This article will focus on Western Feminism vs Postcolonial and/or Arab Feminism & the West’s obsession with the plight of Arab and/or Muslim women, focusing on the veil. For the purpose of this piece I am using the term veil to describe over one hundred terms used for parts of dress in Arabic (e.g. burqu’, ‘aabayah). We have to be careful not to conflate the Middle East into one unanimous and unified space. It is made of up a myriad of countries that obtain their own beliefs on the veil based on their history.
“The Veil” – is a term ostensibly used to describe the “static market” of a Muslim or Arabic woman’s dress – meaning that it “remain[s] unchanged across varied historical and geographical contexts” (Jarmakani, 153). To start this piece, I want to direct your immediate attention to the singular understanding of the veil in the West – “the English term ‘veil’ has no correlative term in Arabic” (Jarmakani, 153).
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the veil: “to conceal from apprehension, knowledge, or perception; to deal with, treat, etc. so as to disguise or obscure; to hide the real nature or meaning of something, frequently with implication of bad motives”.
If it has no correlation to the Arabic language, why do we use this word when there are over a hundred terms used for “parts of dress” in Arabic? (Guindi, 7).
Well, the image of a veiled woman in Western popular culture has taken on “a logic of its own mythology”. The veiled woman is a product of the West’s own cultural context and is far from her own “historical and cultural reality” (Jarmakani, 156).
Throughout this piece, quotes from two dear friends/classmates of mine in their 20s, will be incorporated. As these women wear the veil (hijab), their responses will share the most credible opinions and experiences. One woman was born in Iraq and raised in Australia, I will refer to her as (A). The other woman was born and raised in the United States with ethnical origins from Pakistan and Mexico, I will refer to her as (M) to protect their identity.
(A): “Yes, I am a woman in hijab, but there is so much more to me”
The War on Terrorism
I think the most important aspect of this piece is understanding the history of the veil in different Middle Eastern countries. As I have studied this topic in Chicago, most accessible resources are post 9/11. I believe that this knowledge is what most incorporate in their strong opinion on the lives of Middle Eastern women. The problem of focusing on post 9/11 was clearly articulated by Lila Abu-Lughod –
the “consistent resort to the cultural, as if knowing something about women and Islam or the meaning of a religious ritual would help one understand the tragic attack on New York’s World Trade Center and the US Pentagon, or how Afghanistan had come to be ruled by the Taliban, or what interests might have fuelled US and other interventions in the region over the past 25 years” (Abu-Lughod, 784).
The issue here is transparent, if we continue to focus on the regions religious beliefs and treatment of women we tend to disregard the patriarchal and militaristic interventions (such as the case in Afghanistan) that introduced a regime that instituted oppressive policies towards women that were not inherent from Islam (Jarmakani, 142). There is a “tendency to overemphasise the role of Islam in problems pertaining to Muslim migrants and societies, while disregarding the impact of westernisation and the transversal influence of Christian or leftist patterns of religiosity or political radicalisation” (Roy, 26).
As (M) opens up to me about what it was like when she first started wearing the veil in the US, the attitudes mentioned here are clear.
Q: How was it growing up in the US wearing a veil (M)?
A: I decided to wear the hijab at a very young age, 12. I was the only one in my school who did. Instead of facing hostility from strangers first, it came from my dearest friends. They’d make various comments that to them were “jokes”, claiming that I was better off taking it off. Strangers would tell me to go back to my country even though I was born in the US. Having the ability to live in both Indiana and Illinois, I was able to experience it differently as well, in some areas the hesitance to even smile at me or walk next to me was greater. Due to ignorance and the continued fabrication of what Islam, Muslims and the Hijab means – many act with hatred. Especially since the Trump Administration, those who already have negative perspectives felt that their views were justified and became more outspoken in their hatred. Though wearing the Hijab comes with hate from many, I am blessed to have so many people around me who love me for who I am and respect my choice.
