XB: Best comment on this orientalist masterpiece by Max Fisher: “Max learning little bit of geography will be helpful. Pakistan is not in middle east.”
ND: People love talking about how Muslim women should dress. Any discourse concerning Muslim women, particularly in the West, always comes back to clothing and what they’re wearing. Should they cover their heads or not cover their heads, cover their faces or not cover their faces? Nobody actually asks what Muslim women want or how they feel about the way they dress.
Furthermore, this obsession with hijab is just another way of reducing women to their physical appearance. Forget that Muslim women in the U.S. are as likely as Muslim men to hold college as well as postgraduate degrees and women in Iran make up 70% of engineering and science students. Forget the Muslim women winning Nobel prizes or fighting to stop gang violence in Chicago.
No, the important thing is what they’re wearing. /rant
DS: I disagree with you on this one, XB. I don’t think the issue is about what women are wearing, but about the mere fact that men and women are expected to dress differently. That’s a social construction. And an oppressive one that, under certain circumstances, can get women raped or killed if disavowed. Don’t forget that here we’re not talking about a veil that can/must be used by both genders without distinction. This is the issue. The day men also start to cover themselves, then, sure, this will become a different conversation.
@ ND: I’d like to engage some of the comments you stated above. #1: for many of us, citizens of the world, the reason why we engage with this topic is not as much the result of an “obsession with hijab” as it is a reflection on the ways used by patriarchal societies to objectify women. In my case, I’m not concerned about what women are wearing as long as their wardrobe is not a clear means for the perpetuation of male domination. #2: you stated above: “Nobody actually asks what Muslim women want or how they feel about the way they dress.” – I find this statement a little bit problematic. Given that there are places where Muslim women are not allowed to even step outside their homes without the supervision of a male, I believe assuming that these women can have a voice that is not being monitored at all of times by their oppressors is naive at best, misleading at worst. Now, I understand this comment of mine also calls for a caveat: not all Muslim women live under the same conditions, so, it may be argued that my comment does not apply to the majority of Muslim women. Still, if it applies to some, I think it’s worthy to consider its implications. Also, to this kind of arguments I normally reply: so what if some Muslim women have rationalized the tenets by which their oppressors have educated them? Just as during the American Civil War it was possible to find some slaves who argued that there lives were not as bad, and that their masters were not always “bad,” or today you can find very poor people in America who claim that capitalism does not oppress them because (if they work hard) they have “choices,” similarly, we can find Muslim women who embrace their situation and consider it to be the product of their choice. I challenge such assumption. In other words, just because the oppressed have come to terms with their oppression, such behavior does not make their situation “fair” or “natural.” The issue of the veil is delicate. I can see how questions of identity and autonomy intertwine to complicate an across-culture discussion of the topic. But it is my opinion that we should not let artificial borders and nationalism to push the conversation astray. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Muslim women from Indonesia, Bangladesh or Saudi Arabia, you should have the same rights that any other women (and men for that matter) in the world must have. The notion of “equality for all” should be religion, race, gender, and ethnicity blind. In your previous comment, you also talk about “Muslim women in the U.S. are as likely as Muslim men to hold college as well as postgraduate degrees and women in Iran make up 70% of engineering and science students. Forget the Muslim women winning Nobel prizes or fighting to stop gang violence in Chicago.” (point #3): To this, I would like to say that this information is beyond the point of this conversation. While these facts you mentioned are great, they do not invalidate the need to fight for those Muslim women who don’t enjoy the same kind of opportunities. Otherwise, we would be engaging in the dangerous exercise of assuming that the reality of the privileged can be assumed to be the reality of the whole. Also, I would like to know whether these Iranian women you referred to have any voice in public policy making. Because if they are only getting degrees in order to serve a male-dominated society that still addresses male-concerning issues only, then, I don’t see their academic success as a big challenge to the existing status-quo. Lastly, I would like to say that I hope that engaging in these kind of exchanges, we would be able to come up with new ways to “live” a multicultural way of life, instead of simply talking about it.
