Veiled oppression?

It is not an uncommon sight, even on the picturesque streets of Jordaan, the old Jewish quarter of Amsterdam: Young Muslim women exchange pleasant banter, giggle shyly and chat away on their mobile phones. They head downtown, a pair of Nike sneakers on their feet and a traditional Islamic headscarf covering their hair. The sight of a beautiful face lost behind an ungainly headscarf has always filled me with a sense of melancholy, even a certain amount of distress. The black fabric (even the modern take, adorned with logos of Gucci and other Western fashion houses) seems at once to bury face and personality – it is striking how the rest of the body goes unnoticed when the face is hidden. I was strolling around Dam, the main square in Amsterdam, when I happened to strike up a conversation with Halima, a Dutch Muslim of Moroccan decent. She was a social sciences student who covered the greatest part of her black veil with a dark-red sheath of another, more fashionable, fabric. Overcoming my initial trepidation, I decided to jump right in and ask the taboo question. The young woman did not appear at all flustered, it was as if she had already answered this same question a thousand times. And perhaps she had. «The headscarf is my choice. No one imposed it on me. Without it, I feel naked,» she said, and her easy smile confirmed her words. Maybe it is wrong to want to iron out all the paradoxes of human affairs. But I always thought of the headscarf as a symbol of oppression against women. At best I saw it as a symbol of internalized oppression, something along the lines of Marx’s false consciousness. But how can you prove something like this? How can you convince someone that they are being oppressed but they just don’t realize it? To be sure, many will object. Moral relativists, multiculturalists and, of course, Muslims are probably ready to pounce on this argument right now as being the manifestation of arrogant, narrow-minded orientalism, as it were. At least the feminists will be on my side. However, can oppression be a cultural prerogative? Women who wear a headscarf in Europe (and, of course, in «we’re-secular-whether-we-like-it-or-not» Turkey) believe that any attempt to ban the wearing of headscarves in public places is a form of oppression and a violation of civil liberties (here again we see the paradoxes of liberalism, which inevitably cancels itself out). Women and girls insist that the decision to wear a headscarf symbolizes their emancipation. They say the headscarf is a symbol of freedom. At the same time, the veil slips over the face, blocking their view of the world.