Veil and Muslim Feminists: Some Questions

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.

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writes2escape said…
Being a Muslim Feminist myself, I think feminism is about freedom. If someone wants to take the veil because they want to - let them. Why must we go into such intricate details to guess how her taking a veil might be her chacha's mamu's neighbor's decision or how that would have such a deep profound effect over how people would judge her?
If she wants to take the veil, good for her. If she doesn't, that's fine too. That does n't make her any less of a Muslim or anything else.
karachikhatmal said…
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karachikhatmal said…
Really interesting post.

I think that the two discourses can't meet as they are formulated. That Zizek post we were discussing on twitter was interesting mainly because it tried to attempt a reformulation, although it didn't have much success.

But perhaps we should recognise that there are two distinct issues here. The right to wear a veil is in my mind a political one. I won't particularly want my wife to wear one, but I also feel that there is a right for a woman to want to wear one. Of course, the issue becomes then why would I support someone's right to do an act which is un-free? In my mind, the answer lies in the fact that the veil is not the reason women are reduced to sexual objects, and we don't need to go to the extreme of bikinis or strippers to make this point.

Instead, all we need to ask is why is it that in a consumerist society, there will be, and are, around 15-30 provocative images of women selling stuff for every 1 of a man. When it comes to child rearing, western society has accepted the 'right' of a man to opt out completely - the state can fill in the financial gap, and offers a chance for both parents to give up the kid. Yet most women don't. That would suggest that there is a difference between men and women which is acknowledged in bullshit like inequal opportunity or incomes etc, but nothing deeper than that. When I call this bullshit it's because it detracts from the larger picture, and reduces these differences to human biases etc - manageable rationalisations.

Ergo facto, if a woman can and is encouraged to, and most often co-opted into dressing in ways which are not comfortable and accentuate their sexuality while no such demands are made on men, then the question of the veil becomes, to me, more about mistrust of Islam (and its patriarchal constructs) rather than one about patriarchy in general.

To put it in simple terms, as long as men aren't wearing heels or makeup or pants that reveal their anal cleavage or push up their balls AS A REGULAR AND EXPECTED PRACTICE the discussion on the veil is a bit superfluous and distracting.

It shows the limits of feminism as it is conceptualised, because it can easily recognise and mobilise against the veil but can't seem to get similar ideas across when they are about non-exoticised and vilified garments.

Before I go, I would like to acknowledge that while I lived in Pakistan my views were what I would now describe as Islamophobic. In a country where religion has been such a pinata since day one, I can understand that sentiment in my past self.

But having been objected to numerous and repetitive verbal attacks and institutional biases simply because i LOOK mulim, I have come to change my beliefs. A lot of the bashing on Muslim issues is a vehicle for anti-Muslim sentiment. That does not mean that the points being raised are invalid, or indeed that you are being anti-Muslim in this post or anything.

Rather what I mean to say is that we need to be aware of the difference between the (massive) need for breaking down a lot of Islamic fascist laws etc, but also differentiating that impulse from the intense bias faced by Muslims simply for being different. The two often overlap and that is unfair, and bullshit. 1
Awais Aftab said…
@ karachikhatmal

You have raised some excellent points. Thank you very much. Appreciate it!
Shahid Saeed said…
Completely outside the discussion of this post really, picking out an interesting line from Ahmer's comment:

"..When it comes to child rearing, western society has accepted the 'right' of a man to opt out completely - the state can fill in the financial gap..."

I believe a lot of historical short term-ism was involved in the conceptualization of this sentence.

For as long as the post-enlightenment and early industrialized world has existed, that's when we start to get a lot of documentation on and writings, men never really took on rearing responsibilities effectively. If they never really contributed equally or even partially in a significant way then there's no question of men getting the 'right to 'opt-out' (and defined here as prevalent to western society today by Ahmer).

Just before public health improved, we have been able to see that in fact both parents had alienated and emotion-less relationships with their kids, compared to now is what I mean. Parents expected their kids to die early, one out of maybe four reaching adulthood. They therefore deliberately controlled their feelings and did not develop attachments (an entire couple of pages in a western european history book on this thing btw). Then with better health and medicine, and as infant and child mortality decreased, parents had increasingly better, or at least emotional relationships with their kids.

