What is a choice? When faced with different options, why do we make the choices we do? When surrounded with cultural and sociopolitical influences, are our choices our own, or are they decided for us by the dominant social force?
Choice feminism is traditionally defined as women making socially acceptable choices while seeing themselves as separate from the institutions that make those choices inherently more suitable for them as women; this historically has been a “choice” easier for white/privileged women to make.
Unfortunately, as women, we must realize that the personal is always political. The far-reaching global roots of the patriarchy are rooted in the control of the female body.
On a cultural level, choice takes a very different form, dependent on region, identity, or life experience. With the tragic murder of Mahsa Amini, protests are coming to a head concerning women’s rights and the morality police in Iran. Her murder is only the latest in a long line of women who have been wrongfully killed due to allegedly breaking hijab rules.
Her story has caused an outpouring of support both inside and outside of Iran, with the Iranian police force murdering over one hundred more young women protesting in the weeks following Amini’s death, all for the same controlling reasons.
While it is easy for neo-liberal Western society to use these incidents to fuel their Islamophobia, it is often overlooked that similar events have taken place recently in France, but for the opposite reasons. Women are restricted from wearing the hijab in France, and many face abuse and even jail time for their religious expression, with hate crimes against Muslim women continually on the rise in the past decade.
Since 2011, France has heavily enforced a ban on face coverings; however, this clearly was intended to disproportionately affect women who wear niqabs. On the first day of the ban over 60 protestors were arrested and “reeducated”. Most recently, a new French amendment was passed to bar girls under 18 from wearing any kind of facial or head covering., France also intends to ban head coverings in women’s sports. This is devastating to many young women who simply want to exercise their universal right to freedom of religion.
France claims to create and enforce these bans out of “secularism” – because secularism is what the historically Christian country has always been about—but many recognize the action for what it is: Islamophobia under the guise of white feminism. While it is Islamophobic in nature, the ban also signals one of the many misguided attempts by governments to “protect” women from their own choices. Much like Iran instituted the morality police to prevent sexual harassment and encourage conservative behavior (because it would be far too difficult to teach men not to rape women), France institutes laws constituting a “dress code” to prevent women from being “oppressed” from their own religion that they choose to celebrate themselves.
At the heart of the controversy surrounding hijabs, like the controversy around most women’s issues, is control. Governments, many of which are fueled by the patriarchy, seek to continuously control and regiment women’s bodies as a means of continuing our oppression.
In the United States, for example, the reframing of abortion as a “moral issue” allowed conservatives to continue to control not just women’s bodies, but their entire lives. With the prevalence of rape culture, as well as the lack of resources for young mothers, the government seeks to stop all upward mobility for women, particularly women of color and those of lower socioeconomic status by forcing them to birth children.
At the end of the day, the true problem concerns a woman’s right to choose. But what does choice truly mean through a feminist lens? Would women still choose to wear or not to wear certain clothes if we did not have the fear of death by a police force, or even by our own neighbors, to worry about? Given the global rise in sexual assault since the onset of the pandemic, it is unclear if the next generation of young women will ever experience a world in which women can make choices unhindered by the constraints of their socialization.
When making a decision as simple as “what to wear”, many women choose the route of least resistance. While this can be seen as a faux feminist perspective (which, in many ways it is – there is no way to wear makeup “for yourself” while makeup gives you a social advantage in society), it is principally a means of protection for women.
Only when we overcome the constraints of the patriarchy will we know true freedom, as a unified community of women. But until then, the question remains whether or not we as feminists shall punish other women for celebrating their feminism in ways unfamiliar to us, or if we shall join in support of them.
The choice is yours.