Yeah… it’s that scarf thing again.

I want to take a temporary (temporary, I promise!) break from our moratorium on headscarves to highlight this article, which actually deals with many of the points I brought up in a post a while ago, asking why people get so caught up in headscarves and burqas when there are so many bigger fish to fry.

Faisal al Yafai, a London-based journalist, writes on the Guardian’s Comment is free about the need for Western feminists to get over the veil, and speculates on some of the reasons for the obsession with the veil. Particularly well-put was his point that:

There’s no doubt the veil is used by some as a way of marginalising, controlling and dominating women. It is used to relegate women to second-class citizens, to deny their sexuality and even to threaten sexual violence. But the veil, a piece of cloth, does not have the power to do that. Only societies do. Focusing on the former does not reform the latter.”

As he says, the scarf does get imposed in some situations, in a way that is oppressive to the women forced to wear it. But if we focus only on the scarf, we’re missing the bigger picture of oppression within that society. Eliminating the veil alone is never going to magically bring about liberation for all women.

One reason that al Yafai proposes for the obsession with the veil among western feminists is the “lack of an overarching narrative” in feminism, in contrast to earlier periods where women rallied around struggles for the right to vote or for abortion rights. This, he argues, leads to confusion as to where feminists should channel their energy, and prompts some to channel their energy towards less significant but more tangible issues, rather than confronting more nebulous challenges such as “societal expectations.” This was an interesting point that didn’t come up in our earlier discussion on MMW about why the scarf gets talked about to the extent that it does.

On one hand, it makes sense, because the veil is certainly something visible and material, perhaps easier to identify and quantify than other forms of oppression. On the other hand, I think there’s more at play than simply a lack of a bigger picture. Part of this may be a resistance to admit that the victories of women’s movements in the west, although significant, remain incomplete; many of today’s feminists often seem to prefer to identify oppression elsewhere, rather than to admit that their own society still constrains them in so many ways. The headscarf ends up fitting well into this framework, since it is seen largely as affecting “other” women in “other” places, leaving western women to continue to see themselves as emancipated. Mainstream feminist movements also have a history of not being very good at dealing with interlocking forms of oppression; economic injustice and war are rarely positioned as “women’s issues” within mainstream discourses, while the veil certainly passes the test of being something affecting women specifically.

(Of course, I’m totally generalising here, as does al Yafai in his article, about feminists in the west. Lots of western feminists are way smarter than this. In fact, to a large degree, this discussion applies not so much to feminists as much as it applies to those who co-opt supposedly feminist principles when trying to justify wars and other interventions in Muslim societies.)

Rawi made a great comment when I first posted about the overemphasis on the veil, arguing that people often end up conflating the sign with what is signified by it, and then coming to understand the clothing as the oppression, rather than as one manifestation of a society intent on controlling and policing women in various arenas. (Note that this discussion was focused on situations where clothing was imposed, and does not imply that headscarves should ever be uncritically understood to signify that their wearers are oppressed.) The problem isn’t necessarily that the veil gets talked about, but that the discussion so often stops there, and assumes that the fabric on a woman’s head is so oppressive that we need not go beyond it and ask other questions about what her own biggest concerns are.

As always, comment guidelines apply. We’re talking about how this clothing is seen and discussed, not about whether it’s obligatory for Muslims, and not about whether it is oppressive.

  • Anti-Flag

    Krista,

    Your entire post was premised on the assumption the hijab is oppressive and therefore reinforcing traditional euro-centric feminist discourse. When in actuality, it’s meaning is multiple and subjective. But I think that wasn’t intentional.

