My Hijab, My Body – A Muslim Feminist on Street Harassment in Argentina | Week Woman
By Nasreen Amina
August 20, 2012
“The little streets of Buenos Aires have this, je ne sais quoi, you see?” So said Astor Piazolla in his famous song, Balada para un Loco. For me at least, this ‘je ne sais quoi’ has a name: sexual harassment – that verbal and physical oppression which invades my personal space and my liberty. And it ranges from the negligibly humorous to the outright insulting or hurtful.
Argentina is a society accustomed to nudity: dance programmes on TV feature breast and crotch close-ups of scantily-clad women at every opportunity; it’s also pretty standard for wiggling buttocks to hog much of the limelight. More than one TV presenter has undressed during the making of a programme simply because, well, why not? The majority of showbiz mags deploy the obligatory semi-naked cover woman. Meanwhile, porn mags are available at eye-level in every kiosk: any passer-by can feast their eyes on a bewildering array of sexual positions.
In every single one of my sallies out onto the streets of the capital I have experienced at least one episode of violent harassment. Let me repeat that: every single one. So I’d like to share a few examples of the kind of “flattery” I look forward to on a daily basis. Look on it as an illustration of the joys of the street.
Scene: the ticket office at my local station.
“How lovely you are! Would you like company?”; “You look like an oriental doll, I could just eat you up!”; “Hello darling, do you want to try a Macho Argentino?”; “What a great pair of tits!”; “What a delicious arse you must have under that skirt love!”
Scene: the street.
“You don’t know how I’d do you”; “I’ll fill you up to your ears”; “I’ll make you a baby right here beautiful!”; “Sweet little thing, so tiny; I’ll bite you till you bleed”; “What luck you’re a whore, darling”; “I’m dying to strip you”.
And this is before we even mention the imaginative use made of packed trains, buses and metros; it’s pretty much standard that one of the city’s many gentlemen will while away the tedium of the trip by rubbing himself against me.
I know, you’re probably thinking that I must be a woman of luminous beauty, or that I shimmy down the street in figure-hugging, revealing clothes. Well, if this described me it would in no way justify the harassment.
But in any case, this does not describe me. I completely belie the Argentine stereotype of beauty: I’m not a light-eyed blonde; I’m not tall or leggy; and I don’t have the super-slender figure of a top model.
I’m not even a JLo-esque ‘dark hotty’.
As it happens I’m irredeemably Latina, with not a single trace of the European in me. This means I’m short (158 cms), have dark eyes and yes, I do have curves – although according to the Argentine beauty standard, my size 12 figure is not “curvy” so much as “fat”.
And actually, I can be pretty certain that the harassment I receive has nothing to do with my curves, since, when I leave the house, the shape of my body is not easily discernible. I’m a Muslim woman; when I enter the street I’m covered up. And when I say covered, I mean that I’m dressed in a jilbab and a hijab. The jilbab can be a dress, or a long skirt down to the ankles and a top with long sleeves. The hijab, or Islamic veil, wraps around my head, neck, and part of my shoulders. Only my face and my hands are visible.
Nobody makes me wear this; it’s my decision. And I don’t cover myself out of fear that I might otherwise provoke the desirous male gaze upon my person; I’m quite clear on the fact that there’s nothing I can do to avoid it.
So if sexual harassment is not a question of beauty, or how much of your body is covered by clothes, it must be a question of power. The power to objectify a woman in public spaces through sexually-inflected verbal or physical advances. The power to demonstrate that she does not belong in the public space, and that, if she doesn’t want to be bothered, she should return to the private space. She should go home.
The irony is, if I were dressed more “like a woman”, I don’t think I would get so much attention; I’d be placed in the category of ‘not sexually attractive”. In an eroticized society like Argentina, the place of the Muslim woman in the social imagination is such that her presence in public spaces is seen as highly provocative for two reasons:
The first is concerned with the dressed-undressed dichotomy. Undress is the principle form of objectification of the female body in this society. My being covered is a deliberate opposition to this objectification through undress – an objectification which has been heralded as a sign of “liberation”. A women who shares the secrets of her body on television is considered to be acting as a liberated woman – even as a feminist. In reality, the only “liberation” created by this “voluntary” exposure of the objectified woman is the liberation of the repressed sexual urges of certain men.
But what is even more damaging about this false liberation is that it undermines the feminist discourse of emancipation through individuality. This concept of individuality, as opposed to homogeneity, is not synonymous with undress, so much as autonomy over one’s own body.
My covered body functions as an expression of that autonomy. It defies the patriarchy by opposing a conception of “female liberation” that merely assuages the sexism of a culture that is so deeply rooted in the sexual power of the macho over the female. I declare myself free in my own manner; it is not an attempt to answer the desires of machismo, which dictates that resistance must invite curiosity and heighten erotic expectations. In the mind of the average man, I continue to be an objectified woman: ‘I cover myself expecting a man to uncover me’, a supposed expectation that opens the door to a new objectification of the female body.
The second reason for the perceived provocation of the Muslim woman in public is concerned with the construction of the “other”; that is, that which lies outside the authorised discourse surrounding the authority-subordination axis of the culture in which I live. The visible elements of my religious identity are recognised as elements of a subjugated language. The ‘other’ which is not only unequal, because of difference life choices, but because it considers those choices are considered to be inferior.
It is unusual to see a Muslim woman in the street; one presumes that “she lives incarcerated by the husband under seven keys”; still less is she expected to be seen on a march against gender-based violence, giving a public conference on feminism or talking on the radio about sexuality and reproductive rights. My presence disturbs the preconceived ideas and stereotypes surrounding the Muslim woman that, well fed by the cultural industry, live in the western mind. My presence counters the concept of the passive submission of a woman to the tyranny of the veil; a woman who is subject to male violence and who must be liberated and taught the liberty of democracy. My presence stands against the myth of the sultanah, the concubine, the silent and compliant harem girl, who hides a paradise of orgasms under her clothes; who is always ready for the sexual needs of the master. And let’s not forget the ethno-cultural stereotype which means that many people assume I am Arabic, Turkish or Iranian; that makes them speak to me in English or French; that makes them treat me like an idiot, basing their condescension on the arrogant assumption that “you don’t understand our culture” (my culture is the same as theirs, South American). The irony of their understanding Islam simply from seeing me walk past seems to pass them by.
In both of these cases, sexual harassment acts as a strategy of subjection to the power of the patriarchy, and to the erotic and cultural normative which resists accepting the ‘other’ – an ‘other’ which the patriarchy constructs according to its own norms. The patriarchy deploys its own discourse to dismiss the way in which I declare autonomy over my body and how, in turn, I use those elements of my identity as tools of empowerment.
By deploying my right to resist the ‘feminine liberation’ of sexism, my presence rejects the schemes of orientalism and of machismo. I rebel against the disciplinary attempts to make me a lesser expression of feminine identity. I reject the concept that free circulation and participation in the public space should be authorised by the dominant discourse of phallocentrism.
On the contrary: that discourse is one that enables my maltreatment in a myriad of ways as a disposable object.
This article has been adapted from the original Spanish by Caroline Criado-Perez; for the Spanish original, please see here.
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Nasreen Amina is a journalist, feminist Muslim, writer and activist. She specialises in community development projects from a gender perspective and is a pioneer of Islamic feminism in Latin America. Her journalism has appeared in international websites such as Global Press Institute , Women News Network and The Huffington Post. Her blog can be found here