XB: @ DS: I’m assuming you’re responding to a comment I posted in response to this article but have since deleted. To paraphrase my response, I stated that this article was emblematic of what Deepa Kumar described in an interview as “the notion that Muslim women are horribly oppressed (without actually consulting or talking to Muslim women) and that Muslim men are misogynistic,” and “What followed from this was that Muslim women needed to be rescued by white men swooping in on their horses.”
I went on to say this poll conformed with this view of “misogynistic” men because it makes the assumption that Muslim men are moralistically judging what women wear and therefore feel they have the authority to decide what form of dress is “appropriate” for them. I said that the poll guaranteed this outcome because it didn’t ask should men have the right to decide what women wear at all.
I also criticized Fisher’s reductionist view that political identity in the Middle East could be separated into neat groups of secularists and religious conservatives. I said this separation makes it difficult to think of a religious person also endorsing the idea that a woman should be able to decide what she wears. In this sense, I said the characterization of Islam in this poll was that of an imposing set of beliefs that forces itself on women, in accord with the imperial norm.
I deleted this comment because I discovered that it was simply false that the poll did not ask if men should have the right to decide what women wear at all (It asks should women be able to decide to wear what they wish). I still think the poll could encourage stereotypes about misogynistic Muslim men but not using the argument I made. Also in my last comment when I note that Fisher separates religion and secularism to the point that it excludes any kind of self-determination in the religious context is possibly challenged when Fisher concludes the report by saying “piety” and “feminism” are not mutually exclusive.
If I’ve overlooked anything in this reproduction of my comment let me know. But I agree with you that the norms of dress are a social construction. In fact, I recall pointing out that Karen Armstrong describes the wearing of the hijab as a tradition borrowed from Byzantine Greeks. So I agree here that there are certain gender assumptions that influence what men deem appropriate dress for women but I think the heart of my comment was that this article furthered the portrayal of gender oppression as a unique feature of Middle Eastern societies that manifests itself in men policing the dress of women, an assertion I find categorically false.
ND: Note: My writing always sounds angry – it wasn’t intentional. lol
DS, thanks for your response, but I’m sorry to say I find it largely problematic. I understand what you were trying to express, but I can’t quite agree entirely.
So we can’t deny that oppression exists in the world, particularly the Muslim world. It does, and it’s a major problem. Muslims in many Muslim (and non-Muslim, for that matter) countries face intense struggles for equality, fights that they are indeed fighting and that female Muslim activists and female Islamic scholars are vocal about changing.
I disagree with your disagreement that the world is obsessed with hijab. I find the concept that hijab a “reflection” on the oppression of women shallow and also incredibly offensive as a Muslim. Now, I understand that you weren’t saying that exactly, but that is what was implied – it’s not an uncommon opinion whatsoever but it stems from a misunderstanding of Islam and the Muslim world.
1. Iran and Saudi Arabia are the only Muslim countries will laws requiring women to veil themselves, and if we’re talking about Saudi Arabia and Iran and their human rights violations, I could rant for hours about dozens of other things, including or not including hijab depending on how the conversation went. There are other pockets of areas where women face extreme pressure/force to cover by forces such as gangs or terrorist groups, like in areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Now, that leaves a whole world of Muslim women who dress is a million different ways. I can’t say they’re all wearing hijab out of deep-seated religious conviction – maybe they’re doing it because their friends are, maybe their parents want them to, maybe they don’t like their hair. I am a firm believer that every woman should have the freedom to dress as she wants – and honestly, the idea that what Muslim women choose for themselves to wear is oppressive bothers me.
As for your arguments about women who live in situations that abound in Saudi Arabia due to their laws (although don’t represent all Saudis), where women and their movement is severely restricted – this is again a major issue facing the Muslim world. And their voices absolutely should be heard – Muslim women are working as we speak to help their voices be heard, but that doesn’t really get discussed much in face of ‘look what Islam does to these poor women.’
When I say ‘what about what we want’, you say ‘well, what about the women who rationalize their abuse?’ Honestly, that sounds to me as though they’re saying ‘you don’t know what you want.’ I’m not arguing that the situations you described doesn’t exist, but it seems like a way to sidestep the many Muslim women who do choose to cover up.
