Free­dom, choice and the veil tales

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS -

For decades — no, cen­turies — dis­cus­sions by and about Mus­lim women have cen­tred on the veil in all its var­i­ous forms. Mus­lim women are called on to ex­plain whether we wear it (and why or why not), whether we are plan­ning to take it off or put it on, whether we be­lieve the state should out­law it, tol­er­ate it or make it com­pul­sory, whether it sig­ni­fies op­pres­sion, lib­er­a­tion, re­sis­tance, mod­esty, or all or none of the above, and (just oc­ca­sion­ally) whether the whole veil­ing talk­fest is just a dis­trac­tion from more im­por­tant is­sues.

As is ap­par­ent from their ti­tles, Mona El­ta­hawy’s Head­scarves and Hy­mens: Why the Mid­dle East Needs a Sex­ual Revo­lu­tion and Yas­min Alib­hai-Brown’s Re­fus­ing the Veil ex­plore the ever-popular topic of veil­ing, in the form of head­scarfs and face veils. (The “head­scarves” of El­ta­hawy’s ti­tle seem to have been cho­sen for the sake of al­lit­er­a­tion, since her dis­cus­sion of face veils is at least as ex­ten­sive). How­ever, as is so of­ten the case, the veil serves as a point of en­try to a broad-rang­ing ex­plo­ration of gen­der, iden­tity and power.

Two gen­er­a­tions of Mus­lim women have re­sponded to rep­re­sen­ta­tions of veil­ing as an op­pres­sive prac­tice forced on to them by their men­folk by de­scrib­ing it as a choice that they have freely un­der­taken. Both El­ta­hawy and Alib­hai-Brown chal­lenge this re­sponse, claim­ing that veil­ing re­in­forces pa­tri­ar­chal op­pres­sion even when un­der­taken by choice. In mak­ing this case, they draw on their own ex­pe­ri­ences as well as the grow­ing body of schol­ar­ship on women in Is­lam.

No­table among other re­cent books on the topic are Lila Abu-Lughod’s Do Mus­lim Women Need Sav­ing?, Mar­nia Lazreg’s Ques­tion­ing the Veil and Leila Ahmed’s A Quiet Revo­lu­tion. Ahmed’s work in par­tic­u­lar makes use­ful sup­ple­men­tary read­ing to Alib­hai-Brown’s and El­ta­hawy’s books, both of which ref­er­ence her ground­break­ing 1992 work Women and Gen­der in Is­lam (although El­ta­hawy seems to be un­aware of her most re­cent book, which rep­re­sents a break with her ear­lier work and does not sup­port El­ta­hawy’s stance against the hi­jab).

As a short polemic, Alib­hai-Brown’s book is un­der­stand­ably the less com­pre­hen­sive of the two books un­der re­view. How­ever, even a short polemic of this type ought to be able avoid the use of sloppy re­search and un­sub­stan­ti­ated claims to back the au­thor’s be­lief that “the veil, in all its per­mu­ta­tions, is in­de­fen­si­ble and un­ac­cept­able”. Some of the anec­dotes she uses to make this case are de­rived from her years of ex­pe­ri­ence as a jour­nal­ist, but oth­ers are pure spec­u­la­tion about what this or that veiled woman may have been think­ing and feel­ing.

Head­scarves and Hy­mens is a far more sat­is­fy­ing read. El­ta­hawy rose to in­ter­na­tional promi­nence for her cov­er­age of the so-called Arab Spring and its af­ter­math, dur­ing which she was beaten and sex­u­ally as­saulted by Egyptian se­cu­rity forces. Her book ex­pands on her cov­er­age of th­ese events and as well as re­lat­ing her ex­pe­ri­ence of wear­ing hi­jab as a teenager living with her fam­ily in Saudi Ara­bia and her con­flicted feel­ings when dis­card­ing it seven years later. Like Alib­hai-Brown, she now re­gards it as a sym­bol of pa­tri­archy that is in con­flict with Is­lam’s foun­da­tional re­spect for women.

Even though I am ul­ti­mately on the other side of the de­bate to Alib­hai-Brown and El­ta­hawy, I agree with some as­pects of their cri­tique (and, like them, I do not wear hi­jab). “Choice” is an in­ad­e­quate de­scrip­tion of the mech­a­nism that may lead women to veil (or not). Even when one’s form of dress is not man­dated by fam­ily or gov­ern­ment au­thor­i­ties, the “wrong” out­fit may be re­garded by one’s peers as a sign of dis­loy­alty with all the con­se­quences that en­tails.

How­ever, the hi­jab does not al­ways and in all places carry the re­duc­tive mean­ing that Alib­hai-Brown and El­ta­hawy as­cribe to it. The more wide­spread a so­cial prac­tice be­comes, the less tightly bound it is to the par­tic­u­lar ide­ol­ogy that spawned it.

El­ta­hawy de­scribes the ubiq­ui­tous­ness of the veil in con­tem­po­rary Egypt as rep­re­sent­ing a victory for the Is­lamist Mus­lim Brotherhood, which played a key role in the ini­tial wave of re-veil­ing, decades af­ter it had been dis­carded as a sym­bol of back­ward­ness. But as more and more women and girls have be­gun to wear hi­jab in a wide range of lo­ca­tions and com­mu­ni­ties, they have in­fused it with their own mean­ings as well as fash­ion styles. El­ta­hawy’s judg­men­tal re­marks about women’s dress sense mir­rors that of the Is­lamists against whom she stands so firmly.

Both au­thors are as stri­dent in their crit­i­cism of the hi­jab’s non-Mus­lim de­fend­ers as they are of its Is­lamist pro­po­nents, with El­ta­hawy ar­gu­ing that “cul­tural rel­a­tivism is as much my en­emy as the op­pres­sion I fight within my cul­ture and faith”. Such rel­a­tivists joined fel­low- Arabs in crit­i­cis­ing her re­cent es­say Why Do They Hate Us? for “air­ing the dirty laun­dry” by dis­cussing Arab misog­yny — and, worse still, for do­ing so in English.

Given that I too “air the dirty laun­dry” by writ­ing English-lan­guage ar­ti­cles about the misog­y­nist abuse of Mus­lim women, I am not about to crit­i­cise El­ta­hawy for the same al­leged trans­gres­sion. But it’s worth point­ing out that when we write such books and ar­ti­cles, we do so in the knowl­edge that most of our read­ers will not be Mus­lim and that many, if not most, of the sub­jects of our work will be un­able to read it. And the read­ers for whom we write shapes the ways in which we write — a point Alib­hai-Brown and El­ta­hawy too read­ily dis­miss.

El­ta­hawy says that much of the crit­i­cism of her work is based on the as­sump­tion that she wants “the West” to res­cue “us”, while she has never called for any such thing. But from the age of im­pe­ri­al­ism to the war on ter­ror, Mus­lim women have been sub­jected to res­cue mis­sions whether or not we have called for it. Those who rightly condemn misog­yny com­mit­ted by Mus­lim men find their voices ap­pro­pri­ated in the name of th­ese mis­sions. That is no rea­son to re­main si­lent. But, sadly, El­ta­hawy’s call for her over­seas read­ers to com­bat misog­yny in her part of the world by fight­ing it within their own com­mu­ni­ties is likely to re­ceive far less at­ten­tion than her de­scrip­tions of the many abuses com­mit­ted against Arab and Mus­lim women.

Women at a pro-Is­lam rally at Parry Park in Punch­bowl, Syd­ney, de­fend­ing the right to wear head­scarfs

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