Wednesday, June 13, 2012
There are voices in the blogosphere and twitterverse which actively support women's right to wear some form of veil (burqa, hijab, chador, headscarf etc). Some of these voices self-identify as Muslim Feminists. The general argument seems to be that when women choose to cover themselves by their own volition then such a choice is to be respected. I acknowledge that people have a right to dress as they wish (like all rights, the right to dress is not absolute; for instance, exhibitionism is a criminal sexual offence in most places), and if women wish to wear veil, so be it. I see no reason and feel no desire to dispute this. However, what I find problematic is whether the choice to wear a veil can be defended as a feminist choice, and whether Islam can support veil without being patriarchal. (I define veil as an article of clothing that is intended to cover some part of the head or face.) I am also not talking about the piece of clothing per se, but rather the institution of veil, its prescription for reasons of modesty or for reasons of faith as God’s command.
I have a lot of questions in my mind, so I shall direct them to the prototype of a Muslim Feminist that has formed in my head over time. It may or may not correspond to specific individuals who identify themselves with that title.
1. I think almost all Muslim Feminists maintain that the veil is not compulsory in Islam. However, doesn’t Islam encourage veil as way of being modest? If your answer is Yes, then why is it so that a woman's modesty is so much tied up with how much she covers herself? To associate veil with modesty, is that not in essence patriarchal? And if your answer is No, how do you explain the contradiction it poses given the well-documented endorsement of veil both in theology and practice in Muslim societies throughout history since Islam's origin?
2. Do you think that feminism is reducible to mere choice? That whatever women choose for themselves is to be respected, that whatever women choose for themselves is to be declared by default as a feminist act? Can a woman not choose for herself something that is characteristically un-feminist? And if feminism is not equivalent to 'whatever women choose for themselves' (as I believe is the case), then what is it equivalent to, and how does that apply to veil? By what definition of feminism (apart from feminism = choice) can veil be justified as a feminist act?
3. A lot of Muslim women who veil do so because they believe that God commands them to, and not directly because men and society want them to. In fact, often such women wear veil while the society around them doesn’t want them to. However, one can say that they are not submitting to the patriarchal society directly, but they are submitting to a God that was a product of a patriarchal society, because apparently the God they believe in is a patriarchal God. Can a feminist be justified in choosing to submit to a patriarchal God?
4. I imagine many feminist critics of veil see it as a product and an adaptation of a patriarchal culture. They may say that the very fact that some women feel the need to cover themselves up to feel modest while men feel no such need is an evidence of its patriarchal nature. [Here we may note that within a patriarchal society, wearing veil can actually provide women with a great deal of social mobility that would otherwise be denied to them.] How would you respond to that? Don’t you think that in a truly egalitarian society, women would not feel the need for veil and veil would not exist?
5. Another objection against veil is regarding what it suggests about men in general. Many perceive veil to be accusing men that their gazes are inherently sexualizing, and that women are justified in protecting themselves from that sexualizing gaze. What would you say about that? Is there something gender discriminatory in the audience that is targeted by the veil?
6. The symbolism of veil is very heterogeneous at the moment. I don't think you'll deny that veil has been used in the past and is often used even today as a means of oppression of women. However, unlike the past, there are a significant number of Muslim women who now hail their veil as a means of liberation. So veil is not just a piece of clothing. It is highly loaded with meaning. In a society where veil is simultaneously a means of oppression as well as liberation, what can be done to relieve the oppression of women who are psycho-socially forced to veil when we are at the same time actively constructing and supporting the narrative of veil being a free choice?
7. By wearing the veil, isn't a woman inadvertently admitting that she is a sex object? Like a stripper who chooses to objectify her body sexually by displaying, do these women choose to objectify their bodies by covering them up obsessively? Are not covering-up and revealing two diametrically opposite ways of acknowledging the same thing?
Many of the questions above only feign to be questions; they are statements of criticism and hence reveal my bias. However, I have chosen to phrase them as questions because I am also open to possible answers and would be glad to hear what people have to say in response as an opportunity to understand the other side better.