Being a Muslim in Sweden means you'll have to regularly explain why you don't want to drink a beer after work on Fridays, but that's not the only hassle you deal with. Sweden's media landscape is flooded with experts, writers, and politicians explaining various ways for Swedish Muslims to adapt to "Swedish culture", suggesting hijab bans or voicing concerns over gender equality and whether that can be in harmony with wearing a veil. Most of these self-proclaimed experts aren't Muslim.
Like Moderaterna's Sophia Jarl, who is one of those many loud non-Muslim voices demanding a hijab ban in Sweden's elementary schools. She highlighted her plan last week in a piece published only a day after news broke that a woman lying on the beach in Nice, France was forced by police to undress, due to the city's local burkini ban (which has been overturned since).
So how do Swedish Muslim women actually feel about endlessly being spoken for and about – without being asked for their opinion? In a week with so many headlines concerning Muslim women, I reached out to some to find out.
Mariam, 23 We're living in a democracy, so decision-makers shouldn't suggest laws about what women can and can't wear in public places. Why can't a woman be allowed to cover herself with a burkini when surfers can? It's a double standard and it's wrong. It's because it's about Muslim women.
There's always someone else speaking for us. Like that professor Devin Rexvid, writing about the veil being a symbol for oppression. He knows a lot and he gets the chance to speak. But he's not at all an expert to speak for women – especially Muslim women.
It all comes down to the the choices of the individual. If I want to wear a bikini to a public beach and someone is telling me to cover up, well, that's oppression. If I want to wear a burkini to a public beach and someone's telling me to undress, well guess what? That's oppression too. It's always some man making decisions for us – "get undressed, get dressed". No one but me should make those kinds of decisions.
Carolina, 29 I wore a hijab for about six years, and that felt great. But at one point I wasn't able to deal with confrontations on the street anymore – the verbal and physical ones. You're always the outsider, you're always questioned. Your energy to deal with that is limited. There are many self-appointed experts on matters concerning us Muslim women. They tell us what's behind the choices we've made, that we don't really want this. We're often deemed unfit to make our own decisions in the current debate. I have to be allowed to tell my own story, someone else can't do that for me. Especially not someone who has assumptions about me. People assume I was forced to wear a hijab, and that I've taken it off they assume I've experienced some kind of liberation. It's actually the other way around. The Western debate about female clothing has come down to: "A woman should be free to make her own decisions as long as we can decide what she decides." And so we end up on the other side of the exact same coin of patriarchy.
Mariama, 27 To wear something on your head or to wear long skirts is part of an identity. Who am I if I'm not allowed to be me? Clothing bans alienate people. It's my choice to wear what I wear. People penalising me for what I wear are oppressing me. I'm generally pretty positive though. I try to make sure I understand people who might not have picked up on what Islam is from a valid source. I think it's important for everyone to – at the very least – respect that some people have other religious beliefs. I honestly appreciate when people ask questions about Islam – it's important that we have a dialogue and I'm happy that people are curious and actually ask. I don't think media are very good at showing what Islam is like on the inside. But the most important thing for me is that I know why I chose to dress the way I dress and that I know what I believe in – this is who I am and I won't apologise for it. I sometimes find it amusing that other people are taking the right to speak for me, because usually they have no clue what they're talking about. It's not the end of the world for me though – I know who I am.
Melissa, 23 I don't think Muslim women get the chance to speak for ourselves in the media very often, but there are a lot of other voices heard about matters that concern us. It's particularly non-Muslim men who speak for us. They think that they know – that we're oppressed because they've read something in the media – but they don't know. We should be the ones speaking but we're never really asked about these things. Unfortunately, white men have the loudest voices and most power in society. Whatever we as women of colour say can be removed or rewritten in seconds, because we don't have that kind of power. My mum always told me that we have to fight ten times harder than anyone else – even for the most basic stuff, like getting through school. That's obviously pretty upsetting.
Rüya, 20 Some girls don't experience racism at all, while others have experienced a lot worse than what I have – but I support women from all backgrounds. Because I dare to speak out about the things I see and experience, people tend to be negative towards me. But I don't let it get to me.
Politicians or other decision-makers talking about banning the hijab are just ridiculous, to me. Forcing someone to wear something and forcing someone to undress is just both wrong. If you've chosen to wear a veil and are forced to remove it – well, it's discriminating. Not only men forcing women to wear a veil are bad. The other way around is bad, too.
Media portray Muslim women as oppressed people who need to be saved. They think our men tell us what to do and what to wear. That's not the case at all – there's obviously a small group of people experiencing that, but not the majority, and it's not the point of the veil. It's wrong and upsetting that an image is propagated that doesn't correspond with reality. And how will banning the veil "save" us from anything?
It seems to me that every time something good about Muslim women happens in the media, it has to be balanced out with something bad. When a couple of fashion brands featured girls wearing veils in their campaigns recently, the media found a girl to speak about how awful it felt to look at the ads because they reminded her of how she used to feel when she was oppressed. When we're finally represented it never stops there.
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