    I read Faisal al Yafai’s article and he didn’t say anything that hasn’t already been said. But that doesn’t mean it should not be repeated. Indeed, the focus or should I say, the fanatical attitude towards the hijab by both parties (Muslim and the ‘west’) is a direct result of the colonial experience. Prior to colonisation, in the Muslim world, the hijab wasn’t really an issue, women generally wore it as part of a heritage, if not Islamic, then cultural. It didn’t have a political meaning, nor was it something that was of too much importance. However, the encounter with the colonial powers changed all of this. For the coloniser, the hijab was an ugly marker of the Muslim identity that colonial powers wanted to destroy, or at least weaken in order to make domination via assimilation easier. This was because of its visibility. At this time, feminism was beginning to make its mark in Europe, and so colonial powers used the ideas in feminism (supported by feminists themselves) in order to introduce a dichotomy of Europe=liberators of women and Islam=oppressor of women. This discourse was ‘legitimised’ by the presence of the hijab. Thus, the feminist and colonial discourse joined forces and introduced a new meaning to the hijab: oppressive. Hypocritically, while Europe’s women continued to be subject to European patriarchy. (see Leila Ahmed). The colonial ‘other’, in response to these efforts, introduced their own meaning to the hijab: a preserver of identity and Islam. ( see Fanon, ‘Algeria Unveiled’). Both parties continue to work within the colonial parameters even today. That is why there’s such a ‘fetishisation’ of the hijab in both worlds. For Muslim women, it just means the ideological battle takes place on her body. What really needs to be stressed by Muslim women themselves is this discourse is reductive and does not always reflect the experiences of Muslim women.

  • Sobia

    Great analysis.

    But I am glad you put this in there:

    “(Of course, I’m totally generalising here, as does al Yafai in his article, about feminists in the west. Lots of western feminists are way smarter than this. In fact, to a large degree, this discussion applies not so much to feminists as much as it applies to those who co-opt supposedly feminist principles when trying to justify wars and other interventions in Muslim societies.)”

    Because I was getting irritated with the generalizations about feminists up until then. In my PhD program I am surrounded by academic feminists and have never come across the “veil is oppressive” argument. If anything I’ve come across the “women should be able to choose what they wear, including the veil” argument. So my own experience with feminists has not been what you described.

    I think we need to be careful when speaking of feminists. Like your disclaimer, we need to make sure not to generalize, especially considering that many of us on MMW are actually Western feminists (in more nuanced ways of course).

    Traditionally there have been gaps in feminism regarding non-White peoples but recent times have seen great efforts to remedy that.
    Or maybe it’s a Canadian thing. *shrug*

  • http://jamericanmuslimah.wordpress.com Jamerican Muslimah

    ASA,

    I guess my issue with some feminists (and others) when it comes to the issue of the hijab/niqab/’the veil’ is that you have outsiders coming into the Muslim community or predominately Muslim countries trying to tell Muslim women how we should dress. I feel like people who do this are as guilty as the men who are trying to force women to keep it on. Both of them are depriving women of the right to dress as we see fit. And you know what, something doesn’t sit right with me when I have someone who is insisting that I remove an aspect of my clothing…

    Also, aside from the fact that some feminists are grasping for something tangible to fight against, I also feel like there is a twinge of ethnocentrism and an anti-religion/anti-Islamic sentiment attached to their obsession with Muslim women “deveiling.” It’s interesting that the same culprits never seem to know what to make of Western women like myself adopting hijab. That picture is just seems to be too complicated for them…

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    I think everybody makes really good points here; I can definitely see where Jamerican Muslimah is coming from, because even though I don’t wear a headscarf, I’ve come across feminists like that, who dismiss me because I defend the headscarf for those who want to wear it or posit that the headscarf isn’t the “main issue” for Muslim women.

  • Krista

    Salaams all, thanks for the comments.

    @ Anti Flag – I’m sorry if my post wasn’t clear. I don’t myself consider the scarf to be oppressive, and I’m really sorry that it came across that way, because that’s not what I believe at all. What I was trying to do with this post was to build on a previous discussion, which, as I mentioned in my post, was “focused on situations where clothing was imposed, and does not imply that headscarves should ever be uncritically understood to signify that their wearers are oppressed.” I had asked, even in cases where some form of hijab *is* imposed, why it gets taken up as the main form of oppression, when there are so many other issues out there. Anyway, I guess that wasn’t clear, and I completely agree with you that the scarf has many meanings and is certainly not inherently oppressive.