In ‘A Quiet Revolution‘, Leila Ahmed describes her life in Egypt before she left in the late 1960s. The women of Egypt in the late 1960s in cities such as Cairo or Alexandria hardly wore hijab (Ahmed, Quiet Rev, 4). The veil was “for the women of the day, a matter of fashion and of wearing proper and appropriate dress” and up until the colonial era “the veil was considered proper dress for all women, regardless of religion” (Ahmed, Quiet Rev, 36). Leila’s childhood in the 1940s upheld the notion that veiling = backwardness and unveiling = advancement (Ahmed, Quiet Rev, 43). It is important to note that the rise of the West to global dominance was at the root of the reason as to why the idea of unveiling became the norm in 1899 Egypt: it further erased Egypt and Islam’s “blot of inferiority” (Ahmed, Quiet Rev, 44). In the 1930s the “shah of Iran banned the veil, and police were required to remove it from women who did not comply” (Ahmed, Quiet Rev, 45).
The 1967 defeat by Israel created a shift in the Arab world. Historians wrote that “a mood of religiosity swept across the country in the wake of this defeat” and that the “defeat profoundly shook people’s confidence in the government”. It began to view the secular ideologies as “empty” (Ahmed, Quiet Rev, 66). The Sadat government after Nasser’s death made the goal of Islamising society vital.
In her book published in 2011, Leila was trying to figure out why “after nearly disappearing from many Middle Eastern and Muslim-majority societies, had the veil made a comeback, and how had it spread with such remarkable swiftness?” (Ahmed, Quiet Rev, 8).
Egypt is the home of the Muslim Brotherhood (originally created to pronounce their commitment to the ideal of social justice and the Islamic umma). It emerged into the Islamist Resurgence and saw the re-emergence of the veil in the 1970s as they “affirmed the veil as a foundational Islamic requirement” (Ahmed, Quiet Rev, 10 and 49). In the 1990’s Islamic Resurgence attained other terms such as “fundamentalism”, “radical Islam”, “political Islam”, and “Salafism” (Ahmed, Quiet Rev, 9).
The late 1970s saw the Islamic movements have a powerful influence on students who started to veil. Women who participated in this movement felt a sense of empowerment and had the effect of making such women feel separated “psychologically and intellectually from mainstream society” (Ahmed, Quiet Rev, 79). It was described by El Guindi as an “identity crisis” and questioned it to be “our version of America’s hippie movement, a fad, a youth protest or ideological vacuum” (El Guindi, 161). However, as the movement began, it was represented as a “movement that both favoured and advanced women’s interests” (Ahmed, Quiet Rev, 87).
The history of Egypt throughout the 20th century shows the differences in opinions on the veil from Middle Eastern, Muslim and/or Arab women themselves. Leila grew up during the 1940s in Egypt and witnessed a time where veiling was of little importance to a woman’s identity or religion. Compared to (M) and (A), who grew up in the US and Australia during the 2000s and witnessed a time where veiling was seen as liberating. Can we really compare Leila, (M) and (A)’s beliefs? The women in Cairo who began to veil in the 1990s saw it as a signifier of their “religious awakening”. However, on the other side of the spectrum “secularists and feminists [saw] veiling as a sign of backwardness” (Grace, 75). Ahdaf Soueif, an Egyptian novelist who has been based in London since 1984 does not agree with the assumption that the “re-emergence of veiling was taking a backward step”. However, Ahdaf Soueif does mention in her interview with the Guardian in 1999 that: ‘the reappearance of the veil has proved profoundly dispiriting for her mother and grandmother’s generation, who saw it as a symbol of oppression’ (guardian interview).
Q: How does wearing the veil make you feel (M)?
A: Strong. Though it makes me a target, it is a way in which I can demonstrate that the opinions of others do not matter, rather I am proud of my religion and will continue to be. It is another way in which I can express myself, and I find beauty in that.
Q: How does wearing the veil make you feel (A)?