When I mentioned the successes of Muslim women, I was not saying so to ignore the plight of Muslim and non-Muslim women around the world who may be oppressed. The study was done to see what people think women should be wearing – and I’ve read several articles about the poll that are frankly ridiculous (“Gallup poll reveals what Muslim women should be wearing” – excuse me?). The conversation about Muslim women is always, always centered around their dress – we never go beyond that. In some European countries (and Muslim countries too, actually), forced un-veiling is required, which is also oppressive and traumatic, but is largely uncovered in the discussion.
My point is that this obsession with what Muslim women are wearing (or well, women in general, if you want to take this society as a whole) is not about trying to better the lives of Muslim women. Saying that women can’t better themselves with or without a hijab is ridiculous. The idea is to pat ourselves on the back about how these backwards people still do this silly oppressive thing we see no need for anymore because we do in a different form.
To your point about Iranian women, I’m sorry, but I’m a bit confused. The first step to releasing a group from oppression is education – the first step to oppressing a group is always taking education from them. An educated group is harder to control. Something like a quarter of people with STEM degrees in the US are women – in Iran, it’s becoming close to 70%. That to me seems like a magnificent way for women to start asserting their rights in society. Aside from ovethrowing the government, what other way do women have to claw their way up the ladder? I mean, the glass ceiling is still real in America – women make less money, and are hired and promoted less often. Misogyny is not a Muslim characteristic.
So finally, in closing, tl;dr – hijab has become the banner and easy marker for whether a Muslim woman is oppressed or liberated. That’s crap.
Also I’d like to respond to your comment to XB – while some definitely do argue that men and women being expected to dress differently is oppressive (and I won’t get into that now), this is something ALL societies do.
Last I checked, XB (sorry for using you as an example) wasn’t wearing dresses to class. Most women have longer hair than men – that’s the social norm. It is not to say that individuals should not have the freedom to dress however they please, but the idea that men and women dress differently isn’t a uniquely Muslim trait.
While one could also argue that not dressing “appropriately” could get someone killed (in places like Taliban-controlled Afghanistan), the idea that women are raped for removing a veil sounds like rape culture. Women don’t get raped for the way they dress.
Also, if the issue would be different if men veil, I would point you towards Saudi Arabia, where men are required to wear long-sleeved white shirts that reach the ankles and a headpiece that essentially covers all the parts of the body that hijab does. Indeed, historically, Muslim men have covered their heads nearly as often as Muslim women have.
Finally, I think the idea of the hijab being a distinctly female concept bothers some and leads them to deem it oppressive – but just because women do something men don’t does not make them oppressed. In a male-dominated society, the hijab or niqab obstructs the male gaze and creates a private sphere wherein the Muslim woman can see but not be seen, placing her arguably in a position of power. It allows her to control the parts of her body she wants to reveal and it allows her to demand interaction or respect/attention/whatever based on her actual intellectual merits rather than her physical appearance.
Now, is this why all women wear hijab? No. But to dismiss the hijab as something inherently oppressive because men don’t do it too is something I can’t agree with.
Another fun fact and then I’ll leave, promise:
More Muslim-majority countries have laws that prohibit women from wearing hijab than countries have laws requiring women to wear it.
XB: To add to ND’s point about the significance of education in conferring a certain degree political autonomy, it’s also important to note how facts of this kind undermine a hegemonic discourse that seeks to keep Muslim women in the judgmental “gaze” of the imperial power.
Notice the context in which these kinds of polls take place. It’s usually the US looking into the Middle East and making conclusions about the culture and social norms of Muslims. Typically the studies result in a negative portrayal of these societies. In Fisher’s article this is shown when he says “it’s too bad that, even in the countries most supportive of this very basic freedom, only about half support it.”
The underlying problem with this format is that it totally obscures the crucial and verifiable fact that the US has played a decisive role in propping up some of the most regressive ideologies throughout the Middle East, ideologies that exploit religious sentiment to brutalize others. This includes the funding of the mujaheddin, the sectarian warfare the US invasion elicited through its invasion of Iraq and the multi-decade support for the Saudi monarchy.