Now focusing especially on men, and here I'd focus on our land specifically, maybe fathers had a closer relationship with sons a hundred or so years ago when they mentored and tutored their sons in their trade and arts and the apprenticeship relationship developed another dimension of their relationship. But as opportunities arose and professional horizons widened, you can see by the time of our father and grandfather's generation, men had absolutely no "fatherly" relationship with their kids, fatherly being a relationship where their is expressed love and attachment. The, well, macho-man father had an idealized stern and emotion-less relationship with his kids. Hell, everyone has heard how the great grandfather never even kissed his children on the forehead. If not master-servant then military like senior-junior relationships existed between fathers and kids, especially with sons. Obediance and stern-ness being center stones. Now if this wasn't men "opting out" of child rearing, then I don't know what was. Men took absolutely no interest in and loathed to take up responsibilities for child rearing. Today, it has improved for the better at least. Our fathers have a better and closer relationship with us in the form of what we can talk and share and how they express their love to us than they had with their fathers. Ahmer age people (I mean slightly older than me :p) having kids infact have far better roles in child rearing. Percentage of men changing diapers of their infants might still be very low but has improved for the better.

What I meant to say was, men, even here, never took up the responsibility before. Things might just have improved for the better, even if marginally.
Shahid Saeed said…
If we look at the west then, that if the man opts out completely, "the state can fill in the financial gap", which might be very restrictive a definition when it comes to the western world. I mean here american exceptionalism, read abnormality, is important. Last I remember, there werre 5 digit number of men in prison for not paying child support and at least a couple of thousand were not because they just didn't pay, but they couldn't pay, as in too poor to pay the amount of child support set by a judge and the law handicapped the judge in the case to let the man go or re-decide child support amount. And then there are Scandinavians who do promote father's inclusion in child rearing by parental leave incentives of various kind.

My point was, thing really aren't that bad, if seen in a historical context. Men, at least upwardly mobile types, might just be far more involved in child rearing than previous generation males were.

Attribution for this surely resides with increasing awareness and positive attitude towards gender equality.

Sorry for the long, off topic rant.

PS: You weren't Islamophobic per se, you just weren't PoMo and reacting to the ideas and practices of the society around you :)
karachikhatmal said…
@ Shahid Saeed:

The option of paying child support means that the previous institutions which called for nuclear family, community support etc have now been replaced by state sanctioned systems. Which means society tells you that you can now replace fatherly responsibilities with cold hard cash. Of course things have 'gotten better' because in general the fight against patriarchy has won many points. But the point isn't the relative differences. The point is the overarching inequality - women don't have the social choice to leave the kids with the dad and just pay off support. Of course it can happen, but it doesn't outside of rare instances and that suggests that there is a problem with the system in that it is inherently biased. Therefore, when products of one biased system call out the biases of another (western feminist critique of the veil) it becomes a bit difficult to take the conversation seriously.

The discussion on Pakistan is interesting because as you point out the weird hybrid between modern and traditional values mean that more and more men are able to distance themselves from responsibilities while still enjoying the fruits of what those responsibilities would reward. Fathers don't give traditional advice because it is outdated, and they don't step in and have 'talks' because that just doesn't happen. However, I don't think I was trying to say at any point that Pakistanis or desis are some paragon of paternal piety.

My point isn't that the West is bad and Islam is the greatest, something i've had to explain to you several times now. My point is that the argument about the veil feels lost in a larger set of issues.

Lastly, I studied PoMo while in Pakistan. Coming to the UK didn't make me PoMo or any such thing. What made me 'reactive' to these things have been my own personal experience.

In the last week, both my wife and I have been confronted by people who started yelling obscenities at us in the middle of a) a crowded Leicester Square and b) in the middle of a tube train. Try listening to someone scream that you are an abberation, that you deserve to be locked up when you haven't done anything and then tell me if you reaction is Po Mo or not.

In addition, we have been rejected an apartment by one realtor who said she couldn't trust us to come up with a guarantor while another confided that she never gave out flats to Muslims because they have too many kids but we spoke English well so she could trust us. These aren't some chutiya texts I am reading and spouting because it makes me cool. I am relating my own experiences. perhaps the US is a much better place on this front, but I am not trying to attack it, so excuse my ignorance.
Shahid Saeed said…
Hmm. Interesting point regarding nuclear family and community support. I wasn't suggested hard cash and making the relationship transactional was some great step in human history, and didn't suggest at all that over-arching inequality has reduced, my point wrt to the west was very exclusively tied to upwardly mobile folks where you can see father involved in parenting more than societal average and that to me suggest an improving trend. In broken poor homes, things are as bad or worse than they were before.

