Friday, October 13, 2006

Hijab and Stuff...

I know at least one reason why many young women today reject 'feminism'. Because very often it used as a veneer for liberal busybodies who wish to lay down a code of conduct on how women should behave. It says nothing about the experience of non white women. In actual fact, it can often serve as a thinly veiled (no pun intended) rationale for racism, which most often manifests itself today as Islamophobia.

This post from the aptly titled blog (which references itself to the drunken convert to neo-conservatism Christopher Hitchens) sums it up entirely.

As it made me extremely angry I thought I would vent my rage via a weekly rant.

The post begins:

"Well, everyone knows what Jack straw thinks about women wearing the veil, so I thought I'd share my thoughts.

Whilst I understand and accept that people like to wear various apparel to show an allegiance to the particular religion they subscribe to, the wearing of the veil overspills the religious and even the cultural arena. The veil demands of a woman an extreme form of modesty which both isolates and subjugates her. Anything that does this to women, be it in the name of religion, culture, or whatever else, is wrong."

If she 'understands' why people wear religious apparel then why is the veil singled out in particular? What makes her assume that women who wear a hijab are either 'isolated' or 'subjugated'? She is automatically 'othering' the Muslim woman, hence objectifying her and denying her a voice of her own. Brownfemipower has some very interesting posts and comments following on this very phenomena (i.e white middle class feminists 'othering' the woman of colour, mostly the Muslim woman, laying claim to the veil as the ultimate symbol of oppression). As she states, this is only one step removed from the mentality that was used to justify the war on Afghanistan and Iraq. Nice white guys saving the helpless brown woman from those evil brown men (as remember, the brown woman is too oppressed to be able to fight back in any way). She is silenced not only by the sexism of her own culture, it seems, but by her would be 'left' redeemers. She plays pretty much the same role that the third world prostitute has often done for feminists, managing to personify and epitomise the sufferings of the category 'woman'(See link). In actual fact the efforts of Western feminists to 'rescue' these women has sometimes hampered their efforts at self organisation, as they are not always unable to fight back. Neither are Muslim women, in this country or elsewhere. It is an arrogant, elitist, and racist assumption that presumes they are not. If they were not then organisations like Rawa would not exist.

Getting back to Britain - the veil allegedly 'overspills' the cultural arena. What is implied by this? At times I admit I have myself felt discomfort in the past at the sight of a full Jilbab. I used to believe the veil to be a symbol of oppression but having come accross Muslim women who are anything BUT downtrodden I have long changed my mind. And recognised much of it was my own unconscious racism.

It subjugates because one of the many things a veil does is put the responsibility for controlling male sexual desire squarely on a woman's shoulders. She must cover-up or risk being sexually harassed or raped. But it is not woman's responsibility to control male sexual desire. How long have feminists fought the damaging idea that if a woman wears a short skirt that she is "asking for it". As a feminist, I'm not going to turn a blind eye to such a misogynistic view just because some ancient belief system is involved. And I never bought into cultural relativism even before I knew what that term meant.

A case of projecting your own assumptions and prejudices. Perhaps some women wear the veil not because they fear assault but because they are deeply religious, as are Hasidic Jews? They wear some funny clothes, you know.

"The veil also physically restricts the woman. How does she go swimming? Or attend a gym? Or ride a bike? How many times is she denied the pleasure of feeling the sun on her skin?"

Hmm....I suggest you leave that to her.

"Or the friendly smiles of strangers, both to give and receive? How hard is interaction with other women, never mind other men, outside her social circle? How many casual conversation is she denied in waiting rooms, libraries, bus stops, or anywhere else that humanity gathers? How many jobs can't she do? How many careers can she not follow? Just how small does that small piece of cloth make her world?"

Firstly it would have been preferable had the writer clarified as to what she meant - did she mean the niqab (as Straw specifically did) or did she mean the veil per se? Even that is not fully clear, as only the niqab (which covers the face) would prevent facial contact. But if she chooses to dress this way it is her choice. While I accept that not every single veiled woman in the UK may be doing so out of pure choice, it is still not the right of white feminists to presume to speak on their behalf. Women's groups comprising of and focusing on the issues surrounding ethnic minority women exist and they can be built upon.Southall Black Sisters is a case in point. As for integrating - Muslim women are less likely to do this if they are constantly being berated and judged by white people over what they wear!