In this sense, the neutralist, seemingly disinterested study of gender relations in the Middle East serves to conceal more overt political ideologies. It’s supposed to appeal to people’s sense of justice without stimulating any serious self reflection about our role in creating conditions of inequality or how we have come to conflate certain norms–the hijab for example–with oppression irrespective of historical context or individual preference.
All of these forces are at work in most “western” descriptions of Middle East society therefore highlighting the central role education plays in the lives of women, quite apart from being “beyond the point”, opens up new interpretations of “the Other”, interpretations that are nearly inconceivable within the conventional narratives.
DS: @ND: Thank you, ND for engaging my comments. I really appreciate that you are taking the time to consider my opinion in this issue. To begin answering your response, I need to point out that I find it necessary to clarify that a clear definition of “choice” is needed before we can continue to engage with each other. But before we get there, I want to point out that your assertion “I am a firm believer that every woman should have the freedom to dress as she wants – and honestly, the idea that what Muslim women choose for themselves to wear is oppressive bothers me” is still not addressing my concern for those who do not have a choice. As I clarified in my former comment, I’m not implying that this is true for the majority of Muslim women, I’m just saying that the oppression of these women is not less real in face of the alleged “freedom” of other Muslim females. That being said, now is when we need to define what we understand by “choice.” And I have to admit, I don’t have a definite answer to this question. Yet, I do think that having a choice seems to imply that one has some level of power to decide what to do, embrace. But, is this really the case? When one is limited to pick an option among a restricted number of possibilities, is this a genuine “choice” or a strategy the status quo puts in place to simulate a sort of involvement with its subjects? Now, if you were to tell me that Muslim communities have specific laws in place to protect the integrity and well-being of those Muslim women who “choose” no to wear a hijab at all, then I’d have to agree with you that the women who still wear it are, indeed, exercising an individual right by using any kind of veil they choose. But, as far as I know, this is not the case. This allows me to move into another statement I find problematic, according to you: “The conversation about Muslim women is always, always centered around their dress.” I can only talk for myself, and, in my case, the conversation about Muslim women is not so much about their dress, but about their choices, and the way these choices are handled down to them. I really don’t mean to be offensive here, but you must admit that the fact that there are some successful Muslim women out there does not erase the fact that there are many who live in very different conditions. At risk of repeating what I’ve already stated: I don’t want to make this issue a question of glorifying, demonizing the non-Muslim world versus the Muslim-world, I don’t have any interest in doing that in the context of this conversation. That’s not my point. If people in South America were to start to do this, I would have the same kind of objections. So, I hope by now it is clear that my comment does not have anything to do with the idea that you mentioned in your response: “The idea is to pat ourselves on the back about how these backwards people still do this silly oppressive thing we see no need for anymore because we do in a different form.” I understand where you’re coming from. I’m not aligning myself with people who enter this conversation to push such agenda. Yet, your statement “Saying that women can’t better themselves with or without a hijab is ridiculous” sounds like a tergiversation of my argument. I was not claiming that the hijab, in and by itself, can serve as the only obstacle of women’s progress. The point here is that the hijab symbolizes, as I claimed before, a very specific understanding of femininity, and one that involves a specific subjectification of women while serving the purpose to attribute specific social roles to female subjects. Does this happen in the West? Sure. It does. I fight it too. I understand that many people, in order to utter and resist the imperial ways of the West, systematically oppose discussing the issue of the veil. But “defending” the hijab is a way, in my view, to align with a different kind of oppression, which, for many, seems to look less real because it is not that close to home (and by this I’m referring to the many, many women who do not have to see the oppressive conditions surrounding Muslim women who are forced into wearing a veil). I know you shared that the reality of these particular women is being addressed, “as we speak” by “Muslim activists and female Islamic scholars,” but, does this mean that we cannot talk about it anymore? Just because around this country there are activists fighting, say, for the increasing of minimum wage, does that mean we should not talk about it anymore? I don’t understand your comments in this regard.
