“The Greeks, as we all know, used to compete in the original Olympic games stark naked and smothered in olive oil. That’s no longer the fashion – because we have different cultural ideas about what parts of the body are suitable for public display – and, in fact, some women have taken the trend for Olympic modesty one stage further.
“This year, several women, including Egyptian fencer Shaimaa El Gammal and Bahraini sprinter Rakia Al Gassra, will be competing wearing the hijab.
“I suppose that as a good liberal feminist I ought to be appalled by this, seeing it as a symbol of patriarchal oppression. In fact, I find I rather admire these women.
“I am appalled by the fact that some countries, including Saudi Arabia, have sent male-only teams to the games. But for these women, combining their religious beliefs with their athletic ambitions, I have nothing but respect.
“A lot of rubbish is talked about the hijab. Since France banned girls from wearing them in schools in 2004, there has been a steady stream of media stories and comment suggesting that Britain should do the same. Feminist friends tell me that the headscarves are a symbol of female subjugation, a way to deal with male lust by forcing women to cover up, and that as such, they should not be tolerated in a gender-equal society. The women who wear them, they say, have been pressured into it by their communities.
“Well, yes and no. We all wear the kind of clothes we wear partly because of social pressure – and our own culture still says, for example, that it is more acceptable, and less sexual, for men to walk down the street topless than it is for women. Many patriarchal religions do indeed hold highly disturbing views about women, which should be challenged, but we should confront those ideas via education and debate, not by forcing young women to reveal parts of their bodies they would rather keep covered. If women say that they want to wear a headscarf, I’m afraid we have to take them at their word. What could be more anti-feminist than telling women that they don’t really know what they think?
“Some might say that this is a matter of principle: removing religion from public life. That may well be a laudable aim, but if we want to pursue it we really ought to begin not by forcing schoolgirls to display their hair but by disestablishing the Church of England. In any case, surely the removal of religion from public life means that public bodies should have no religious preference, not that individuals should be banned from quietly practising their own faiths in public spaces.
“There is, in fact, a very easy test of whether a person’s religious practices are unsuitable for a particular work or school environment: does that religious practice make it impossible for the person to fully carry out the function they are there for? As someone raised in the Orthodox Jewish tradition – which observes a strict sabbath every week from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday – it would be absurd for me to apply for a position, for example, reporting on the weekend club scene. If your religious beliefs mean that you consider abortion to be a sin, the field of gynaecology is not for you. If you hold strong convictions against gay marriage, you shouldn’t apply for a job as a registrar.
“And if you wear a headscarf? Clearly you are not going to be suited for a job as a hairdresser’s model, but – unless the material is so thick as to be soundproof – it will pose no difficulties in most jobs, or in the business of learning, which is what children attend school for. In fact, as the headscarf-wearing Olympic athletes show, there are almost no limits to your possible achievements.”
Naomi Alderman in the Guardian, 14 August 2008