A: Honestly, the hijab makes me feel empowered and strong. It is a symbol of my faith and my modesty. It is a symbol of my choice. It is telling everyone that I have the power to dress how I want. It makes me feel pride in my choices. Despite what anyone thinks, I am still persisting and living my life by my rules. It makes me proud that I am rejecting what society is telling me I should be doing. I am creating my own place in society. But to be quite honest, there has been many times that my hijab has made me feel unsafe and generally uneasy. Rejecting the norm sometimes marginalises you and makes you a visible target of hate. Overall, I am fortunate enough to live in a multicultural place that embraces diversity however, this isn’t always the case.
Culture vs Religion
Most resort to Islamic law to blame the “oppression of Muslim women”. As Albert Hourani made clear – the law is “not the only force which moulds society; the Arab community has been influenced too by social customs which are not Moslem in origin, although they have been widespread in Moslem countries”. What started this misrepresentation of Arab and/or Muslim womanhood? This fixed image that I strive to challenge is “presented as a signifier of the invisibility and powerlessness of Arab and Muslim women” (Jarmakani, 149).
“Seclusion existed in the Middle East before Islam arose” (Hourani, 1956)
Albert Hourani strived to maintain a clear difference between cultural and religious influences on Arab and/or Muslim women. The seclusion that the West seem to obsess over was visible from the time of the “ancient Kings of Persia” where “Eastern rulers [had] withdrawn themselves and their womenfolk from the public gaze, to emphasize the majesty of Kingship” (Hourani, 1956). From this, Muslim Caliphs and Sultans adopted this habit, “and what the rulers did their subjects copied” (Hourani 1956). Hourani stated that until recently (in 1956) Muslim women and Christian women wore the veil in the streets of Arab towns (Hourani 1956).
As mentioned above, the absence of the veiled woman’s own historical and cultural reality creates an illusion. This was seen in the 2001 advertisement from Reebok International.
Reebok Classic Advertisement (2001)
Amira Jarmakani goes into depth about the advertisement in her book ‘Imagining Arab Womanhood‘. What stood out to me is the fact that “the actual elements of her clothing are a conglomeration of incongruent markers of Islamic forms of dress” (Jarmakani, 154). In basic terms, this means that the woman’s dress incorporates a number of different things that are incompatible. This is clearly a misconstrued portrayal of a veiled woman’s historical and cultural reality. This representation focuses on the veil’s English meaning expressing seclusion and oppression – in other words, “the practice itself is understood as the forced enclosure and restriction of women, rather than a means of ensuring ‘sacred privacy’ and ‘sanctity'” (Jarmakani, 156). There are a multitude of political and cultural reasons for veiling that shift over time – however, the West tend to restrict the idea of veiling among women as a “static and monolithic” practice (Jarmakani, 157).
The idea of Orientalism still exists today – belief in the “superiority of European man and his civilization and the inferiority of Others – Hindus, Muslims/Orientals or sub-Saharan Africans”. The last decades of the nineteenth century saw these narratives “of racial, religious and civilizational inferiority” focus specifically on the issue of women and the ways that men of other societies oppress and degrade women’ (Ahmed, Quiet Rev, 23).
The constant representation of people who are not Arab and/or Muslim manipulating the stories of Arab and/or Muslim women is overwhelming. A famous example of this is Laura Bush’s radio address in 2001.
“Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughter without fear of punishment. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women” (Laura Bush in Abud, 784)
This is a distressing and poignant statement made by an influential woman at the time. It is a repeat of gross history, the white man saving brown women from brown men (Gayatri Chakravorty 1988) resulting in: the support for military troops to wage war = saving and liberating Muslim women. As mentioned by Hirschkind and Mahmood, “the plight of th[e] Afghan woman that reinforces dominant U.S. notions about the passivity and victimization of all Muslim women at the hand of Muslim men disa[vowes] U.S. culpability for providing the financial support (in the 1980s) that eventually enabled the Taliban’s rise to power” (Jarmakani, 142).
(M)’s and (A’)s ability to express these feelings from a personal viewpoint was interesting. These attitudes are affecting the average Muslim American woman and the average Muslim Australian woman.
Q: Why do you think the West view the veil as threatening (M)?