Lastly (for now, as I really have to go :)), I want to address your comment “The first step to releasing a group from oppression is education – the first step to oppressing a group is always taking education from them. An educated group is harder to control.” I’m completely with you here, as long as we understand education as the fostering of critical-thinking. That’s not always the form that “education” takes. In theory, also the United States has a very educated population, if you look at its rate of college graduated citizens. We all know that this is an euphemism to refer to a well trained labor force. In America, it is more and more the case that people just learn recipes that will enable them to be good soldiers (literally and figuratively speaking). Likewise, if all these Muslim women in Iran are “educated” to enter their work force as it is, the percentage you mention does not say much about their agency, or level of equality they have reached. Also, if they do not have a real say in policy-making, I still see a problem with interpreting these statistics as evidence of women’s achievments. I also agree with your comment that gender-base inequality is not exclusive to the Muslim world. Sure, it is not. But, how does help your argument that obtaining a college degree challenges the idea that Muslim women are oppressed? How many women poiticians are in Iran right now (I’m asking an honest question here, because I don’t know). I’ve a lot more to say, but, as I say, I have to go now. I’ll be back
@XB: I will be happy to engage further when I have more time, but, for now, I have to say that while I wholeheartedly agree with most of what you stated above, I don’t see how your statements invalidate my point: hijab remits us to a context of inequality where women are systematically objectified and denied agency. I agree with you that reflecting on the historical, politic, and socioeconomic circumstances that brought about such “reality” is absolutely relevant, in particular for people engaging with the topic across-cultures. Yet, I don’t think the acknowledgement of such requirement should prevent us from calling things by their right name. I’m against all kinds of oppression, across the board, I don’t buy the rhetoric that says “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” In this way, I feel freer to challenge both enemies. I know there are Muslim women who are doing the same as we speak: they challenge the imposition of the hijab, without being “irrespective of historical context or individual preference.” It is my opinion that everybody should be able to fight or contest oppression beyond borders. I think this is what solidarity, in my opinion, is about. I do not believe that recognizing the influence, or impact the West had, and still has, in “propping up some of the most regressive ideologies throughout the Middle East” should prevent us from addressing and challenging the practices resulting from such ideologies. I believe the hijab to be one of such practices.
@ND: Okay, here we go again ND: in your second response to me, you mentioned “Last I checked, XB (sorry for using you as an example) wasn’t wearing dresses to class. Most women have longer hair than men – that’s the social norm. It is not to say that individuals should not have the freedom to dress however they please, but the idea that men and women dress differently isn’t a uniquely Muslim trait.” With all due respect, the fact that guys are not expected to wear the same kind of clothes women wear is, in effect, a truism. That doesn’t change the fact that the practice of requiring women to wear a hijab also involves the acceptance of a certain understanding of the female body that deems it as sinful, or provocative in nature. If you ask me,it is wrong that men in many cultures have to restrain themselves from wearing certain clothes because they are considered to be female-specific. That does not make the issue of veiling less controversial. In other words, I don’t think the issue of wearing or not wearing a hijab is so much about cultural autonomy, even though I understand that this is what it has been reduced to, but about the burden that it places on women’s shoulders and identity. Why do Muslim women have to ashamed of their bodies in a way that only applies to them and not to their male counterparts?
Moreover, you claimed “While one could also argue that not dressing “appropriately” could get someone killed (in places like Taliban-controlled Afghanistan), the idea that women are raped for removing a veil sounds like rape culture.” If we follow your rational, we have to wonder: isn’t the social practice of asking a woman to preserve their “modesty” by hiding their bodies as much as possible from the gaze of others, the clear product of a way of thinking that sees women as objects of temptation? How far is this way of thinking from that embraced by rape cultures?
Your comment ” In a male-dominated society, the hijab or niqab obstructs the male gaze and creates a private sphere wherein the Muslim woman can see but not be seen, placing her arguably in a position of power” is also disturbing to me. I really don’t see/understand the kind of power you are referring to here. Sure, obeying, following the rules that are imposed upon women in “male-dominated society” affords women a relative level of piece of mind, perhaps the peace of mind of knowing that they are not going to be censured, punished, or attacked for not conforming to what is expected from them. This does not make their conditions any more “fair” to me. Wearing the veil can guarantee a certain sense of belonging, sure. Does this award any kind of agency/power to the oppressed? I don’t think so.
