Anti-Hijab and the Empire's New Morality

Jennifer Cotter


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In class society, the position of women has long been regarded as exclusively a cultural matter: an issue of morals, ethics, and values.  Recently, nothing has displayed this more clearly than debates over the burqa or, for that matter, any mode of hijab (Islamic "modest dress") that requires women to put on some level of covering to "veil" their morality (from the full coverage of the burqa used under the Taliban, to the chador of Iran, to a simple headscarf).  In the United States, for instance, hijab has been read as a sign of a "barbaric" and "evil" culture that "hates" the "difference" of women and is therefore undemocratic.

Women's "individual freedom" to be "unique" and to buy and wear what they want has, moreover, been elevated to an act of "moral resistance" to "terrorism" and "evil": something along the lines of "shop or the terrorists win".  By contrast, many Muslims have argued that hijab is itself an act of "moral resistance" to the cultural imperialism of the "West", including the routine commodification of women and their sexuality under capitalism.  "Morality", modesty and piety in sexual relations, and "family values" are all considered to be determinants of women's economic and social position (its elevation or degradation) in society, as if sexual relations outside of marriage on the part of women are the root of economic inequality.

Despite what seems to be a fundamental "moral opposition", both arguments are ideological modes of legitimating capitalist production.  This is because at root, (anti)hijab is a strategy for capitalism to control the international labor force.  More specifically, both of these culturalist positions on hijab are ideological positions addressed at women as a "reserve labor" force that can be pushed in and pulled out of productive labor, to meet the needs of capital to control its access to labor-power.

In short, (anti)hijab is a class issue and an economic matter of capital's fundamental reliance on the exploitation of human labor-power in order to make a profit.

The reduction of the "veil" to a matter of "moral laws" (not an economic and labor matter) ideologically shores up capitalism by putting forward the ideological illusion that moral values determine class.  The (anti)hijab debate is an instance of what Frederick Engels called the "application of morality to economics".  It reads the "concrete" of the economy on the basis of moral laws not on the basis of economic laws and historical conditions.  In doing so, it treats morality ahistorically as "an eternal, ultimate and forever immutable ethical law on the pretext that the moral world too has its permanent principles that stand above history and the differences between nations" (Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring, 118).  By retreating into ahistorical notions of morality and ethics as "above" class and production relations, (anti)hijab conceals the theft of workers' surplus-labor by owners and the increasing disparity between classes through moral and legal codes of conduct. As a consequence, it conceals the economic laws and historical conditions that determine women's lives, making the economic conditions of women's lives appear to be a consequence of their moral and ethical choices.  Both Islamic family law and liberalism, for instance, see "fairness" and "equality" in economic relations to be derived from moral and ethical behaviors on the part of individuals: how individuals conduct themselves in business and personal relations and how they regard others.  In short, they are efforts to promote an "ideal human" as the basis of agency and change.  In actuality morality and the "ideal human" always reflect the social relations and, in class society, the interests of the ruling class.  Whatever choices an individual has are shaped by the material conditions she is in, especially those which determine to what degree she will command material resources: whether only so much as to allow her to be an exploited wage-laborer or more than enough so that she may have command over the labor of others as a capitalist.

For instance, liberal feminists, who oppose hijab, shore up capitalism by approaching women's position in society as a matter of inherent "rights" to individual freedom, "unique-ness" and "choice".  This position supports the existing relations of production in capitalism, which are based on private property, by substituting a formal justice and equality of "individual rights" and "uniqueness", for economic equality, freedom from necessity, and social justice for all.  Liberal feminists see freedom for women as autonomous from the mode of production and whether all people own the means of production and therefore collectively determine the social uses toward which labor-power is put, or only some people privately own the means of production and, therefore, use the labor-power of others to produce profit.  This means that they do not think that freedom of labor from exploitation and freedom from necessity for all are requirements for the emancipation of women.  Instead, they support capitalism through reforms, by advancing women's "rights" to individual freedoms and promoting an "ethical" or "caring capitalism", which puts the freedom of bourgeois women to exploit others before the needs of the majority of women who are exploited as workers.