    @ Sobia – I totally agree with you. While there are definitely major problems with a bunch of (usually) white, privileged, Western feminists, that has definitely not been my experience with the feminists that I know. I did my undergrad in women’s studies and most of the program had a major focus on interlocking forms of oppression, and was really critical of the one-dimensional “feminists” that fit more closely with the stereotype I was talking about here. It would have been nice to see al Yafai go through this a bit more in his article… And certainly, I myself am a white, privileged Western feminist, so I’m hoping that we’re not all quite that bad!

    @ Jamerican Muslimah – GREAT point that “something doesn’t sit right with me when I have someone who is insisting that I remove an aspect of my clothing…” It’s interesting how people don’t realise how oppressive it is when they suggest that a woman who is wearing some form of hijab couldn’t possibly have made the decision to wear it themselves.

  • laila

    krista.. you hit the nail on the head on this article. Precisely and exactly. I did not read that “entire post was premised on the assumption the hijab is oppressive”, I understood it to mean that if Western feminist percieved it as oppressive why don’t they look at the true causes behind “oppression” in that case. And you clearly stated (“that this discussion was focused on situations where clothing was imposed, and does not imply that headscarves should ever be uncritically understood to signify that their wearers are oppressed”.) And your right, there are many countries that still impose women’s clothing, or are you not supposed to talk about them? You took it from certain* western feminist point of view and demonstrated that in these cases their argument is still inaqeduate and lacking.

    Your right though, the discussion never goes beyond the veil, nobody ever wants to look at the multiple reasons and issues behind something, and your right I think there’s alot of that superior and inferior game being played in the background.

    And I agree with you on Jamerican Muslimah point of “something doesn’t sit right when I have someone who is insisting that I remove an aspect of my clothing”.

    I think that’s because we’ve been taught insisting a woman (or person) to wear revealing clothes or remove their clothes constitutes sexual harassment or vice reverse asking or insisting she wear more clothes or other clothes. For real, the hostile put downs of women or comments about women’s bodies is unwanted behaviour which means harassment. It’s degrading, it’s power based and it makes you feel powerless.

  • http://www.nuseiba.wordpress.com Anti-Flag

    Krista, I figured, just needed some clarification. Cheers.

    Sobia: True, we need to be careful about what feminism(s) we are referring to. But the fact of the matter is, generally, feminist ideology itself is premised on liberal assumptions of the individual and a restrict idea of what it means to be ‘emancipated’, and its construction of ‘woman’ and women’s experience is white European middle class. That is the dominating narrative of feminism which still exists. Alternatives, like the critique of Western feminism in Postcolonial feminism, which I would identify with, is what perhaps needs to be distinguished from traditional Western feminism.

    “It’s interesting that the same culprits never seem to know what to make of Western women like myself adopting hijab. That picture is just seems to be too complicated for them…”

    Jamerican Muslimah: Hehe. True! From what I have studied of the ‘reveiling movement’ in the West, the dominating discourse in feminism just thinks such women suffer from false consciousness. Oh the arrogance!

    In this whole debate, I find it really disturbing that there is too much emphasis on dress and appearance of women. The current discourse needs to shift away from such a focus because the implications here are is women in typical capitalist fashion, are nothing more than their body and appearance. Its another sinister form of objectification. Faisal al Yafai’s article is excellent for one particular reason: He highlights the ugly reality that real issues aren’t being discussed. Why don’t we focus on other far more noteworthy (and often dreadful) experiences of Muslim women? Honour killings (whether they are Islamic or not) self-immolation is increasing in the Muslim world, in particularly Afghanistan and Iraq, domestic violence, women’s experiences throughout Islamic history has been largely erased from the ‘official ‘narrative? What is the implication here? Why? The hijab debate is a farce when you consider these issues are devastating the lives of women in the Muslim world. Hopefully, this is what I contribute to the hijab debate’ in my thesis, and not reinforce and give it further importance.

