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On the Veil

March 30, 2009

hijab11-285x291I know there is a lot of research out there on the controversial politics of the veil. Since I’m not versed in that literature, these comments are intended to be tentative and exploratory. As I noted in my last post, I’m trying to avoid speaking with authority on things I don’t know that much about.

A week or two ago I was talking with some other faculty members about Muslim women wearing the veil. One of the women was extremely negative about it; for her the entire thing smacks of sexist social control of women. She noted that she was familiar with the scholars who argue that it can be liberating or empowering for some women to wear the veil, but she remained unconvinced. My friend was stuck with her initial, extremely negative visceral reaction to it.

Here are three thoughts on the matter that came to mind after we talked.

  1. ingersollI have only read a few things about how wearing the veil can be liberating, but I’m similarly unpersuaded. The debate reminds me of Jule Ingersoll’s excellent book, Evangelical Christian Women. Ingersoll starts out by saying that, yes, there is some substance to the claim made by some scholars that some evangelical women are able to negotiate power for themselves by “submitting” to their husbands; that is, submission can be empowering. However, and this is Ingersoll’s argument, if you look at the big picture it is damn well clear that evangelical Christian women are still by and large oppressed—and Ingersoll substantiates this argument with a thorough analysis of sexist and discriminatory practices in evangelical institutions. I haven’t studied the veil issue enough to say these cases are analogous, but I suspect that they may be.
  2. muslim-discriminationDespite the fact that I am not yet persuaded that wearing the veil is all that empowering, I think that challenging the veil in societies where Muslims are minorities may well be disempowering. In America, for instance, Muslims, insofar as they are minorities, face a number of difficulties and discriminatory practices. To criticize the identity markers Muslim women utilize seems to me to throw fuel on the fire. Muslim women probably suffer from a great deal of discrimination in our society; the last thing they need is to be frowned upon by white feminists too.
  3. Last, and this seems to me the most significant of these three thoughts, in America we are completely surrounded by gendered identity markers. Aren’t we hypocritical to frown upon the veil unless we also turn a critical eye toward our own make-up practices, hair styling practices, jewelry practices, shaving practices, clothing practices, etc.? Almost everything we do to our bodies in America is gendered: even the soaps and deodorants we use are gendered. What right do I have to criticize Muslim women for marking their gender with their clothing when every single item of clothing I own is from the “Men’s” section?
11 Comments leave one →
  1. Jonathan permalink
    March 30, 2009 7:44 pm

    I really liked this post. I really like your blog in general. Keep it up.

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 30, 2009 7:48 pm

    Many thanks for the feedback Jonathan! Sometimes I feel like these posts go into a black hole—I’m happy to hear that someone finds it valuable or interesting.

  3. JTV permalink
    March 30, 2009 8:07 pm

    Your point #3 is well taken. Gendered soap. That’s a good example.

    The hijab is a complex and interesting issue, and the best place to start is probably by reading accounts written by Muslim women about how they feel about it. There’s a lot out there by American Muslim women scholars on the subject, too (you can contact me via email for specific suggestions, etc.) On the whole, though, going with your point #2, hijab is probably the least important source of ‘oppression’ that Muslim women have to deal with on a daily basis–you know, the whole racism thing, the patriarchal relations, neoliberal capitalist consumerism, poverty, postcolonial autocratic regimes, domestic abuse, american imperial militarism. You know, run of the mill stuff.

    Have you noticed any students on campus who wear hijab?

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 30, 2009 8:46 pm

    JTV: No, I don’t recall seeing anyone wearing a hijab at my school. I’m uncertain that anyone even identifies as Muslim—the school has a Christian identity so there are disincentives for Muslims to enroll. I wonder if there are some but they’re afraid to come out of the closet, so to speak. I know there is a transvestite on campus who is afraid to wear what he’s comfortable wearing on campus; he only wears women’s clothing when he goes home for the weekend, apparently.