Finally, you said “But to dismiss the hijab as something inherently oppressive because men don’t do it too is something I can’t agree with.” – No, this is not the reason why I object to the use of hijabs. The reason why I see it as a problematic issue is because, in my eyes, it legitimizes and perpetuates an understanding of the female body, and its role in interpersonal relations as problematic, and disgusting. The fact that some women have internalized this sense of guilt and have assumed the responsibility to police themselves in order to affirm their loyalty to their culture, religion, and/or ethnicity, still does not make the whole practice less disturbing in my opinion.
XB: @DS: I just want to comment on two sentences in your previous comments. You state “the hijab symbolizes … a very specific understanding of femininity, and one that involves a specific subjectification of women while serving the purpose to attribute specific social roles to female subjects.” You also state the hijab “legitimizes and perpetuates an understanding of the female body, and its role in interpersonal relations as problematic, and disgusting.”
Are you making this determination based on your understanding of the history of the hijab or some author who has written about it? Because this is a pretty significant statement to make without citing any evidence to support it. In fact, it’s a radical departure from Karen Armstrong’s explanation of the hijab. In her biography on the Prophet Muhammad and in an article in the Guardian she describes the hijab as “a symbol of resistance to colonialism.”
To be precise, Lord Cromer banned the veil in Egypt during Britain’s colonial rule. He called the veil a “fatal obstacle” to integrating Muslim women into Western “civilization.” Armstrong also notes “In Iran, the shahs’ soldiers used to march through the streets with their bayonets at the ready, tearing off the women’s veils and ripping them to pieces.” In fact, the shah banned the chador and afterwards women “wore it as a matter of principle – even those who usually wore western clothes.” This alternative, emancipatory meaning of the veil is completely absent from your explanation. I just don’t think the hijab can be described in such absolute terms.
Muhammad: A Prophet of Our Time by Karen Armstrong
DS: @XB: I made my previous “determination” as you called it based on the experiences of women “on the ground” as I have read them. I didn’t notice ND citing any sources, and I didn’t realize sources were needed. Moreover, I believe that your “understanding” of the hijab describes only in part the motivation that inspires many Muslim women to wear the hijab. Sure, we can talk about the history of the hijab. According to Geraldine Brooks, in Egypt, for example, the hijab “was the most obvious sign of the Islamic revival that had swept up […] many young women.” According to this writer, Muslim philosophers encouraged women to wear the veil as a way to object Gamal Abdel Nasser’s extremely secular government, and “urged Egyptians to return to the Islamic views they had abandoned.” At the same time, Brooks also cites other instances through history (Iran in 1935) where the hijab was banned capriciously, and how this affected a certain fraction of the population who just could not adjust to this change overnight. In my opinion, all these quotes do not invalidate my point. Independently of the reason why women pick the veil, the underling truth is still the same: women have no voice in the context of male dominated cultures, and the only way they can gain a little bit of agency is by endorsing practices that are put in place by men, and which prescribe them to feel ashamed of their bodies. Does this mean a “‘fatal obstacle’ to integrating Muslim women into Western ‘civilization.'” I think it does. Does this “liberate” women at all? I don’t think so, it just allows them to have some “choice” with regard to the type of oppression they feel more comfortable embracing.
Source: Brooks, Geraldine. Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women. New York: Anchor, 1995. Print.
XB: I didn’t ask ND for sources because much of what she wrote conformed to what I’ve read about the hijab. For example, when ND describes the hijab as a item of clothing that allows women to “to control the parts of her body she wants to reveal and it allows her to demand interaction or respect/attention/whatever based on her actual intellectual merits rather than her physical appearance,” this reminded me of Karen Armstrong’s comment that “the uniformity of traditional Muslim dress stresses the egalitarian and communal ethos of Islam.” I only ask people for sources when I find something questionable in what they write. If ND wrote something I found questionable I would’ve asked her for sources.
I agree that my explanation of the hijab “describes only in part the motivation that inspires many Muslim women to wear the hijab.” This was the purpose of my comment. I felt your explanation was missing this motivation. This is why I conclude my argument by calling it an “alternative, emancipatory meaning” (“alternative” because this is not the only meaning). You ask if I think imposing norms that make women “feel ashamed of their bodies” present a “fatal obstacle” to integrating women into Western “civilization.”