  • http://achelois.wordpress.com/ Achelois

    Krista, I like this post. Here’s my two pence:

    Hijab as a headcovering or even as a veil has always been there in Muslim and non-Muslim societies. In fact niqaab was a Jewish innovation where women of high status covered their faces with the left eye uncovered to look. This was done because no one was good enough to see them. When Islam came and some Jewish women converted they continued to wear niqaab if they were already wearing it. The Pagans on the other hand walked out of their homes with bare breasts. So their “adornments” had to covered, for God’s sake :) Thus if some women covered their faces (and I *assume* that prophet’s Jewish wife, Safiya, covered her face because she was the daughter of her tribe’s leader) they were NOT told to uncover them unless in prayer. Those women who roamed half-naked were explicitly told to cover their “adornments”. It all makes sense. Thus in my opinion covering your breasts is a religious duty and covering your head or face is cultural.

    When one looks at hijab: which may be a headscarf for some, a face veil for a few, or simply a loose, long dress for yet others, from this historical perspective then things change. What I must point out is that just like not-so-well-off Jewish women were culturally and socially not allowed to cover their faces, in early Islam slave women were not allowed to wear clothes that resembled their masters’. They were also not allowed to cover their heads in prayer even if they were Muslim. Why we, Muslims, don’t often point out this important historical fact may have to do with the fact that we profess that we have always treated slaves as equals. We may have rights to them but they were never equal until freed.

    Therefore when people say that hijab (as any one of the kinds I mentioned above) is a mark of oppression, yes it is. It has been even in Muslim societies and in Arabia in early Islam. While today we may think that women who wear it are oppressed in ancient Arabia it was women who were not allowed to wear it that were oppressed.

    This is not saying that a headcovering has nothing to do with Islam. I personally think that hijab is a social requirement in Islam directly linked not to piety but to social arrangement of a given society. For example, I must wear a headscarf in societies where I will stick out like a sore thumb if my head is uncovered or where a social arrangement can turn awkward or dangerous for me if my head is uncovered. Modesty takes on a completely new meaning in some countries where you have to be covered from head to toe. But one thing is certain that in Islam no matter which country a woman is in she has to cover her skin completely with loose garments so as not to seek attention. That is very sensible and safe.

    Our problem today is NOT feminism. Our problem today is globalization or should I say Westernization (Americanization). With globalization comes various new *norms*. A man in an ankle high kundoora and kufi walking in Times Square will be just as odd as a woman in burqa. The problem is while the men wear Western clothes when out and about in the West, they or their women themselves continue to wear their cultural clothes. That is the problem. That is what gives the illusion that they are oppressed because men are doing in Rome as Romans do but the women are still living in 7th Century Arabia.

    The other issue is that a woman is never *oppressed* to take off her hijab by the men-folk (unless he is being pimped) but in many households she is *oppressed* to wear it. Of course there are many women who wear it on their own. I wrote somewhere that “Hijab is not a personal choice. It is a religious choice. When a woman decides (through her own personal study and not the understanding of ‘others’) that it is required by God then there is no question of personal choice left for her. She must cover her head (or even her face if she thinks niqaab is compulsory) just like she must pray five times a day”.

    To think that people in the West or the colonists wanted to destroy the hijab is perhaps not true. They would have loved it as a symbol of “uncivilized” society that needed to be civilized. It was visible and so very easy like the shape of eyes or colour of skin to identify the colonised from the colonist. The colonist was the civilized, white woman without a headcover and the colonised was the brown woman covered from head to toe. What could be a better marker of subjugation than the hijab?!

    So when Yafi thinks that Western feminists are obsessed by the veil, he may be right. And when Rawi says that we are using the agent as the oppressor, he may be right too. But this “visible fabric” has always been used to differentiate between women from different social, cultural and religious classes. Hijab has always been an issue with women. In the past it was an issue for slave women or women from poor families. It was used by early Muslims to differentiate between free and slave women. Clothes have always been known to carry that indicative significance. In ancient Greek and Roman societies women from prominent families wore very elaborate gowns and those who held religious offices wore expensive fabric. The fabric has that semantic strength. And so it will continue to be the case.