In their arguments that hijab is an "unethical" practice, liberal feminists have held up as a sign of "classlessness" and "justice" that women in the "West" are "liberated" to choose how they want to dress and to wear cosmetics and fashionable clothing.  In fact, freedom of choice regarding fashion and cosmetics—aspects of "lifestyle"—has been regarded as the epitome of "freedom" for women and is offered as "evidence" that women are determined by their own "individuality" not by class.  This is because "class" is understood to be an act of consumption and the "freedom" of the individual that is defended by liberal feminism is identical to the freedom to go shopping: to buy whatever one wants, to wear whatever one wants, to consume. Hijab is too restrictive for consumption, which is why liberal feminism opposes it.

But freedom from "class" for women is determined by material conditions, not the image of the "ideal human" put forward in fashion magazines!  What seems to be an "unrestricted" freedom for women in the U.S. to "wear" and "buy" what they want is actually a product of economic compulsion in class society.  In fact, as Evelyn Reed has shown (Problems of Women's Liberation) "fashion" and "cosmetics" have always been used as a way to naturalize class antagonisms and production relations based on private property.  Cosmetics and fashion (the use of clothing and make-up for decoration, ornamentation, and "beauty") are exclusively a product of class society and, since their inception, they have signified economic inequality.  They arose under feudalism as a privilege of the aristocracy and were used as a mark of class distinction by both men and women of the aristocracy, in contrast to the serf labor upon which the aristocracy's wealth depended.

Once the bourgeoisie overthrew the aristocracy and feudal relations of production were displaced by capitalist relations of production, the majority of laboring women were displaced of their productive role in society as the "household" ceased to be the center of productive labor.  Cosmetics and fashion became an expression of women's economic dependence on men in capitalism and sexual competition between women for men, brought on by their displacement from productive labor with the onset of commodity production and exchange.

Now, with the advance of the productive forces in capitalism, "beauty" products and "fashionable clothing" which once distinguished one class from another, are produced for the "mass market" making it appear as if all women now also have access to equal class positions, because they all have "free" access to "beauty" and "fashion".  Contemporary feminists, such as Elaine Showalter, who defend the class privileges of women who can afford to wear haute couture clothing such as Prada and Armani, argue that "once fabric and clothing were mass produced, they became matters of choice rather than class" (Elaine Showalter, "Fade To Greige", London Review of Books, January 4, 2001).  Class, in other words, is normalized as a matter of lifestyle and one's consumption choices.

As in all cases, however, consumption is limited by production.  Cosmetics and "fashionable" attire for women are an unspoken requirement in most workplaces in order to gain, and often retain, employment.  Keeping up-to-date is not a "choice" for women who do not own the means of production but must sell their labor-power in order to survive.  Contrary to the ideological representation, it is not possible to determine your class position through "dressing for success".  The fact that one's position in the social relations of production is what determines class, and not one's attire, becomes quite clear when the fashion and beauty industry changes the standard in order to create a new "need" for their commodities—for example, by adjusting a hemline or altering the acceptable color scheme—and thus "outdate" the previous season's clothing before they have outlived their usefulness as protective covering. What may be a form of entertainment for ruling class women, who can afford to discard their wardrobe for the latest fashions is extremely costly for working class women who are required to adhere to corporate "beauty" in the workplace.  The "fashionable feminism" advanced by elite academics such as Showalter erases the real conditions of need for the majority of women in class society who either produce the clothing and cannot afford basic necessities of life from their wages or who are required to wear "fashionable" clothing at work and must go into debt doing so.  What seems like "freedom of the individual", and "evidence" that "class" no longer determines the lives of women, is actually the subordination of women to commodity production and exchange and the freedom of the corporation to turn over a profit at the expense of workers.  At most what it offers is the limited freedom for working class women to "look classy" while they are being further impoverished economically by the transfer of wealth away from social resources in education, healthcare, social security, … and toward the defense budget, tax-credits for the rich, corporate welfare—all of which defend the interests of transnational capitalists.

