A Feminist Beneath the Niqab?
A Muslim woman explains to the New York Times why she wears the niqab, a veil covering the face:
“I do this because I want to be closer to God, I want to please him and I want to live a modest lifestyle,” said Ms. Ahmed, who asked that her appearance without a veil not be described. “I want to be tested in that way. The niqab is a constant reminder to do the right thing. It’s God-consciousness in my face.”
But there were secular motivations, too. In her job, she worked with all-male teams on oil rigs and in labs.
“No matter how smart I was, I wasn’t getting the respect I wanted,” she said. “They still hit on me, made crude remarks and even smacked me on the butt a couple times.”
Wearing the niqab is “liberating,” she said. “They have to deal with my brain because I don’t give them any other choice.”
Perhaps Ms. Ahmed is deceiving herself. At the very least, we know that in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Muslim world the niqab has accompanied ignominious customs and laws denying women a basic education, the right to drive, and even the ability to leave their homes.
Or perhaps it is we who deceive ourselves. Perhaps what we take to be righteous indignation is, in reality, a smug complacency and sense of cultural superiority that renders our own injustices toward women invisible. Perhaps American women have less to fear from the burqa than from the bikini; less to fear from the niqab than the negligee.
Am I siding with Islam? No. Female emancipation is not so simple as the wearing of veils, on the one hand, or the burning of bras, on the other. Traditional cultures are, in my view, no more or less likely to respect and honor women than we are. Which isn’t at all to diminish the achievements of the feminist movement in the United States, or to excuse the atrocities still occurring in Somalia (female genital mutilation), Uganda (legislation that would punish homosexuality by death), and other parts of the developing world. The point is, rather, that traditional cultures already have the intellectual and cultural resources needed to correct these abuses, and to treat women with fairness and dignity. A Muslim friend tells me, for example, that the Quran does not include the biblical myth that God made Eve from Adam’s rib, and is, in many other respects, egalitarian.
Meanwhile, there is the plank in our own eye: the commodification of sexuality under an increasingly dysfunctional capitalist system.
I think progressives — feminists, in particular — would benefit greatly from thinking more imaginatively, and less ideologically. The question we should be asking ourselves is not how to convince the Muslim world to adopt the West’s libertarian social norms. The question we should be asking ourselves is what an authentic feminism would look like within a Muslim cultural milieu; what, in other words, a feminist would look like, beneath the niqab.