    Sorry about the long comment. There was a lot to say :)

    Thank you.

  • http://www.nuseiba.wordpress.com Anti-Flag

    Achelois, some interesting points you made. But I don’t have time to address them all. But just to add to this point you made:

    “To think that people in the West or the colonists wanted to destroy the hijab is perhaps not true. They would have loved it as a symbol of “uncivilized” society that needed to be civilized. It was visible and so very easy like the shape of eyes or colour of skin to identify the colonised from the colonist”.

    What I was referring to is yes, it was a marker of the ‘primitive’ other, and used to justify the subjugation of this other. Today, it’s used again to reinforce the ‘inferiority’ or ‘backward’ features of Islam in order to legitimise similar campaigns. However, the colonial powers in those parts of their territory where they wanted an imperial rule to extract and exploit resources, to maintian hegemony, the need for these colonised subjects to assimilate into the ‘dominant’ colonial culture was very important. This was an integral strategy of colonial control. But this colonial mimesis has its contradictions as many writers have pointed out. Like Fanon and Bhabha, who remind us that the colonial gaze is twofolds: It points out the inferiority of the other, but it also expects the other to mimick the coloniser. Within this space of mimesis, there is an ambivalence, because the coloniser knows that the colonised can never be the same as the European. That is the fallacy behind it all. The hijab posed a threat to this strategy because it rejected the process of assimilation.

  • http://achelois.wordpress.com/ Achelois

    Oh yes, Anti-Flag that is so true. While the *inferior* race is looked down up there is also the pressure of assimilation and your last sentence would be so true in that situation.

  • coolred38

    I dont agree that the hijab was a non issue until the “West” came along and made it an issue…the west was very ignorant of the middle east until fairly recently…and since women had little voice way back when(not much has changed)…how do we know whether it was an issue or not? Sometimes we need someoe else to show us how to open our mouth and reject, repel, refuse…something that we’ve always just sucked up before…just a thought.

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  • krista

    Woah, we’re getting some good comments here, thanks everyone :)

    @ Achelois: I appreciate your reflection that the scarf has historically been a marker of culture and class, not only of religion. It adds important layers to the debate, and totally doesn’t get discussed in most forums. I also really like your point about it being a religious choice rather than a personal choice. I tried to say something about that in my original point, but I think I ended up leaving it out because I couldn’t figure out how to say it. (Actually, I feel like I did say it somewhere, but can’t find it, so maybe I just imagined it.) Anyway, I think that’s also something really important to bring into these discussions, since for many women, it’s really not so simple that they can just say, oh, I don’t want to wear this anymore, and get rid of it. And whether or not people agree with that understanding, they’re never going to get anywhere if they don’t engage with it, rather than just telling the scarf-wearer that she should just get over it and take it off.

    I disagree with you though that “feminism” (and by that I mean the problematic imperialist-type feminism that we’ve been talking about) isn’t the problem, or at least part of it. While you’re right that there are other processes going on as well (westernisation, globalisation, etc.), I think that the particular image of veil=oppressed does capture the attention of many feminists, who, in a misguided attempt to fight for women’s rights, often end up further oppressing the women that they’re trying to “help,” by acting paternalistic and assuming they know what’s right for them. So I do think that some forms of feminism are deeply problematic and even harmful in this context. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum though, and as you say, other things like westernisation and globalisation (I’m going to add racism too) also play into it.

    @ Anti-Flag: Thanks for all the historical/colonial context you’ve given here. These issues are really relevant in talking about why people get so freaked out about the veil, and neither my posts nor al Yafai’s article really touched on the historical dimensions of this obsession. Great point about Fanon and Bhabha and the hijab as contradictory to the colonial project of assimilation. It sounds like you’re doing a thesis related to this topic? I’d love to hear more about what you’re focusing on.

