choice. However, you are correct that it is apparently a choice made by a woman, and no one's business but hers as long as no one tries to enforce it on anyone else.

Grim said...

It's kind of meta-symbolism: on the one hand, it's just a scarf. On the other hand, it's defined by the purpose for which it's worn: not only to keep the head warm, but to decrease one's sexual appeal so as to improve relations with men in a certain way. On the third hand, it's defined by the name: calling it a hijab instead of a "scarf" puts it in the context of Islam's subjugation of women. On the fourth hand, it's defined by her assertion that it really belongs in the context of feminism, and should be seen as being as much a symbol of that ideology as of the Islamic legal one.

What a perfect moral and ethical tangle to have arisen from a simple, small piece of cloth!

Texan99 said...

"Feminism" in the sense of a measure she can adopt to increase the chances that men will interact with her as a human being and not merely an object of sexual desire--that I can see. For me, though, it's more of an object lesson in the extreme measures someone finds necessary to prevent dehumanization: if I dress in a sack from head to toe, maybe he'll be able to concentrate on what I'm saying for a moment.

The objection to the dehumanization is in the feminist area, but the point should be to deplore the necessity of the hijab to produce simple human courtesy and justice. Just the fact that she can demonstrably get better treatment that way should be a giant blinking red light.

A hijab may be a good temporary emergency measure. I approve of gas masks, too, without celebrating poison gas. When you need a gas mask, there's no use standing on the principle that, in a decent world, it wouldn't be needed. But a sensible person also tries to figure out where the gas is coming from and put a stop to it. He doesn't resign himself to donning a gas mask for the rest of his life and call that "health."

Grim said...

...s a human being and not merely an object of sexual desire...dehumanization...

I think there may be a problem with the "merely" and the "dehumanization" here: presumably (even for young soldiers and Marines -- well, most of them!), it is only human beings who arouse sexual feelings. It's uniquely a recognition of you as human, in that sense. It just may not be what you want from them.

Which, of course, is at the heart of the discussion: there's something about that sexual reality of those human beings that really does seem to get disconnected if you cover the hair. So if you want to make a choice to be sexual here and not there, this is a functional way to accomplish that.

Why? I don't know. It's a mystery, like much of sexuality. But maybe it's plausible, too, as a way of moving around a human society made up of human beings who are also sexual beings with each other. Sometimes there are good reasons not to want that response; here is a tool that puts it in your control, because it does something to them.

Indeed, it does something to them without their consent! Something sexual, even. But it definitely locates the power with the woman who chooses when to be veiled, and when unveiled.

Texan99 said...

No, I don't think you've never grasped what I (or others) mean by dehumanization in this context. For you, apparently, it's simple: the sexual response is to humans, so if men respond to a woman purely as a sexually desirable object, that's the full human treatment in all its necessary dimensions. What's dehumanizing, right? And yet the least trace of empathy should suggest to you what it would be like to be on the receiving end. "What's that, honey? I couldn't hear what you said. I was overwhelmed by my sexual response to your physical presence, not covered by a bag. What do you mean? Don't you see the compliment I'm paying to your humanity? If you weren't human, I wouldn't have the hots for you."

Courtesy, if nothing else, demands masking such a self-obsessed treatment of one's human companion as the source of gratification. As for the "power" women can choose to wield by deciding whether to veil or not veil their overwhelmingness, please. Just please. Even if it were a lot of shallow temporary fun go go around striking men dumb, all it really amounts to in the end is a lot of guys demanding that women absent themselves from places where anything important gets done, for fear the men will lose control.

douglas said...

Tex, is that any different than the women that stop hearing what a man says the moment he says something that could be interpreted as sexual banter, or some kind of come-on? Is the idea that if a man sees you sexually, he's not listening to you itself a kind of stereotyping? I'm pretty sure I see women as, among other things, sexual creatures, and yet manage to actually listen to them seriously. I think that's true of more men than not.

That some men are cretins is nothing new, but the fact that it may have some of it's expression through sexual comments doesn't mean the problem is that men see women sexually- it's that they're cretins, isn't it? The issue is civility and both an appreciation of others and an ability to overcome one's natural urges.

Grim said...

I think (as Sir Walter Scott did) that it's fine to demand a great deal of young men in the name of courtesy. I think that is true even young soldiers deployed in war zones, under orders that prevent them from sexual relief at a time in their lives in which they are raging with hormones! What's interesting to me was my friend's relating of how completely this solved her problems, even in that rather intense environment.

As for whether I understand what you mean by the term "dehumanizing," I think I do. I just think it's a bad choice of words that would lead one down a bad line of thought. The suggestion of the term is that these young men think of women as other than human and perhaps less than human, somehow: but of course they are reacting to them exactly as human beings. What's really desired is a control on an aspect of that reaction (which, as it happens, is just what this young lady from the OP is discussing: an effective control she can use if she wants to).

Texan99 said...

Doug, the way I've more often heard it put concerns women who see a man as a walking wallet, and it's equally appalling in that form. Men have little trouble understanding how unsatisfying that is as an empty caricature of human interaction. It's often the source of some impressive rage and frustration.

Anyone should be able to deal with light sexual banter in an ordinary social interaction. If the guy's eyes glaze over, though, and it's impossible to get him off of the sexual banter, well--I don't think a lot of women enjoy a human exchange that too closely resembles pole-dancing, especially if there's not a bouncer handy to keep the guy from rushing the stage.

I'd hope most men aren't anything like this; it hasn't been my experience of them, thank goodness, so either most of them were having a different inner experience or they were better at self-control. But the hijab story was disquieting in two ways: that it suggested such a high proportion of men with that exact problem in a random sample, and that our host doesn't grasp what's disgusting about it for the other half of the human race. "Reacting to them exactly as human beings"--that's a lot like saying human meat is good to eat, so cannibals are reacting to you exactly like human beings. "Whassa matter, honey? You taste good!" It requires a brutally narrow view of the range of another person's humanity. I should be grateful, I know, that the guy is not responding to me as a leg of lamb or a piece of furniture, but somehow I expect more.

Grim, we agree that control is needed; we differ in the proper seat of that control. You would have the young lady control the man by putting a sack over her head. I would have the man control himself. He has obligations beyond gratifying his appetites, however natural the appetites may be.

I feel I've reached the point of diminishing returns as I begin to repeat myself. I'd like to take a break, in hopes that some new ideas occur to me, or a more even-tempered way of expressing them.

Grim said...


You may certainly have a break. I don't wish to try to control you, or the young woman either: I was only saying that I could see her point. That the young man should control himself is not a point of dispute between us.

Ymar Sakar said...

Not showing skin, not wearing perfume, and not acting coy were other methods Western civilization used to control gender expressions and roles. But that required participation of the entire society, not merely the strong or the weak.

If a sheet could do the job just as well, one would not need humans. Which is Islam's point, livestock and children are valued over independent humans.