"Therefore, when products of one biased system call out the biases of another (western feminist critique of the veil) it becomes a bit difficult to take the conversation seriously."

I'd quote you from above, "That does not mean that the points being raised are invalid". But yes, these aren't ideal situations and I get your point completely.

I didn't say that you were suggesting that desis were paragons of paternal piety. I was simply saying things even here seem to be improving, slowly and very slightly but as far as I have seen, improving. Wasn't making a comparison per se.

And dude, you are suggesting as if I have some very inflexible ideas and positions and am hostile in hearing you out. I was reading your first comment in the atmosphere of slight reactivity in the face of hostile experiences and general exposure to various faces of the issue. Don't make me seem as some Manhattan yuppie whose ideals are Niall Ferguson and Samuel Huntington.
Meera Ghani said…
Here are some quick answers to your questions. Apologies for their brevity I don't have time to explain things in much detail or provide reference that I would like to;

1) Modesty is tied to the amount of clothing one wears in every culture. Hence the most horrific term slut is so liberally used for women who show more skin that what is considered "normal". Its not specific to muslim cultures only. Though the amount of skin you show varies. Sadly all patriarchal cultures have to do with dominating how women dress and behave that too is not unique to Islam. Nuns and orthodox jews also cover themselves head to toe. Hasidic jews wear wigs because they are not allowed to show their hair to men outside of family, very similar to muslims (in fact thats where the concept of hijab comes from as do most of Islamic laws and edicts). While I don't agree with the interpretation of the veil mostly used in muslim countries that again has to do with the patriarchal cultures in those societies and interpretation used. Not all fiqa agree on that interpretation.

2) Feminism indeed is about a woman's right to choose (choose being the operative word). Its about the woman being able to employ her own agency. Whether we agree with those choices or not is a separate matter. What may be a right choice for one woman might not be the right choice for another. Feminism isn't automatically akin to Western values, ideals of modernity and dress ethics. Its just like how being a homemaker isn't considered very feminist in some circles but for many deciding to be a stay at home mom is a choice a woman should be able to make.

3) Women in Western culture for example if decide to wear a hijab or a burqa even though there is no societal or family pressure is them exercising their agency. Whether their understanding of Islamic teaching is right or wrong is besides the point. Yes you could argue that the God they oblige is a patriarchal one but then again its the interpretation (fiqa) they studied or the scholars they find to be most relevant. If women all across the globe can submit to patriarchal expectations of what they should be like, look like and do then they can surely submit to a patriarchal God. Patriarchy is very much alive in different forms in all societies. I crave for the day it finally dies.

4) you answered your own question so no need to respond.

5) It depends on whether the veil is being adorned for religious purposes (which also has an element of unwarranted gaze) or wether to wear it to feel more secure. Women are objectified regardless or what they wear or don't wear. There are a very few societies where women aren't gawked at even if they were naked. But I agree how men see women shouldn't prevent women from dressing as they please.

6) depends on whether coercion is being used to make women where the veil. Once the element of coercion is removed society will refrain from turning it into a political issue. Currently its associated to islam and oppressive regimes in muslim countries (because of the element of coercison). I think awareness raising in countries where its mandatory would be key. Getting men and women to understand that modesty isn't akin to piousness or religiosity. We should do that by promotion of equal rights, more education for women and inclusion of women in the workforce in such countries rather than making the burqa our crusading banner. I'm against any kinds of coercion especially by the state on matters related to personal choices, hence would oppose bans. Many argue that if women are being killed for not observing the burqa why wouldn't you be for banning it, I think its not that simple because the problem there isn't the burqa but the violence that people indulge in. But never say never, things have a way of getting out of hand pretty quickly.

7) Agree with your last point. Two sides of the same coin.

Thanks for your questions.
Meera Ghani said…
Thought this would make for an interesting addition to the debate: the reinvention of feminism in Pakistan by Afia Sherbano Zia

I dont agree with all her arguments but the debate on whether feminism and Islam are at odd with each other have been going on within the feminists circles for quite some time.
F. said…
It just occurred to me, KK didn't answer Q.4 so much as rephrase it in terms of his own experiences. /:)

Anyway, I'm not a Muslim feminist so I can't really say anything but your words "Don’t you think that in a truly egalitarian society, women would not feel the need for veil and veil would not exist?" reminded me:-

"Your clothes conceal much of your beauty, yet they hide not the unbeautiful.
And though you seek in garments the freedom of privacy you may find in them a harness and a chain.
Would that you could meet the sun and the wind with more of your skin and less of your raiment,
For the breath of life is in the sunlight and the hand of life is in the wind.
Some of you say, "It is the north wind who has woven the clothes to wear."
But shame was his loom, and the softening of the sinews was his thread.
And when his work was done he laughed in the forest.
Forget not that modesty is for a shield against the eye of the unclean.
And when the unclean shall be no more, what were modesty but a fetter and a fouling of the mind?
And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair."
Awais Aftab said…
@ Meera Ghani

Thank you for your feedback and thank you for helping us carry on this discussion.