    @ coolred38: I agree with you that the hijab has a history that predates Western interaction with it… but the focus of this post is why people in the West (media, certain “feminists”, etc.) have such an obsession with it, as a (supposed) marker of difference, oppression, and so on. So that’s why the focus has been on the West “making it an issue” here. The history of the headscarf prior to this is a whole other discussion (and not one I really know enough to talk about!)

  • http://www.nuseiba.wordpress.com Anti-Flag

    Krista, if I explain my thesis, i’ll be here for a long while. Hehe. But yeah, it’s focused on the hijab in France, Tunisia and Iran. How it constructs identity and it’s role( s) in colonial mimesis– to put it as simply as I can. But i’ll add more on here when similar topics are discussed, or on my blog, so you get a better understanding of the type of research i’m looking at.

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  • krista

    Haha, no worries Anti-Flag, I won’t ask you to explain the whole thing ;) Sounds interesting though, I hope you’ll keep throwing in some insights from it over here on MMW every so often!

  • Samira

    From Achelois:
    A man in an ankle high kundoora and kufi walking in Times Square will be just as odd as a woman in burqa.
    -Yes, Times Square has been totally Disneyified-but I still find that seeing a dude in a kundoora and kufi is not as dramatic as you would think in NYC. People just don’t care that much.

    “The problem is while the men wear Western clothes when out and about in the West, they or their women themselves continue to wear their cultural clothes. That is the problem. That is what gives the illusion that they are oppressed because men are doing in Rome as Romans do but the women are still living in 7th Century Arabia.”

    In my opinion this is a matter of perspective. There are some people (Muslim and non-Muslim) who-no matter what you are wearing-only see the headscarf and for them this will always mean 7th Century Arabia. You could be in a chic business suit and have a silk, Italian scarf around your hair and they still think oppression. Yet, how 7th century is that?

    Even for the sisters I know who wear only abaya or jilbab in their interpretation of hijab do it in very interesting and modern ways. Yet if you are convinced that any conformity to a certain code of Islamic modesty is archaic it is more difficult to see the nuances of modern Islamic dress on the part of both men and women.

  • Samira

    Case in point-

    The Philly urban style “male capri.” For any person who knows Muslim communities in Philly you might have noticed for quite awhile a large number of brothers cutting jeans short in respect to the Hadith about pants dragging in the dirt in a display of arrogance and in a desire to maintain their modesty.

    Now you will see how normalized these types of pants are in the area-they are now manufactured already cut. I remember listening to a white radio host talking about how “all the brothers (meaning black dudes) in Philly like to wear their male capris” as he was not aware of the beginnings of this in Muslim circles.

    My point is that a lot of brothers are not simply doing when in Rome-they are actively choosing to dress in a manner that expresses a Muslim identity and that merges Western styles just like many sisters.

    Yet this always seems to be under the radar because if your vision is always fixated on that piece of cloth that the women wear on their heads how can you see how Muslim men are dressing.

  • http://thewhitelilyblog.wordpress.com Janet Baker

    There’s a group of ‘feminists’ not represented in this discussion, Christian women (we qualify as feminists because we see in the person of Mary, the mother of Christ, God’s statement about the super-equality of women). Believe it or not, Christian women are supposed to, and love to, dress modestly. And it is this same group of women who are targeted most avidly by Islam-bashers. Devout Muslim women and devout Christian women have so much in common! And yet Christian women get swept up in anti-veil sentiment! It’s completely ridiculous (at least after we are disabused of the notion that the veil is forced upon unwilling women; I myself didn’t fully realize this until the Gallup poll of world-wide Muslims was released).

    I personally have started my own one-woman campaign to show more gratitude to Muslim women. I’ve written about it on my blog in two pieces that relate to veiling, one called Muslim Veil No Threat, on page one at the bottom, and the other Who Loves Ya, the current post, and I would welcome a comment from any of the bright voices commenting here. The two points I was trying to make are, first, a thanks to veiled Muslim for demonstrating modesty, and second, Christians are asked to veil, too–but in our case, it’s the men! And they should get on with it, please!

    My blog is http://thewhitelilyblog.wordpress.com

    [This comment has been edited to fit within moderation guidelines.]


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