A: Due to the twisted decision to amplify an orientalist perspective in the media and other outlets, the view on the hijab has worsened. They use the hijab as a physical element to further draw the us vs. them picture. With the issues occurring in the Middle East, many Western nations want to intervene using a human rights element to gain approval. The lack of knowledge on Islam, Muslims and the hijab equals fear and ignorance – the elements for hate and chaos. In order to further intervene with these tailored images of the barbaric “other” these nations have evolved the white man’s burden to fit the 21st century.
Q: Why do you think the West view the veil as threatening (A)?
A: I think the West views the veil as threatening because they’ve wrongly conditioned Islam with terror – and the veil is symbolic to the religion. Through propagated messages delivered by the media and just general misconstrued thoughts and opinions of the religion, people have come to believe that Muslim people are all fuelled by hate and anger towards people of different beliefs and are ultimately violent people. Islamophobic slurs and threatening behaviours towards me have made me feel unsafe and humiliated. Incidents like this don’t happen very often. Regardless, it makes me feel great strength that I don’t let hate change my decision on how I want to dress and represent myself.
Superiority traces back to the start of colonisation. In the wake of the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt in 1799 – Europe’s first conquest of Muslim lands – both Turkey and Egypt strived to catch up to Europe in scientific and technological advances (Ahmed, Quiet rev, 26). Muhammad Ali, an officer who advanced to commander in chief of the Ottoman force endeavoured to import European knowledge in Egypt. As his advances enlarged the tourism sphere in Egypt, and more Egyptians were travelling to Europe they became “acquainted” with the West (Ahmed, Quiet Rev, 27). An Orientalist, Edward W. Lane noted that the changes his people were making to adopt European ways angered some of his people and were “signs of deeper and more important changes that were now inexorably under way” (Ahmed, Women and Gender, 42).
The British occupation of Egypt in 1882 introduced the British appointed Lord Cromer as the consular general and agent (Ahmed, 28). From 1882 to 1954 Egypt experienced a system known as the “Veiled Protectorate” (Ahmed, 29). This allowed the British in Egypt to “rule from behind a facade of Egyptian ministers who had little authority and were rubber stamps for the British manipulators” (Ahmed, 29). As Cromer maintained a strong belief that “Egyptians were incapable of self-government without European assistance”, he came to be resented by many people in Egypt (Ahmed, 29).
The obsession with the plight of Muslim women became apparent during Lord Cromer’s influence. Lord Cromer was devotedly not a supporter of the movement for women’s rights – he was a “formidable opponent, serving for a time as the president of the Society Opposed to Women’s Suffrage” (Ahmed, 31). Lord Cromer had no purpose to support the women’s movement – however, Cromer passionately maintained a stance on Muslim women. Cromer emphasised the importance of ending the Islamic practices of veiling and segregation to advance the characters of women’s husbands and sons as veiling and self-degradation produced a deteriorating effect on the male population (Ahmed, 31). Clearly, Cromer’s attitude to “save Muslim women” had an ulterior motive – Lord Cromer’s appropriation of a feminist argument justified colonial rule (Jarmakani, 160). Cromer’s ruling showed little practical help to Muslim women to advance on their own. Cromer chose “not to invest government revenue in education, including schools for girls and he refused to fund a school for female doctors that had been functioning in the 1830s” (Ahmed, 33). This eerily mirrors the Bush administrations comments on “saving Muslim women”. These concerns did not align to the response put in place to better women’s lives, rather it had an ulterior motive that encapsulated the country’s advancement in the Middle East.
Q: How do you feel about the idea that ‘Muslim women need saving’ (M)?
A: I believe that this attitude is primarily a calculated move to get approval from the masses to intervene in these mainly oil rich nations. In all honesty, there is no saving to be done. Yes, there are issues relating to the rights of women all over the world, and yes changes need to be made, but not with intervention from the West that we have seen thus far. Especially when we look at who placed these misogynistic, and oppressive governments in the first place. There are incredible women working to create more rights for women in their respective nations and I believe that it should be these women making the calls on what should be done and who should assist them.
