On the Veil
I 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.
- I 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.
- Despite 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.
- 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?