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Oppression or Freedom?


In this blog post, I chose to combine the controversy of Islamic dress with the design of Persepolis by replicating a popular cartoon. In said cartoon, we see a clearly western woman wear wedges, sunglasses and a bikini passing another woman wearing a burqa. The Western woman’s thought bubble reads, “Everything covered but her eyes, what a cruel male-dominated culture!” while the other woman’s bubble reads, “Nothing covered but her eyes, what a cruel male-dominated culture”.

The cartoon particularly resonated with me after Professor Asani’s story about having lunch with several friends, one of whom was wearing a hijab and another who was wearing full makeup. The discussion turned to the debate over Islamic dress and whether the hijab was oppressive. The hijabi woman’s response was that the other woman’s makeup was her hijab.

I found this cartoon to be an extremely simple and effective way of illustrating this clash between Western and Islamic views on feminism and women’s rights. The veil has found itself at the center of the debate, with many Westerners viewing it as a physical manifestation of oppression and gender inequality. Veiled woman are imprisoned in a “walking cell,” even their style of dress controlled by men. On the other hand, the veil is also touted as a liberalization from the pressures of society and, perhaps most importantly, a choice.

In recent years, the veil has come under attack by governments across the world. Most recently in 2011, “le voile intégral”, referring to the hijab and the burqa, was banned in all public places in France. The law received expansive media coverage as both a law of protection and a law of discrimination, explicitly targeting France’s Muslim population. Is it more important to uphold freedom FROM religion or freedom OF religion? Can we justify the suppression of one liberty as a defense of another?

After the law’s passing, there was in fact an increase in women wearing various styles of veils. Many saw the law as a “western assault on Islamic values”. The veil has a long history; originally a mark of status in many Mediterranean cultures, it was anything but a sign of oppression. Understanding its cultural context and complex past is crucial to the ongoing debate.


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