I’ve never fully understood how and why a simple piece of fabric, strategically placed on a woman’s head, can be so frequently and easily misinterpreted as some sort of universal symbol of oppression. I have often heard American women express disgust at the notion of a woman who wears a “veil” to cover her hair. Many of these proud and self-proclaimed “feminists” seem to have the common collective belief that Muslim women who cover (that is, Muslim women who wear hijab) are all being forced to do so by some archetypal misogynistic husband or father. “No woman would choose that,” seems to be the common interpretation. And it is the interpretation that I overhear one afternoon in some Starbucks attached to a bookstore I happen to have found my way into. Four young white women sit at a table, all picking at the same brownie, all sipping on a grande something-or-other, and all reading fashion magazines with what I assume they think are free and liberated half-naked starving women on the covers. One of them looks over at a black woman in a purple headscarf holding a baby in her arms. Ordering a tall mocha frappaccino, she looks far from oppressed to me, but one of the fashionistas clearly disagrees. “I would never let a man do that to me.” I look around to see if maybe there is a man harassing a woman in the vicinity, but no. She is referring to this innocuous-looking woman with her child. Another girl chimes in, “I know, seriously. I feel so bad for those women. I would rather die than live like that.”
I know all too well that these women are dead serious. I wonder how they all so readily share the same assumption, that in the middle of Atlanta in 2007, this woman is being forced to cover her hair by some evil unseen masculine oppressor. Of course, there is a possibility that the woman about whom the quartet is speaking is not freely choosing to cover her hair, but something about her makes me doubt this. At any rate, the question I find myself asking in the middle of all of this, as the debate in my head over carrot cake or chocolate brownie grows harder to resolve, is why none of these liberated modern women seems to recognize the evil masculine oppressor that is staring all of them right in the face. They look at airbrushed photos of models and actresses and heiresses, and they seem to believe that this two-dimensional farce is somehow the embodiment of the ideal contemporary woman, when she is in fact the carefully-constructed composite of several pathetically trite heterosexual male fantasies. They all seem to have bought into the idea that bikinis equal freedom, that lip-gloss equals empowerment, that low-rise jeans are a completely reasonable and comfortable substitute for real pants. These women are walking, talking testaments to the power of American advertising.
Meanwhile, the oppressed woman in lilac has been joined by a man who appears to be her husband. All signs seem to indicate that he is not, in fact, the devil incarnate. He comes pushing an empty pink and white stroller with one hand and carrying a plate of carrot cake in the other. He places the cake on the table in front of his wife, and she hands him the baby. As she comes to get a fork, she looks at me, apparently having noticed my inordinately long visit with the painfully well-lit dessert case.
“Why not just try one of each?” she asks me, laughing.
“I know,” I tell her. “You’d think it were some big important decision or something, right?”
“Are you saying that cake isn’t important? Shame on you!” she says as she walks away, again laughing. I laugh along with her and decide that I’ll try the carrot cake too. Meanwhile, the quartet is getting up to leave. “I can’t believe I ate nearly half of that entire brownie,” I hear one of them say. “Relax,” another responds, “I’m going to the gym later. You can come with if you want. Don’t forget your purse.”