On the other hand, those who support hijab also support private ownership of the means of production and the wage-labor/capital relation as the basis for women's "rightful" place in society.  They also appeal to abstract notions of "individual rights" and "morality" by defending hijab for both men and women as a matter of the "private spiritual space" of the individual in the public sphere; for women, specifically their freedom from the male gaze and sexualized attention (Fadwa El Guindi, Veil: Modesty, Privacy, Resistance).  By defining people as "private moral beings" who stand "outside" of the public sphere, this position also conceals the increasing disparity between classes and capitalism's determination of the conditions of women's lives worldwide.

It is telling that an "Islamic revival" and a turn to hijab within nations that do not legally require women to wear the veil, such as Egypt, is gaining ardent support among wealthy young men and women (e.g. Heba Kandil, "Many of Egypt's Muslim Women Turn to the Veil",, January 7, 2003).  Many of these women claim that "hijab" gives spiritual security to women regardless of their class position.  As one Egyptian sociologist put it, "for some poor people who live in nasty neighborhoods, the veil protects women because it sends a message that they're conservative and not easy prey" (Kandil 2).  It is women's clothing and their moral values, in short, that serves as protection of women from crushing poverty and the blows of domestic violence and rape.  I leave aside the fact that domestic violence and rape rates remain high in both nations where hijab is endorsed as well as in nations, such as the United States, that see it as "oppressive" to women.  The "spiritual protection" and "inner peace" that is attributed to hijab is actually an effect of the economic security of some (ruling class) women who benefit from class inequality—an economic security that is allowed to some women that is represented as a "spiritual" and "moral" security of all women.

This may seem like a contradiction since the popular interpretation of "Islam" in the U.S. is that it is against capitalism—most sharply signified by the attacks on the World Trade Center.  Moreover, this view has been codified in the arguments of many Muslim women who wear hijab and argue that it is an expression of "freedom" of women from the "male gaze" and the commodification of their bodies and sexuality in capitalism, and therefore serves as a "resistance" to the effects of "imperialism" on women.

But, Islamic Family Law (Shari'ah), from which hijab takes its direction, is a legal and moral expression of private property relations.  Its rules for gender relations, the family and reproduction, and inheritance laws and rights—while widely interpreted—presuppose the historical development of private ownership of the means of production and, therefore, class society.  The moral laws articulated in the name of "Muhammad" on issues of ethical trading, price controls, taxation of markets, etc. that have become sites of intense conflict between various interpretations of the Qur'an within Muslim nations, all presuppose the existence of trade and private property.  Moreover, it is argued by many Islamic feminists that Islam in its "pure form" is the most progressive of all religions regarding women specifically because the Qur'an explicitly grants women private property rights: the right to own their own business, to inherit wealth, choose marriage partners and divorce them.  But this is ruling class freedom for women—it is gender equality for property holders and equal exploitation for those who are denied ownership of the means of production.

The unfreedom of class relations for the majority of women is in the "practical relations" behind the veil.  The veil and the seclusion of women appeared many centuries prior to Islam in the class societies of Assyria, classical Greece, the Byzantine Christian world, Persia, and India.  Like fashion and cosmetics, veiling has been used since its inception as a mark of class distinction.  For instance, Assyrian Kings introduced the veil and the seclusion of women in the Royal harem.  Moreover, prostitutes and slaves were forbidden from veiling and could be slashed if they disobeyed this law ("The Burqa, Chador, Veil and Hijab!: Historical Perspectives on Islamic Dress"  Its original adoption by Islam also followed this historical trajectory: it was used by women of the ruling class to distinguish themselves from women of exploited classes.  Pro-hijab morality grew out of imperatives of private property relations and the concentration of the social surplus into the hands of a few.  It was used to support the interests of the ruling class by marking the class position between women and, accordingly, adjudicating the inheritance rights of their offspring in order to help maintain the concentration of wealth into fewer hands.

Today, these marks of class distinction reassert themselves even in countries where all women are required to wear some form of hijab, such as in Iran, where wealthier women are starting to wear "designer" chadors of fine, colorful fabrics and intricate embroidery (now promoted in Iran's first fashion magazine since 1979: Lotous).

