The hijab goes to aerobics class

Can we defend women's right to choose the veil and still acknowledge its impediment to equality?

Published September 10, 2009 12:11PM (EDT)

By now, we all know the burqini and the over-the-top controversy it continues to attract. But what happens when devout Muslim women want to exercise outside the pool? Of course, most workout wear is unacceptable in mixed company. But not all women who wear the hijab have access to women-only gyms. So what's an observant girl to do? A New York Times Thursday Styles feature investigates.

In the piece, women talk about the strange looks they've gotten while runnning veiled and the uniforms they've devised ("a scarf made of spandex, long-sleeved Under Armour shirts and Adidas or Puma pants") to maintain their modesty while sharing the gym with men. And some interviewees claim it's just difficult to maintain a regimen when they won't be showing off their bodies in public, anyway. "We don't have the external motivation that non-Muslim women have," said Mubarakha Ibrahim, the owner of a women-only fitness center. "There is no little black dress to fit into, no bathing suit. When you pass through a mirror or glass you're not looking to see 'Is my tummy tucked in? Do I look good in these jeans?' You're looking to see if you're covered."

Even within the observant Muslim community, there is some debate on what is and isn't acceptable workout etiquette. "Some women don’t think you should be working out in a co-ed gym," said one interviewee, "but I’m around men all the time in my workplace, when I take my kids to the park, when I walk outside." Particular activities are also contentious. Some Muslims, writes Ellin, "believe that certain yoga chants, for example, are forbidden, as well as certain poses like sun salutations (Muslims are supposed to worship only Allah)."

Meanwhile, in her L.A. Times op-ed column, Meghan Daum reminds us of the larger perils facing ladies whoo don't choose to conform to certain countries' repressive dress codes. She uses the case of Lubna Hussein, the journalist who was arrested in Sudan for wearing pants, to launch yet another attack on Naomi Wolf's vindication of the hijab, which Tracy Clark-Flory recently defended. In her piece, Wolf celebrates the chador -- which allows her to take her mind off her appearance -- as liberating. And, as Daum allows, "Invisibility (or at least plainness) has its good points. Sure, it can be fun to get attention -- sometimes for showing skin, if that's your thing -- but it also can be tremendously liberating to bow out of the whole 'am I hot?' enterprise altogether." She also acknowledges that "skimpy" American clothing makes it tempting to argue that the veil is less repressive than the miniskirt. "But if equating the hijab with patriarchal oppression is reductive and reactionary, romanticizing it is even more so, and the case of Lubna Hussein is a reminder of that," writes Daum. "As Wolf's experience suggests, it's fun to dress up if you're truly dressing up, if the fabric that covers you feels more like a fun costume than a state- enforced shield against arrest or worse. Miniskirts may represent their own kind of tyranny, but in this country we have a way of fighting back: We can wear something else."

Daum's is a powerful argument, but in the end, the two writers seem to basically agree. As Clark-Flory notes, for Wolf, the veiling debate also comes down to choice. She quotes Wolf as writing, "I do not mean to dismiss the many women leaders in the Muslim world who regard veiling as a means of controlling women. Choice is everything."

And it may be. But while Ellin's is by far the lighter of the two pieces, for me it is more troubling than Daum's, as it brings to light some of the subtler inequalities involved in veiling. I agree with Wolf, who urges Westerners to "recognise that when a woman in France or Britain chooses a veil, it is not necessarily a sign of her repression" and makes the larger argument that anti-veil vitriol is often nothing more than Islamophobia mapped onto women's bodies. Yet I don't think we can ignore the thousands of small difficulties -- which really may be impediments to leading a life of equal access and opportunity -- facing women who cover themselves (be they Muslim, Orthodox Jewish or fundamentalist Christian), whether they choose it or not.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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