Excuse Me, But Oppression and Empowerment Are Not Yours To Give

doaa el-ghobashy rio olympics sexism hijab

Source: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images South America

Whether it’s attributing women’s success to their husbands or male coaches, failing to mention female gold medal winners by name, or simply making gendered remarks throughout the overall coverage, it’s a wonder that sexist skulduggery hasn’t become an Olympic sport itself during the Rio games.

However, reading through some of the comments surrounding Doaa Elghobashy’s decision to wear a hijab during a women’s Olympic volleyball match was the final straw for me. Words like “oppression”, “abuse”, and “empowerment” were being thrown around like confetti and it made me so incredibly angry that, for her first time as part of an Olympic team, all anybody could talk about was Doaa’s clothes. Especially when the majority of people making these observations were white, western males.

I felt I need to say something to those people.

Firstly, do you realise how condescending it is to use your white privilege, particularly if that privilege is also male, to declare that a woman is oppressed? Without talking to her or without attempting to understand her religion, her culture or her history? Similarly, what right has anybody got to declare that a woman who doesn’t wear a hijab empowered? These decisions are simply not yours to make.

However, if I was to give you the benefit of the doubt and concede that you may simply be trying to raise awareness of wider systematic oppression within any given culture (yes, some of which may involve the hijab, niqab or burkha), I would advise taking a lot more caution in how you engage in these discourses. I actually saw a tweet this morning that encouraged people to “make the right decision between the oppressed East and the empowered West” which I just thought was so incredibly alienating for women whose lives these garments are a part of. Using any kind of privilege to speak up for those with less privilege can be a worthwhile thing to do, but positioning any form of oppression as though it is an affront to your alleged freedom simply invalidates your cause. So, frankly, I’m pretty sure that most of those offended by Doaa’s hijab are not awareness raising about overarching sexist structures and are instead frightened of being infiltrated by what they consider to be oppressive behaviour.

In the same vein, this constant ‘othering’ of non-Western cultures is enough to be oppressive in itself. The endless presumption that the West has it right whilst the East flounder behind doesn’t promote any call to action or encourage people into educating themselves about gender politics. Instead, this ‘othering’ allows the fortunate Westerners to distance themselves from the oppressed Easterners, to disown and disregard them which, again, is an act of discrimination and oppression in itself. This is further compounded when the term ‘East’ is entirely conflated with ‘Muslim’ which it so frequently is. Not only that, this positioning of the West on a pedestal actually fails to acknowledge some of the systems of oppression happening right under our Western noses.

Like oppression, empowerment is not something that can simply be bestowed on a person. Empowerment is organic and ultimately originates within the individual themselves so, simply by stating that women should be allowed to remove their hijab, does not an empowered woman make. There’s an entire culture shift that would have to take place to rid any culture of misogynistic influences and that’s if we’re completely disregarding the fact that there are actually a large number of women for whom the hijab or niqab is an important part of their identity.

Finally, empowerment is certainly not based on male-centric ideas of what a woman should look like. Scrutinising women under the male gaze and making presumptions about their history and social status is you participating in the same discourses which you believe are responsible for forcing women to wear a burka. In the same way, a woman such as the German athlete baring her flesh in a bikini is not automatically empowered simply because you believe that Western liberation is borne out of sexual freedom because this rhetoric is also terribly flawed and fraught with difficulty.

At a fundamental level, Doaa and every other woman competing at the Olympics are superb athletes who are absolutely at the top echelons of their sport. To fail to acknowledge this and simply reduce this wonderful event to a matter of female appearance, in my opinion, completely buys into the sexist discourses that consider yourself to be rallying against. So, if you’re asking me to choose a side between the oppressed East and the liberated West, I choose neither. Instead, I choose any side where women are not systematically oppressed by the male gaze and where empowerment and freedom are not simply established by a woman’s appearance under that gaze.

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