Upon closer examination, it becomes clear that (anti)hijab morality is not an eternal moral code of conduct—both western "fashion" and hijab (and the codes of morality that these draw from) are historical and have their roots in class society.  Moreover, inequality and injustice for women is rooted not in their moral choices but in class relations—the private property relations founded on private ownership of the means of production.

It is not morality that determines women's economic position; rather, morality derives from what Engels calls the "practical relations on which their class position is based—from the economic relations in which they carry on production" (Anti-Dühring 118).  Morality and ethics, in other words, are not autonomous and eternal laws.  For example, ethical rules that grant women of the property owning class equal ownership of private property cease to make any sense at all in a society which has done away with private property relations altogether.  Instead, they are historical and "in the last analysis [...] the product of the economic conditions of society obtaining at the time.  And just as society has so far moved in class antagonisms, so morality has always been class morality" (Anti-Dühring 118-119).

The "practical relations"—that is, the production relations—of capitalism do not depend on "moral values" or "ethical ideas" about fairness and equality; they depend on the exploitation of human labor-power.  What makes a capitalist wealthy is not that he is a "moral citizen" or has "democratic ethics", but that he owns the means of production and can, therefore, appropriate the surplus-labor of those who do not own the means of production but must sell their labor-power to survive.  It is not "morality" but the exploitation of human labor-power that is a necessary condition for capitalism because only labor-power can produce surplus-value.  That is, at a specific stage of historical development of the productive forces, labor-power can produce more value than the labor necessary to produce articles required for its own reproduction.  It is the theft of this "surplus-labor" (exploitation) that is the basis of profit in capitalism.

What is necessary for capital to make a profit is, therefore, access to a continuous supply of exploitable labor-power, and the capacity to control this supply depending on the historical conditions of the productive forces of society.  Because only labor-power can produce surplus-value the increase of the laboring population is a necessary condition, if capitalist accumulation is to be a steady, continuous process. But the "absolute growth" of the laboring population in reproduction, as Marx makes clear, itself depends upon definite material conditions in production: for instance, an increasing population "presupposes an average wage which permits not only reproduction of the labouring population but also its constant growth" (Marx, Theories of Surplus-Value, Vol. II, 477).  If economic conditions are not developed enough (or have been deteriorated, for instance, through warfare) capitalism needs to make provisions so as not to disrupt its capacity to extract surplus-labor.  Thus, "Capitalist production provides for unexpected contingencies by overworking one section of the labouring population and keeping the other as a ready reserve army consisting of partially or entirely pauperized people" (477).

(Anti)hijab morality is not explained by "eternal moral laws" which, upon closer examination, are merely an expression of the practical relations of the capitalist mode of production.  Instead, it is explained by the dependence of capitalism on the exploitation of human labor-power and the fact that it must use "reserve labor forces" to manage its access to and control over a continuous supply of exploitable labor-power in order to make a profit.  Liberal feminist morality of "individual choice" is an articulation of capitalism's need to pull reserves of previously unproductive workers into productive labor—specifically by incorporating women as collective producers into wage-labor—and, at the same time, ensure that women will be a compliant labor force that see themselves not as exploited labor (and, therefore, part of a class) but as "individuals".  The Islamic feminist morality of hijab, "modesty" in sexual relations, and romanticizing of motherhood, also helps capitalism by addressing its need for controlling the future supply of labor-power by using the "reserve labor forces" of women in reproduction in order to increase the supply of labor-power.  Its emphasis on "family values", moreover, helps to limit the cost of social reproduction to within the privatized family so that an increased population does not serve as a drain on profit for capitalists.

The cultural differences over hijab and women's dress do not have to do with fundamental oppositions over private property, the basic process of exploitation, or the use of women as "reserve" labor for capital.  Rather these cultural debates are the effect of increasing systemic crisis and instability in capitalism brought on by the concentration of wealth into fewer hands and resulting in increased inter-capitalist competition around the globe and uneven levels of development of the productive forces internationally.  What seem to be fundamental moral oppositions are actually ideological strategies that address different sectors of the international working class, depending on the historical level of development of the productive forces under which capitalists must work to make a profit.