Q: How do you feel about the idea that ‘Muslim women need saving’ (A)?
A: It honestly makes me angry. Other Muslim women might perceive this much differently, this is just solely my opinion. But I feel as though it’s boxing every single Muslim woman into this “oppressed” category, a category that insinuates they’re incapability of leading their own lives or making their own choices. It’s saying that we, Muslim women are weak, and I do not agree with that at all. Like many other women, I am quite proud of the life I’ve lived so far, and everything I have now is a result of the choices I made. For someone to tell me that my choices are “not good enough” and that I need saving because my life choices don’t live to their personal standards is quite condescending. Perhaps when people say Muslim women need saving, they are not insinuating anything malicious or condescending and see this through the media and human rights activist groups. Finally, people tend to think of gender inequality when proposing the argument that Muslim women need saving. Gender inequality is a global issue and is not exclusive to Islam. It is a problem deriving from authoritarianism and a power dynamic that favours men – which is an issue that is not exclusive to religion or Muslim women.
Western Feminism vs Postcolonial and/or Arab Feminism
Lama Abu O leh, a feminist activist and a founding member of a Women Studies Centre in Jordan, made some critical statements from a Western feminist viewpoint. As Lama tried to research the veil as ‘disempowerment’ it became clear to her that:
“It wasn’t equally obvious to me that the veil actually weakened women and disabled them from confronting an uncomfortable daily experience” (Lama Abu Odeh, 30).
“The disempowerment of the veil that I reflected on seemed to express merely my panicked feminist self, one that saw the veil as threatening to its normative world and sexuality”(Lama Abu Odeh, 30).
“My panicked feminist self” – this statement spoke a million words to me. Although the word “feminism” wants to ideally be a universal word – it is not. Why? as explained in my last piece ‘Why Does Xenophobia Exist In a Globalised World?‘ Ibn Fadlan successfully distinguished the differences in culture – “their customs made sense, whereas his own did not”.
The idea that the Middle East saw no advancement in women’s freedom and liberation is puzzling. Qasim Amin, an Egyptian, known as the founder of feminism in the Arab world, attacked the inferior position of women in Arab societies in his books written in 1899 and 1901 (Grace, 72). The 20th century saw Egypt “at the forefront of the fight for women’s rights along with the movement for nationalism and resistance to imperialism”(Grace, 72).
Q: Why do YOU wear the veil (M)?
A: I wear the hijab as a reminder to myself of my relationship with God. Islam is central to my being and I wear the hijab as a physical manifestation of that. To me it brings strength, and persistence, to continue to be who I am no matter what hurdles I face.
Q: Why do YOU wear the veil (A)?
A: I wear the veil because of its religious significance. I have read about the role of women in Islam and have researched the importance of wearing the veil and felt like it resonated with my individual beliefs. For me personally, the hijab also helps me to stay in touch with my religion and stay true to values that are important to me. I wear the hijab because of my pride in my religion, and it’s also a symbol of freedom of choice in leading the life I want to live.
Q: Are you forced to wear the veil (M)?
A: When I was 12 years old, I made the decision to start to wear it, I was not forced to. I believe that when one decides to wear it, they have their own reasoning, and it should be respected.
Q: Are you forced to wear the veil (A)?
A: I am not forced to wear the hijab. There was some expectation to wear it because all the older women in my family wore it, but it was all down to what I chose. Had I chosen not to wear it, my family would be accepting and understanding of it and would ultimately respect my choice.
The West’s approach to feminism is dramatically different to postcolonial feminism. And it is imperative that we understand this. Postcolonial feminists do not have the same victories western feminism rely on (Lama Abu Odeh, 32).
(Lama Abu Odeh, 32).
