Freedom, choice and the veil tales
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