Hijab and its emphasis on "family values" (along with other conservative and religious tendencies such as Christian fundamentalism) has grown in many nations of the South as a response to deteriorating economic conditions, brought on by imperialism and the concentration of global production into fewer hands.  In Iraq, for instance, the return to religion and the donning of hijab by working class women has increased dramatically from the deterioration of its productive forces as a result of Gulf War I and prolonged economic sanctions (to try and force out national capitalist competitors that stand in the way of U.S. capital's access to Iraqi oil reserves and labor-power).  The severe deterioration of economic conditions has led to a situation in which the social resources necessary in order to reproduce the laboring population have seriously declined.  State-funded programs of childcare, public education, etc. that the Iraqi government established in the 1970s and 1980s to pull women into skilled productive labor in order to address labor-shortages for the developing national bourgeoisie have now been cut.  The increasing acceptance of pro-hijab morality is an effect of economic compulsion of class relations and increasing class contradictions.  Although it is taken up by many proletarian women in Iraq, hijab is a ruling class morality that has served to help ideologically bolster the interests of the struggling national bourgeoisie in Iraq, which is facing severe labor shortages as a result of the human slaughter of U.S. led imperialist war and needs "absolute growth" of the labor force, without dipping into the surplus-value that the ruling class needs to reinvest in capitalist ventures in order to accumulate profit.

The liberal feminist moralism of "individual rights", on the other hand, is useful for serving the labor needs of capitalism under conditions of higher development of the productive forces.   Liberal feminism has always been used as a means for incorporating reserve labor forces of women into the workforce, while maintaining the ideological illusion of "classlessness" for working class women that covers over the theft of their surplus labor.  But, in its economic content, the projection of "classlessness" for women on capitalist relations of production is a defense of the class relations of capitalism, which becomes increasingly evident as liberal feminism is used to defend the imperialist interests of U.S. capital.  The "moral outrage" on the part of liberal feminists of the U.S. toward the use of  hijab in Afghanistan and Iraq, for instance, has helped serve to put a "progressive" spin on U.S. capital's imperialist interests in Central Asia and the Middle East.  It covers over the economic relations in transnational capitalism behind the resurgence of hijab and, moreover, helps to inculcate the international labor reserves of women into labor that is productive of surplus-value for the capitalists of the imperialist nations.  It represents not the end of women's oppression in class society, but a different mode of it suited to the interests of U.S. capital.  It is, in short, a moral expression of the fact that as capitalist production has developed into imperialist capitalism, higher levels of productivity at the same time has made capitalist accumulation more difficult to maintain.  The advanced productivity of workers (brought on by advances in labor saving technology) and intensified concentration of capital into fewer hands, means that capital starts to invest more in machinery and raw materials and less in labor-power, since less is needed in order to produce the same commodities for exchange.  But, this leads to a crisis of profitability since without increased labor-power, there is no increase of surplus-value, and capitalist profit tends to decline.  Liberal feminism has helped to justify the export of capitalist production into new areas under the name of "advancement for women" when capital needs access to more and more quantities of productive labor at a cheap price, and it has more or less exhausted the current labor reserves within its own national boundaries (or these reserves are more costly to use) and must seek them out elsewhere and transform previously unproductive laborers into productive ones.

(Anti)hijab morality, in other words, has become a way to cover over the instability of capitalist productive processes and its increasing periods of crisis, and normalize the theft of workers' surplus-labor which is a necessary condition of capitalism.