  5. steph permalink
    March 31, 2009 2:00 am

    I don’t know very much about it either. But when I studied Islam as an undergrad reli studies student I dressed accordingly for about three months, as I was mingling with the Muslim community in the city, and I found it … empowering. :-) However my main objective was to find out how Muslim women felt about it. So rather than believing scholars I talked to them. There were some who chose not to wear it and were free not to. However the ones who did wear it, said they liked to wear it because it preserved their identity and gave them a sense of dignity and empowerment. There is also a certain freedom in being hidden I think. All the women I interviewed were Sunni Muslims.

  6. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    March 31, 2009 7:00 am

    Thanks for the comment Steph. I’m curious what city your research was in; would you mind saying?

  7. steph permalink
    March 31, 2009 10:04 pm

    Wellington. My undergrad degree was at Victoria University and I studied under Jim Veitch. This research was about twelve years ago now.

  8. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    April 1, 2009 7:25 am

    Thanks Steph. Given your answer, I wonder if it looked like I was questioning your credentials; that’s not what I was intending to do! I was just curious if your studies were in a community where Muslims were a majority or a minority …

  9. steph permalink
    April 1, 2009 9:18 pm

    No not at all :-) I just thought I’d explain the context ie I was an undergrad and it was a long time ago. Yes Muslims definitely in the minority but simultaneously I think quite integrated into Wellington’s multi cultural society. Jim Veitch taught for several years in Malaysia and spends alot of time in Muslim countries … he is now director of a government department here dealing with Muslim relations and is a spokesperson on “terrorism”.

    My research was very interesting. There was a marked contrast between the way the majority Sunni community treated me and the experience I had with the Shias. There was an incident in which the diplomatic police got involved – a consequence of my naivity and cultural confusion…

  10. Amira permalink
    August 25, 2009 12:42 am

    First of all THANK YOU for admitting you don’t know much about it. I’m tired of reading stuff written by people who are clearly ignorant of the facts but KNOW that what they think is RIGHT. All they do is muddy the waters and make it harder for people to understand one another.

    I am a muslim woman and when I was in my late teens my father told me he’d rather I not wear a scarf as it would draw negative attention to myself. He said people in western countries talk about freedom and equality a lot but they don’t suit their actions to their words and he didn’t want to see me beaten to death by some ignorant racist.

    So for quite a while I didn’t wear a scarf. I still dressed “modestly” i.e. nothing tight or low cut (or high cut), nothing flashy. Yet, I soon got tired of the men I talked to looking me square in the boobs. I got sick of sleazy guys looking at me as though they were x-raying me or drifting up against me. I never considered myself a beauty queen but apparently a teenage girl is attractive simply by being.

    Now, I wear a scarf and no one bothers me (exept for the racists, ofcourse. My father was right!). I don’t get x-rayed anymore and no one tries to check out my boobs or ass. I like it better this way. Quite a few people are uneasy with my presence and react unpleasantly but at least I don’t have to watch dirty thoughts flash across the faces of strange men.

    Say what you will, but I like being treated like a human being better than being treated like a “modern woman”. Wearing a scarf for me is a way to force others to look me in the eye and acknowledge me as a person instead of a “piece-of-ass”.

    PS Muslim women are supposed to “submit” to God, not their husbands (or anyone else). The religion clearly states that the women have souls just like the men and are accountable for their own actions. The men are not reponsible for the women and the women are not responsible for the men and neither has domain over the other. No beasts of burden here, just people.

    PPS The religious decree for women to wear “hijab” is in the Quran and it states that it is for their protection. If the hijab becomes more of a liability than a protection then not wearing it is only logical (and despite media hype, Islam is a very logical religion. Need always bows before religious decrees or cultural customs). Furtheremore, there is NO religious penalty or punishment for not wearing it. Enforcing it is just pure nonsense. It is no one’s business but the woman herself. I don’t see how it ever became an “issue”. It’s like arguing over the implications of the kilt. Outlandish, certainly, but nobody’s business except the wearer’s really.

  11. Amira permalink
    August 25, 2009 3:32 pm

    Ooops! The above PPS should read:
    “Religious decrees and cultural customs always bow before need”,
    “Need always bows before religious decrees or cultural customs”.
    My bad!

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