“Just Like a Submissive Woman”

Swiss foreign minister Micheline Calmy-Rey has been attacked for wearing a headscarf during a diplomatic visit to Iran. “Just like a submissive woman,” said some Swiss newspapers. Because submissive women wear headscarves? And submissive women step outside their homes in post-9/11 Western streets, into airports and government buildings, dressed recognizably as Muslims? Because submissive women are identified as wearing an “iconic item of defiance?” Because submissive women’s clothing has to be controlled by liberal laws in democratic Western nations? Socialist MP Maria Roth-Bernasconi was irritated that Calmy-Rey may have angered Iranian feminists, and Social Democrat MP Liliane Maury Pasquier complained that the minister should have shown solidarity with “the women who fight against wearing the headscarf.”


Let secularized Christendom discover, once and for all, that Muslims don’t have the equivalent of 1 Corinthians 11 with reference to head coverings. Women’s head covers (for those Muslims who believe it is mandatory or preferred) symbolize a few different things (depending on which of the multiple interpretations you prefer), but not one of them refers to inferior status.

Pasquier and Rosh-Bernasconi do not seem to realize how complicated the politics of a White European woman’s protest in the spaces of a developing nation are. An Iranian feminist’s stand for her right not to wear a headscarf is simply not the same as a European minister’s refusal to adhere to cultural norms when she visits a developing nation. I am a Muslim feminist who does not wear a headscarf. When I, as a Pakistani woman who has immigrated to the United States, visit areas in Pakistan where women normally cover their heads, I wear a headscarf—precisely to show solidarity with them, and to not exaggerate my separateness from them.

Without awareness of the role of neo-colonialism, imperialism, economic exploitation, race, culture, class, and gender, feminism is incomplete. Without awareness of the complete picture, and without solidarity to veiled women, a protestor against the headscarf is yet another White person sneering at non-White people’s customs, at millions of Muslim women who wear the headscarf for faith, culture, or habit. Or yet another white politician foaming at the mouth about Them and Their foreign customs.

Anti-imperialist feminists, one would think, would show solidarity for Iranian feminists (as well as for women in Turkey and France) who fight for the right to pursue employment and education while wearing what they wish. And also rail against the fashion industry for marketing uncomfortable and unspeakably ridiculous clothing (because women should not have to wear sexy clothing). For women against osteoarthritis and the physical devastation wreaked by high heels (because women should not have to be tall and leggy.) For Afghan, Iraqi, Palestinian and millions of other women worldwide who demand safety, food, and shelter for their families. For millions of third-world women whose children suffer due to the exploitative economic policies of the international assistance community.

White feminists need to establish that their solidarity with all women is not contingent upon these women becoming replicas of white Western women. Women should not be excluded from the benefits of global sisterhood because of a shalwar kameez, or a business suit, or a kaffiyeh, or a sari, or a headscarf, or a face-veil. Or because of Islam.

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