Even the moral objection that the oppression of women is "wrong" is enabled by the contradictions in the economic conditions of production of capitalism.  As Engels put it: "If the moral consciousness of the mass declares an economic fact to be unjust, as it has done in the case of slavery or serf labour, that is proof that the fact itself has been outlived, that other economic facts have made their appearance, owing to which the former has become unbearable and untenable" (Frederick Engels "Introduction" to Karl Marx's The Poverty of Philosophy, 6).  On the one hand, the use of "reserve labor forces" is increasingly made practically unnecessary by the development of productive forces in capitalism.  There is, for example, enough productive capacity of the world's workers for all 6 billion people on the planet to have their needs met for nutrition, shelter, education,... without the constant threat of "unemployment".  But the maintenance of private property and production for profit leads to continuing economic crisis, insecurity, and instability for both workers and capitalists (who must compete more aggressively to maintain profit levels) as the productive forces develop.  Unemployment, starvation, destitution, economic stagnation and decline, bankruptcy, and the maintenance of economically insecure "reserve labor forces" that can be pushed in and pulled out of employment to drive down the cost of labor-power are all the inevitable results of maintaining capitalism.

What this goes to show is that the position of women in society is not a cultural matter of ethical values and moral codes of conduct, but of economic conditions of necessity.  Capitalism needs to keep workers economically insecure in order to drive down the cost of wages.  Using women as a "reserve labor force" is one way to help do this.  But doing so does not actually "resolve" the contradictions and crises in capitalism: both the wealth gap and the instability of capitalist ventures are growing.  Changing the position of women in society is not, at root, founded on "moral demands" regarding their position, but on "the inevitable collapse of the capitalist mode of production which is daily taking place before our eyes to an ever greater degree" (Engels, "Introduction" 6).  It therefore requires not "ethical negotiation", but heightening the fundamental contradictions in capitalism between wage-labor and capital, bringing them to crisis, and fundamentally transforming them.

In concealing class antagonisms in the international division of labor, however, capitalism translates economic inequality into a matter of "negotiable" cultural values.  Ruling class academics put forward a "cultural materialism" that claims that if morality derives from "economic relations of production", and moral codes of conduct differ across nations, this must mean that the "relations of production" themselves are "undecidable" relations; that is, Marxist political economy is unreliable as a guide for global social change because it emerged from a very different European context that no longer exists today.

For instance, it is said among globalization theorists that the "nation" has been "outflanked" in an era of transnationalism (e.g., Peter Drucker, Post-Capitalist Society).  That is, global capitalism has "surpassed" national difference, thus, the continued existence of "difference" in an era of globalization can only mean that, at root, it is based on cultural identity and preference (not uneven developments within capitalism).  Capitalism, in other words, has led to its own "transcendence"—a capitalism beyond capitalism—and all matters of culture are now matters of taste and preference, not labor and class.  The "conversion" of women in the North to Islam and hijab, and the "loosening" of hijab among some women in Muslim nations who are taking up western dress, for instance, is seen as "evidence" that (anti)hijab is a matter of cultural preference and taste and a sign that "global relations" are "undecidable" and follow no necessary logic, especially the logic of the economic laws of motion of capitalist society as explained by Marx.  Resistance to capitalism is, therefore, brought about by the local, individual, "reversibility" of cultural practices within capitalism.

But this cultural determinist theory is a ruling class theory that embraces capitalism through a cultural relay.  It covers over the exploitation of workers behind profit and conceals why capitalist production goes all over the globe, crossing national boundaries: because the nation is the geography of labor-power, historical conditions of necessity in the development of the productive forces of capitalism, making it "more or less expensive to use" (Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Vol.1,115).

It is not the "cultural agency" of hijab or of the "freedom to shop" that "liberates" women, but the emancipation of labor from exploitation. Contrary to the ideological claims of (anti)hijab moralism to "classlessness" and "resistance to capital", it is not possible to move "beyond" class relations on the basis of ethical and moral codes of conduct.  This is because "classlessness" (and freedom of women from the commodification of their sexuality) is a structural relation of production, not an autonomous moral or ethical law.  As Engels put it, a "classless morality" is an effect of practical relations of production, thus, under capitalism "we have not yet passed beyond class morality".  A "classless" ethics or morality "which stands above class antagonisms and above any remembrance of them becomes possible only at a stage of society which has not only overcome class antagonisms but has even forgotten them in practical life" (Anti-Dühring 119).

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