2) 'Feminism indeed is about a woman's right to choose (choose being the operative word). Its about the woman being able to employ her own agency.'

Okay, consider the following scenarios:

* a woman chooses to stay with her abusive, alcoholic husband because she is afraid of the challenges of a single life

* a woman chooses to become a prostitute to pay her college tuition fees

* a woman chooses to have a hymenoplasty to 'restore' her virginity before her up-coming marriage with a religious husband

In all 3 cases the 3 women make these choices without being coerced. They are making a choice by their own free will and by exerting their own sense of agency. Therefore, by your definition, all 3 of these choices are Feminist choices.

However, if these choices are to be labelled Feminist, as you must by your own definition, then I am afraid that [Choice] Feminism has degenerated to a point where it undermines itself, and leads to the awkward conclusion that any act, no matter how degrading, can be feminist provided a woman somewhere chooses it by her own free will.

People have forgotten that Feminism was once about the ideal of a gender egalitarian society, for which freedom is a necessary but insufficient condition.

1) 'Modesty is tied to the amount of clothing one wears in every culture.'

True. I am sorry if gave the impression that I am exclusively accusing Islam of this. Islam certainly did not invent the veil, nor is it the only religion to endorse it.

The problem is with setting Veil as a standard/ideal of female modesty. It is of stark contrast with the standards of male modesty that are set by Islam, a discrepancy that also has a significant impact on the social life of women.

Did Islam set Veil as a standard/ideal of female modesty?
I believe it did, and I do not see how anyone can justifiably deny that.

Can Islam now set aside Veil as a standard/ideal of female modesty?
I believe it can, but that requires a re-interpretation of religion, and importantly, a criticism and disapproval of veil from within the religion.

3) ' If women all across the globe can submit to patriarchal expectations of what they should be like, look like and do then they can surely submit to a patriarchal God.'

Surely they can. But that doesn't make it Feminist, and that is what I was pointing out. If submitting to patriarchy can be declared Feminist, then Feminism has defeated itself.
I have studied your blog word by word. According to me if women doing hajjib on her mode bases than they do not strike across the hajjib. But if a women really doing hajjib then they have right to do hajjib because for the Muslim women hajjib is the first step in Islam .
Anonymous said…
In those 3 unpleasant scenarios above, the description for each leaves open a number of better possible choices. A better long term outcome for the individual is possible, at the expense of convenience, delays of goals and potential estrangement. Women who don't make better choices leave the rest of society in the lurch and perpetuate these problems for everyone. Those things are possible without extreme behavior or outcomes. However, it's not possible for everyone to be smart, disciplined or courageous.
sehkmet said…
One of the problems with wearing the hijab in the west, particularly the US, is that the culture is used to, actually relies on seeing a person's face when communicating in person. It is considered rude to cover it, as it is considered rude to wear sunglasses indoors or when unnecessary whilst talking to others. People find it disconcerting.

In many situations covering the face is dangerous. When in banks, for example. I know I would pause if someone walked into a convenience store wearing a veil. Actually, I would probably walk out. Also driving cars with such restricted vision is probably illegal.

It is also dangerous in hospitals. All that fabric carries bacteria. I would never allow a doctor or nurse wearing the hijab near me for this reason. Or patronize a cook similarly garbed.

In the west women have more freedom and more public lives, with this comes a responsibility to the safety of others.

Perhaps in the west the tradition could be reversed. Wear the hijab indoors around family and not wear it in public. This will satisfy those under the influence of the patriarchy and make the rest of society more congenial and safer for most.

The most important point:


It is not necessarily about personal choice as an individual. Choice can be very anti-feminist. Personal choice involves taking responsibility for that choice, including admitting that a choice may harm others (i.e. other feminists or women in general). This is something the new wave of feminism often fails to understand.
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