The fact that Muslim women may face discrimination is not the fault of what they wear - it is a new discrimination, an acceptable face of racism, not based on skin colour but rather on cultural differences. Why should she not be able to engage in conversation? Perhaps, partly because of the prejudice of others? Yet the sentiments above seem to blame Muslim men for the existence of this racism, casting the woman as being helpless and an object of pity. White people are not in any way to blame for this marginalisation that occurs - it is entirely the fault of the Muslims. Neither is the system, neither is racism.

Muslim women (and men) are not generally in a powerful socio economic position. It is futile to focus on the veil as the root of all evil.

"And if the above seems insignificant to you, then just imagine this being asked of men. Imagine it being asked of you."

Shock, horror, a nice English girl like me?

"And I don't for one minute assume that all women who wear the veil, in this country or elsewhere, are made to do it by men. I know the veil is increasingly becoming a thing of choice for women in this country at least. This is because there is much currency to be found in her immediate and perhaps wider community for doing so. And what is the market for this currency? It is a market that trades in the value of women as wife and mothers, and in her rejection of the world outside of this. She is rewarded for squeezing her existence into the tiniest and tidiest image of what a woman should be, and for her rejection of idependence, individualism and freedom of choice."

Funny, but many Muslim women who choose to wear the veil do not fit into this crude racial stereotype. Many of them have been quite independent, individual and make conscious choices to do what they do. They have rejected none of the above. Many have jobs and are not just wives and mothers. Perhaps the writer should get out or at least read a bit more.

"I find such a market as unpalatable as the market that trades in women's flesh and immodesty. The women who buy into this extreme form of modesty are at the opposite end of the scale to the women who get their tits out for the lads. The Page Three Girl and the Burka wearing Muslim may be at opposite ends of the scale, but they have something in common. Both rely wholly on the approval and the mercy of men for their existence. I suggest that either place is not a healthy place to be."

What bilge. Now, I'm no fan of page three either. But to suggest that the women involved 'rely wholly on the approval of men' for their existence is stretching things a tad. They have lives beyond their jobs. And the 'existence' of the shop assistant depends on the approval and 'mercy' of shoppers, the call centre worker that of customers etc in that sense. Not only are Muslim women being 'othered' but the writer also turns her ire and projects her own preconceptions on to the classic group - namely sex workers or glamour models. The sex worker has long been the 'other' of the feminist, the 'fallen woman' being ideal both as an object of pity (needing rescue) and to categorise the sufferings of the female sex as a whole. She has long symbolised the opposite of what the 'emancipated woman' (i.e the feminist) imagines herself to represent and to be. Hence the sense of mission on the part of the latter. Today it appears the Muslim woman is becoming the target - and thus being objectified and silenced in the process. Anything she may attempt to say to counteract it can be written off on account of 'false consciousness' or something similiar (in the 1970s they sometimes called it 'male identified'). I thought such stuff was over. Clearly not.

Which makes me ask why this issue was not raised by one such as Clare Short. She, and other high profile women, spoke out against the issue of soft porn in our papers and how this degrades women twenty or so years ago. Where are these voices now? Why isn't the cultural habit for woman to obliterate their form and turn themselves into non-beings on our streets, as repellent as the cultural habit for women to expose every aspect of their body and being in our newspapers? Why are we struggling to see this as a feminist

Non beings now? You say it, not I nor they.

And above all, should our media not be finding the time to talk to as many Muslims who are anti-veil as they are talking to Muslims who are pro-veil? Because coming through once again loud and clear is the voice of the regressive over the progressive.

What about those who are neither 'pro' nor 'anti' veil? Is there not room for women who believe it should be purely the choice of others as to what they should wear?

And unfortunately I'm also hearing the voice of the racist who sees this issue as yet another chance for a bit of Muslim bashing. I desperately hope I haven't come across as a Muslim basher here. It is precisely because I don't see a dividing barrier between myself and Muslim women that makes me want to speak out.

I suggest you think again. What you write is patronising to Muslims as you attempt to force on them your own cultural norms and dictate to them what they should wear. You may not see a dividing barrier but that doesn't mean it is not there. It is obvious by your writing that it is there. People are people, and they are not defined solely by their clothing. Clothing, be it religious or non religious, makes a statement.

But clothing does not say everything about a person. You reduce the Muslim woman to the sum of her clothing, which there is a BIG problem with. Accusing your opponents of racism strikes me as being a bit of projection. The whole analysis is way too simplistic.

Meanwhile there is a good story here from a Muslim woman who does not wear the veil herself but has more of an understanding of it than the author of the article I pasted, and does not berate other women for wearing it.