In the cases where the hijab is used to make women “feel ashamed of the bodies” I would say it does pose a threat to integrating women into civilization (civilization in the actual sense of the word and not in Lord Cromer’s sense) but I simply don’t think this understanding of the hijab, the dominant understanding in “the west”, engages with the social, cultural and historical background in the same way Armstrong’s explanation does. I think this kind of engagement is important because it helps repressed groups appropriate symbols for the purpose of dissent instead of oppression.
DS: @XB: I don’t see how ND’s statement “the idea that women are raped for removing a veil sounds like rape culture. Women don’t get raped for the way they dress” does not qualify as “a pretty significant statement to make without citing any evidence to support it.” But, in any case, what I really want to address in this comment is the connection you establish between ND’s assertion regarding the hijab as a means “to control the parts of her body she wants to reveal and it allows her to demand interaction or respect/attention/whatever based on her actual intellectual merits rather than her physical appearance,” and Armstrong’s claim “the uniformity of traditional Muslim dress stresses the egalitarian and communal ethos of Islam.” So many points to make here! Reading ND’s comment, I couldn’t help thinking: how can we say that a world where women need to cover themselves up in order to deserve some respect, in order to be valued for their “actual intellectual merits” is a world inherently “egalitarian”? There is nothing egalitarian about not being able to interact with a man without having to cover myself so that he can actually focus on what I am saying. I understand Armstrong’s quote was taken out of context for the sake of this conversation, and I understand that she is talking about “traditional Muslim dress,” and the ideal spirit of Islam, but that does not say much about the way things are in practice. I know that nowadays, in many Muslim countries, women are not allowed to own private property, only men can. How is that egalitarian? Likewise, when it comes to dress code, in how many Muslim countries today (with the exception of Saudi Arabia, according to ND’s previous comment) do men have to cover their bodies as well, and for the same reasons women must? If the idea is to resist imperialist oppression, why don’t men and women “appropriate” the same “symbols for the purpose of dissent”? I’ll tell you why: because these men and women are not equal in the context of their culture. As a consequence, Muslim women decided to “resist” the oppression from outside by accepting their place as subordinates at home. They may not be conscious of it, because they have internalized the interests of their direct oppressors as theirs. This is what Marx calls “false consciousness.”
To add to my previous point, I’d like to provide an example of what I consider a more egalitarian ways of resistance. The Spanish Civil War, for instance, provided an opportunity for women to make the cause of resisting oppression theirs, and this is why they joined their comrades at the battlefront. According to Dolores Martin Moruno, engaging in this fight gave Spanish women an opportunity to “become aware of their subjugated position for their first time in history.” According to this author, the eagerness to fight the Franquists insurgents that were trying to overthrow the democratically elected government of Spain, also enabled women’s emancipation insofar as they engaged in a fight that also sought to establish women’s legal and social rights for the time to come. This, Martin Moruno tells us, was the beginning of “Spanish Feminism.” At this point, it is important to clarify that most of the Spaniards who left their homes to go fight against Fascism and capitalism, were very modest workers, with little or no education at all. In addition, I’m not saying that Muslim should do exactly what Spanish women did or in the same manner, but I’m challenging the notion that, in order to resist imperial oppression, the only way women have to gain some agency is to embrace symbols that validate male-domination. It does not have to be this way.
Mangini, Shirley. “Memories of Resistance: Women Activists from the Spanish Civil War.”Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 17.1 (1991): 171. Print.
XB: @DS: When ND says “the idea that women get raped for removing the veil sounds like rape culture,” and “women don’t get raped for the way they dress,” I think she means that we should not take it seriously when a rapist says he raped a women because she was not wearing a veil. There are cases that can be cited where women have been raped and their rapists have claimed that they carried out the crime because the woman wasn’t wearing a veil but that doesn’t mean we should believe it anymore than we should believe an alleged Christian who murders a doctor under the pretext that abortions violates their religious beliefs. To entertain these excuses as anything more than an attempt to conceal more vulgar motives–hatred of women, delusions of power, etc.–diverts attention away from the responsibility of the rapist. This shifting of responsibility is a dominant feature of rape culture. This is my interpretation of ND’s statement, a statement I agree with. That’s why I didn’t ask for any evidence. If this wasn’t what ND meant by her statement she will have to explain it.
