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A Feminist Beneath the Niqab?

June 13, 2010

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.

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. June 14, 2010 3:05 pm

    Great post.

    Personally speaking, I enjoy the freedom to wear (or not to wear) what I choose. But it’s such a shallow form of freedom, really. The freedom to wear a bikini is a poor consolation prize for smaller paychecks, the pink collar ghetto-ization of professional women (even in fields like journalism), and feeling the constant pressure to apologize for my strengths (rather than my weaknesses).

    But whether a woman chooses to wear a burqa or a bikini, what’s most oppressive is feeling like that choice is dictated by men — i.e. how men will respond to what we wear — and that ultimately we women bear the responsibility for mens’ reactions. Wearing a niqab so that men will have *no choice* but to deal with a woman’s brain, or getting fired from Citibank because your combination of looks and clothing is just too distracting for your male coworkers — to me, authentic feminism means a woman’s choices don’t always have to revolve around men.

    • June 15, 2010 6:38 pm

      But whether a woman chooses to wear a burqa or a bikini, what’s most oppressive is feeling like that choice is dictated by men — i.e. how men will respond to what we wear — and that ultimately we women bear the responsibility for mens’ reactions. Wearing a niqab so that men will have *no choice* but to deal with a woman’s brain, or getting fired from Citibank because your combination of looks and clothing is just too distracting for your male coworkers — to me, authentic feminism means a woman’s choices don’t always have to revolve around men.

      This reminds me of a post I read on Feministe a while back, about women-only traincars in India… which were implemented to help women avoid cat-calling and other harassment from men. While it temporarily solves the problem for women who ride the train, the men’s belief that they are entitled to behave in that manner isn’t being addressed, and that’s the real issue.

      Great post. This, and the previous one about hijabs and Bill Maher, has inspired me to write one of my own about the topic.

  2. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    June 14, 2010 5:04 pm

    Thanks for sharing your perspective. My views on feminism are a work in progress, so I really benefit from the feedback.

    I do agree that it is oppressive for women to have their choices dictated by men, or for those choices to revolve around men. Both of those verbs — “dictate” and “revolve around” — convey a strong element of coercion that you rightly condemn. At the same time, I think it is wise for women to be mindful of the effect their choices will have on men (as Ms. Ahmed does). Even more important is getting men to consider the effects of their choices on women.

    The problem, as I see it, is not that women have too little autonomy, but that men have too much. It’s not that autonomy is in itself bad, but that it needs to be balanced with concern for others. (This is a view I have come to hold in large part due to my disgust with the right’s attempt to frame health care reform, financial regulation, and cap-and-trade legislation as assaults on individual liberty.)

  3. June 14, 2010 6:55 pm

    Thanks for the thoughtful response.

    I think we’re in complete agreement when it comes to the importance of balancing autonomy with concern for others. The real source of my gripe is the gender imbalance: for a complicated set of reasons, women spend far more time considering the effects of their choices on men than vice versa — that’s what irks, that extra burden of responsibility placed on/assumed by women. (If I’m being female-centric here, feel free to say so.)

    A similar imbalance appears when it comes to cultural differences. From what I’ve seen and experienced, assimilation often means “our way or the highway.”

  4. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    June 14, 2010 7:39 pm

    I agree entirely. In fact, you may have just made my point better than I did.

  5. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    June 15, 2010 8:52 pm

    Thanks, April. I look forward to reading your post — be sure to send me a link!

Trackbacks

  1. Free Choices « ethecofem
  2. Free Choices « April Streich
  3. Burqa Ban | Blogging for Peace
  4. A Recap on the ISJ’s One-Year Blogiversary « The Innocent Smith Journal

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