If feminism is to be anything for Muslim women it must come from themselves. Any oppressed group must emancipate itself, no saviour from on high can do this for them.
White feminists by all means should support and show solidarity to Muslim women in their struggles but they should not dictate in a patronising way.


Anonymous said...

Excellent post. You make some really good points.

I grew up with Muslim friends, one of whom chose to cover her hair for a while. She later chose to go back to her usual flamboyant weekly hairstyle changes. I have Muslim friends who do not, and maybe even will not, cover their hair.

Women who cover up, it must be pointed out, sometimes are pressured to do so by male and female family members, and wider society, such as in Saudi Arabia. Here, they are vilified for doing so. But for the ones that make it a lifestyle choice, it's important they make their voice heard over the white, middle-class chin-wobbling.

I applaud your honesty in admitting that this issue has made you reassess your own prejudices. As a black woman and non-Muslim, it's making me do the same.

Dave Hill said...

Hello Liz. Belated response. As I've blogged on my own site today I think the veil issue needs to be addressed at two levels. Certainly as someone who opposes rigid cultural boundaries dividing the sexes from one another I can see where Shuggy is coming from. Insofar as the veil is an outward sign of such a separation of the sexes I cannot but be dismayed by it. But, as you know, I completely agree with you that the focus on the veil and the general ticking off tone of those from Straw onwards who've piled in behind him to criticise it does indeed construct those women as "other", does deny their agency, does completely brush aside the possibility that they may freely choose the veil (albeit within a particular context) and, most importantly, that to them it may be a statement of self-determination rather than an acceptance of subjugation. It may not be one that I especially care for or understand. But in the final analysis it is their right to dress and express their identity as they wish. If they want to wear a veil, let them wear a veil. If they don't, the same principle should hold. Only when someone or some strand in their culture is forcing them to do either of these things against their will should liberals intervene, and then only to defend their right to self-determination not to tell them what is good for them. Here endeth the lesson.

Sarah said...

Hi Liz,

Yet again, I love your writing and your argument, but I disagree with much of what you say! It angers me enormously that the issue of the 'veil' is often littered with accusations of racism - Islam is not a race, it is a belief system, and one which I utterly deplore, as I do all religions. If anything, it seems to me that much of the debate on this issue has been stunted by people's fear of being labelled 'racist' and thus we end up with a society pussy-footing around all sorts of barbaric and horrendous activity in the name of religion/culture - for fear of being accused of intolerance and racism. For example - just look at the horrific Hudood Ordinance laws in Pakistan. Women are currently, routinely imprisoned for having been raped. And the number of women killed in the name of muslim 'honour' is shameful. I do not reserve my hatred for Islam - I despise all religions - all, as far as I can see are fundamentally misogynist, anti-gay and usually anti-sex outside of marriage. Of course, if one wants to subscribe to these belief systems then of course they should be free to - but unfortunately, in reality, religion does not usually have much tolerance for deviation. I saw numerous muslim women on the BBC messageboard, speaking of how not wearing the veil caused enormous problems for them in their communities. Religion is the enemy of free speech as it does not tolerate any views other than it's own - look at the ludicrous riots that took place over the Dutch cartoons - unbelievable. Any - sorry - this is rushed, gotta get back to work.

Liz said...

Sarah - The issue is that some attacks on Islam don't bother to actually talk to Muslim women, and they do carry an undertone of racism and intolerance. They forget the women who wear the veil out of choice. I have nothing against religion - and I believe that much of the misogyny, homophobia etc in traditional religion stems from a literal and dogmatic interpretation , divorced from their social context, of texts which are a few thousand years old. Liberal interpretations are not like this. I agree that religion should learn to be more flexible and move with the times, though. As for sex outside marriage, for some people to abstain for religious reasons is a lifestyle choice. And many believers I notice ignore these strictures anyway, like many Catholics ignore the view on birth control.

Danish cartoons etc - I wrote an earlier entry that dealt with this and a related matter, pretty much agreeing that the reaction to them was way out of proportion, a bit like the Jerry Springer protests etc.

Sarah said...

Hi Liz,

I actually think it is common these days for people to apply their own interpretation to religious texts and thus cherry pick the passages that best suit our current moral climate. If you actually look at most religious texts they are filled with explicit misogyny and homophobia. Surely we cannot excuse this on the basis of them being a few thousand years old? One might have expected the word of God to have transcended such frivolous details as historical context. I'm afraid I cannot quote right now as I'm at work(!) and prob should not be extensively Googling! But I recently went to see Richard Dawkins give a talk on religion, it was actually a little disappointing in some ways but he did quote (about a hundred different passages I might add!) from the Bible - tales of daughters being raped by their fathers, of God punishing people etc. It seems to be asking to have one's cake and eat it to ignore these passages of God as evil authoritarian, and yet to accept the more palatable New Testament stuff.