You state “How can we say that a world where women need to cover themselves up in order to deserve some respect, in order to be valued for their ‘actual intellectual merits’ is a world inherently ‘egalitarian’?There is nothing egalitarian about not being able to interact with a man without having to cover myself so that he can actually focus on what I am saying.” If I may offer my interpretation, I think ND’s description of the hijab is basically saying that the ideas that we hold and the thoughts that motivate us to act are our most valuable human qualities, not how we look. It’s perfectly possible to converse with someone without a veil. ND was simply saying the veil is, to her, a commentary on the ephemeral nature of our bodies when compared to our ideas. One of the more interesting aspects about the life of Muhammad was that he held the concept of common humanity in higher esteem than the concepts of man or woman.
Probably the most illustrative example of this is in what Armstrong called the Prophet’s “revolutionary surah” where he states “men and women who remember God oft,” will receive “a mighty wage.” The inclusion of women alongside men in this particular surah broke with the patriarchal conventions of 7th century Arabia. In this respect, I think ND’s interpretation of the hijab has more to do with emphasizing the insignificance of the body within a religious context that gives precedence to our common humanity rather than an attempt to suppress sexual urges. Again, if you think I’m incorrect on this I think it would be better to ask ND.
You also state that “men and women are not equal in the context of their culture.” While I would agree that the distribution of power between men and women is unequal (not only in Muslim majority countries but in much of the “western” world as well) I’d be hesitant to use terms like “in the context of their culture” because this kind of oppression is so pervasive in virtually every society that I don’t think we can make these kinds of neat distinctions between “their” culture and other cultures. It would be like saying maximizing profit is part of General Electric’s culture and not corporate culture in general.
I disagree that “Muslim women decided to ‘resist’ the oppression from outside by accepting their place as subordinates at home.” In the case of Iran, where women wore the veil in defiance of the Shah, they were resisting oppression at home, not from the outside. Women also were resisting oppression at home during the British colonization of Egypt. Armstrong talks about Egyptian sycophants who ” obsequiously praised the nobility of European culture, arguing that the veil symbolised everything that was wrong with Islam and Egypt.” More than “accepting their place as subordinates at home,” these women were fighting to preserve a place they could recognize as a home.
Muhammad’s life also carries some relevance in your observation that “in many Muslim countries, women are not allowed to own private property, only men can,” because in his time he challenged the property relations of Arabia which advanced similar forms of gender discrimination. The Prophet devised what Armstrong called a “shocking innovation” in challenging pre-Islamic traditions concerning dower rights. Under Muhammad’s innovation “the dowry was to be given directly to the woman as her inalienable property , and in the event of divorce, a man could not reclaim it.” This was a sharp departure from custom where the groom would present a dowry to his bride but “in practice this gift had belonged to her family.” So if these Muslim majority countries were to follow the example of Muhammad they would devise new ways to undermine the property discrimination you speak of, property relations that are at odds with the egalitarian ethos of the Islamic tradition.
Lastly, I’d like to comment on the writings of RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan, a group that is at the forefront of the women’s rights struggle in Afghanistan. They have decided not to wear the veil because the Taliban is trying to force them to wear it. They describe this as “fundamentalists … [using] the Koran as a bogey.” They conclude by saying “To wear, or not to wear, the Islamic veil is a completely personal issue and no one has the right to interfere with this decision or impose the veil upon us.” The main phrase to take away from this is that “no one has the right to interfere with this decision.” They don’t say the veil, in itself, is a form of oppression but the imposition of the veil to “unleash … misogynism through terror” is oppressive. This has been my argument all along, that Muslim women who choose to wear the veil are not participating in a “comfortable” form of oppression insofar as it is a decision they have made without coercion. To treat the veil as an oppressive symbol in its essence is to disregard the political realities that women face in their particular country and moment in history.
Though I think more can be said, I’ll limit my response here. And thanks for the link to the Academia article. I’ll be reading it.