It’s a funny thing, a woman’s virtue. If she clings tightly to it, she’s frigid and a prude. If she doesn’t care to preserve it, she’s a whore. If she thinks the concept is outdated, she’s dangerous. A woman cannot decide for herself whether or not she is virtuous – whatever her actions, her virtue will ultimately be judged by men. A woman’s virtue is kept for men, not for herself – without it, she is worthless not to herself, but to men who might wish to sleep with her or take ownership of her.
Every culture has their own ideas about how to preserve a woman’s virtue – segregate schools by gender, force women into separate communities where they are restricted contact from men, place restrictions on the amount of sex a woman can have, and with whom she can have it. In the culture in which I grew up, the method of choice – amongst others – was the hijab.
I started covering my hair when I was twelve years old. I did not want to do it, but I wanted to please my parents. I had no conception of sexual desire or sex appeal. I did not think of myself as a sexual object, nor did I think of other people as sexual objects. But I covered my hair because people thought it made me – a twelve-year-old girl – virtuous. I wore long pants and long-sleeved shirts that hid my figure. I didn’t have male friends. All of this was meant to preserve me so that one day, another man might find me worth owning.
Many girls younger than me cover their hair, or even their entire bodies. Why a child needs to be dressed in a way that is meant to render them non-sexual objects is beyond me. In which situation would a child of eight or nine need to cover herself so as to deflect the attention of men?
I do not have anything against women who choose to cover their hair. In fact, I do not even have a problem with them deciding to do so because they wish to preserve their virtue (whatever that means) – as long as it’s their choice. We all make choices about what we’ll show to the world and what we wish to hide. There are things we don’t tell strangers, to it makes sense that there might be things we choose not to show strangers. I take no issue with this.
But it has to be a choice – and to me, not covering my hair does not make me any less virtuous or worthy than a woman who does. And even if it did, I wouldn’t care, because my worth as a woman is not based on whether or not a man thinks I’m pure enough to make his wife.
That’s the problem with the idea of protecting our virtue – we’re being asked to safeguard something only men value. We are not devalued by choosing to show hair or skin, nor by engaging in sexual activity – it is men who have decided for us that these things lower us, devalue us, debase us. It is men who have decided that we need to cover up, be meek and quiet and non-threatening so that they might contradictorily find us more desirable.
I do not care whether or not men find me desirable based on how much of my skin they can see. I do not care whether they see my uncovered hair and judge me not Muslim enough, because my faith is between God and me and God can see into my heart no matter what I try to cover. Before God, I am utterly exposed. Why, then, would God care about my clothing? And I do not believe that it is a woman’s responsibility to safeguard something only men find valuable.
If men want women not to be ogled, not to be used as sexual objects, to be treated with dignity and respect, then the onus on them is to do so. A woman who covers her hair is not making herself less of a sexual being – she is simply making a choice not to show a part of herself to the world. Men will still look at her and objectify her, not because of how she dresses, but because they think they have that right. She could be swathed in cloth from head to toe and they would still objectify her as much as they would if she were walking down the street stark naked. Objectification is an act removed from a woman’s state of dress – it is a choice a man makes, and if he wishes so fervently to preserve a woman’s virtue, it is up to him not to make it.
Personally, I don’t give a damn whether or not men consider me virtuous, but I do not wish to be seen as an object, regardless of how I dress. I was seen as one when I covered my hair and I am seen as one now. This is not because of the way I dress, but because there are men who believe they have the right to decide my body’s value as though it is a commodity. This is their doing, not mine. They believe that I exist for them, and that as such, I must preserve myself in a condition they find suitable. But as I have said time and time again, my existence is not for them. So to hell with their ideas of virtue. I am not any more of an object because I choose not to cover my hair. I am human, and my value is self-determined, not calculated based on what I wear or how many people I’ve slept with. I should not need to wear a hijab in order to broadcast to the world that there is more to me than what a man thinks I’m worth.
Virtue is a false commodity, created by men to control and judge women. By whatever standards it is judged, by whomever it is judged, it is meaningless and worthless, because no woman is merely an object onto which male desire can be projected. Wear what you like. Cover your hair or don’t. But do it because you are choosing for yourself what you wish to show the world, not because you think you need to preserve something that doesn’t exist. You are worth more than what your sex life and your clothing choices say you are. You are worth what you say you are. You do not need to prove that to anyone.