I'll check out your entry on the Danish cartoons later - sounds interesting. And highlights one of the fundamental problems of religion to me - that it is by it's very nature, intolerant of other views. I watched some of that late night Muslim debate series (sort of like Kilroy but with muslims), and many many people on there openly stated that they believed Islam was the only correct way of life and that others who did not follow this path were, at best wrong, at worst , morally bankrupt. I'm sure you've also read the comments made by the Australian muslim leader describing women who choose not to wear a veil, as 'uncovered meat' and basically saying they are inviting rape. This highlights my own problem with the issue of veil wearing. That it is based on the belief that the women must be viewed as a sexual object. Of course, if women wish to wear them that is their own decision and no different to a woman deciding to wear a wonder bra and mini skirt in many ways. It is just that wherever religion is involved, any possibility for personal interpretation and freedom of choice is often impossible. I have been out with people from religious backgrounds before and they simply were not free to lead their lives in the way that they would like. An asian friend of mine was forced to move to Bradford and marry someone he'd never met before - very much against what he would have wanted. I realize this is anecdotal evidence - but this kind of thing really really is very common.

Liz said...

Hi Sarah - I don't deny that there are many problems with religions, including, of course, with Islam. There are issues surrounding veil wearing, which I think have been addressed and discussed by Muslim feminists. I don't think they have reached a consensus on the matter though as like many things it's complex. For some it can be not so much a case of sexuality but the issue of rejecting worldly values, pretty much like some orders of Christian monks and nuns withdraw from the world. Islam has no monastic tradition so withdrawal from the world is signified in other ways.

I also think that people like Dawkins tend to throw out the baby with the bathwater when it comes to religion. Of course there is much in religion that is bad and should be junked but there is that which is positive too.

Now I'm not religious myself but I do respect religion, if that makes sense. One argument religious liberals make is that while the men who wrote religious texts were inspired spiritually they were also constrained by their natural characteristics and the inclinations of their time and culture - hence their misogyny and homophobia. The Old Testament tends to be viewed by modern theologians not as the literal words of God but stories about how the ancient Jews understood the divine. I view religious texts as being something like this - they help explain how people tried to understand the meaning of life generally, in various cultures in the ancient world. They contain a lot which is wrong but also some philosophical insights. Despite all the nonsense that gets added on I think the core of most religions is about finding inner harmony with yourself and getting on well with others. Religion can be a motivation for people to do good as well as harm!

The post I wrote regarding the Danish cartoons was actually about the reaction to the comments of the pope - and I noticed that the reaction was similiar as to that with the cartoons. It's quite short but it is here:

Anonymous said...

در اجرای طرح ارتقای امنيت اجتماعی که از ابتدای ارديبهشت‌‏ماه آغاز شده, برخورد با مالکان خودروهای حامل افراد بدحجاب در دستور کار پليس قرار گرفته است، بر اساس اين طرح خودروهای حامل فرد بدحجاب يا خودروهايی که زنان بدحجاب راننده آن هستند، توسط ماموران اجرای طرح امنيت اخلاقی يا ماموران راهنمايی و رانندگی توقيف و به پارکينگ منتقل می‌‏شوند.
به گزارش خبرنگار ايلنا, نيروی انتظامی با اين توجيه که حضور فرد بدحجاب در خودرو از جرائم مشهود محسوب می‌‏شود، نسبت به برخورد با خودروهای حامل فرد بدحجاب اقدام کرده و راساً به توقيف خودروها می‌‏پردازد.

ماموران زنا زاده پلیس راهنمایی رانندگی ایران بجای اینکه هزاران راننده که مانند حیوانات با سرعت غیر مجاز، عبور ممنوع و صدها مورد جرایم مشهود خطرناک را پیگیری کنند در برابر این جرایم سکوت می کنند و ماشین افرادی را که موهایشان پیداست توقیف می کنند!

آی کیر خوک و خر و سنده خوک و خر تو کس حضرت زهرا بنت رسول الله چون ملایان می خواهند ایرانیان مثل این فاحشه قریش باشند.
سنده سگ تو کس ننه و زن و دختر رسول الله به خاطر این قوانین مسخره و حیوانی قرآن.
سنده شیطان تو حلق محمد قرآن شد.