(A) was very passionate about distinguishing the view of the hijab from the West’s perspective due to their beliefs and needs within what they believe feminism to be. (A) explained this to be one of the reasons why the West view the veil to be threatening: “I think the primary reason for feeling threatened by the veil is because it is symbolic of what a woman chooses to accept and reject. For example, a woman’s role in western society centres heavily on sexuality and being able to freely display their sexuality. When a woman wears the veil, she is rejecting that gender role and telling society she chooses to accept and reject what she wants. The veil liberates women from vein desires, and also liberates women from objectification. It’s saying that the woman does not need to use her beauty to feel acknowledged or accepted in society. I guess when she refuses to feed into that gender role perpetuated by the West, people feel threatened. As I have grown up, people have been more eager to learn about why I wear the hijab. I love answering people’s questions. It feels like through their curiosity, they’re questioning that preconceived stereotype of Muslims”.
Islam and the Veil
In 2019, the attitudes of the West against Islam are still very much negatively charged. As I have mentioned before, the conflation of Islam and Arab people further combine racism with ignorance. With the West’s inherent superiority and success in feminist advances, it seems to excuse acts of hatred. It is a common notion that Islam is condemned to “block the way to women’s rights” and that Islam and democracy cannot go together (Fatima Mernissi). Scholars such as Ibn Hajar, Ibn Sa’ad and Tabari prove that Islam and democracy work well together. So, why does Christianity and Judaism succeed when Islam clearly fails?
(A): “Perhaps they view it as threatening because they perceive a woman in hijab as displaying a statement about her so called ‘radical and violent beliefs’. Maybe women in hijab are seen to be ruining this democratic and freeing culture that the West proudly promotes. Or maybe, to some a woman in the hijab could be perceived as submissive to an oppressive religion and in turn they are in need of rescuing”.
It is also due to the lens we view Islam in – the term “Muslim” is commonly used in the West in a “neo-ethnic sense, with no reference to faith and genuine religious practice” (Roy, 124). Also, one’s lack of ability to research the religious texts before attacking Islam is apparent. People are apprehensive to look into religious texts due to the idea that the “religious community is increasingly seen as an identity group, emphasising the ‘us and them’ approach” (Roy, 34). Religion is a personal manifestation and experience that should not be dictated or attacked by a non-believer.
Q: What significance does the veil have to your religion (M)?
A: The hijab, the word itself is not specifically used to describe what we think of today. Many people are unaware that the Ayah (a verse in the Qur’an, (M) is referring to 24:31) that typically refers to the hijab is geared towards men first, and then to women. It speaks of modesty for both. However, people, Muslim or not, tend to solely focus on women. In terms of physical hijab there are various perspectives that see it as either religious and/or cultural. There is no set-in stone manner to observe it. The sad truth is that women are beaten down from both sides, if they choose to wear it, they are judged on HOW they wear it. If they take it off many act as if they had just committed shirk (avoid or neglect a responsibility, in religious terms if they associate partners with God). In all honesty, I hope that people will just let women decide to dress as they wish, their decisions are theirs alone and personal comments are unnecessary and unwanted. At the end of the day it is no one’s business if a woman decides to wear it or not, it is between them and God. To me it is a choice, it does not make my choice better than the other.
Q: What significance does the veil have to your religion (A)?
A: The veil is very significant in Islam. The veil was important to women dating back 14 centuries ago and was introduced via verses of the Holy Qur’an as a way to protect women from abuse and harm. Historically, women were being sexually assaulted and were being taking advantage of by men. This issue was resolved through Allah’s (God’s) message that was sent through the angel Gabriel to the Prophet Muhammad. Women used to wear this garment above their heads where it was typically tucked behind their ears and flowed down, their bodies were still revealed. This message stated that women should wrap that garment around themselves. This could be cited in the Qur’an: “O Prophet, tell your wives and your daughters and the women of the believers to bring down over themselves [part] of their garments. That is more suitable that they will be known and not be abused. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful” (33:59). Following this, wrapping their bodies with the garment became a symbol of respect towards women. When men saw a woman with a veil wrapped around her, they knew to stay away from her and keep her same from danger. Eventually the harm towards women decreased. The significance of the hijab is an important component in many other religions, such as Judaism and Christianity, and was even presented before Islam was revealed.
These responses would not resonate well with some who follow Western feminism. A clear example that the meaning behind the word feminism is not universal and has to be respected differently.
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