This was written by Özlem Sensoy and Elizabeth Marshall, and originally appeared in Rethinking Schools Online. You can read Part I here.
Learning a Stereotype Lesson #2: Veiled = Oppressed
Gendered violence in Middle Eastern countries, or the threat of it, organizes many of the books’ plots. With few exceptions, the “good” civilized men in the girl’s family are taken from her. In Under the Persimmon Tree, a brother and father are forced to join the Taliban as fighters, while in The Breadwinner, the Taliban places the father in jail because he was educated in England. Parvana’s Journey opens with the father’s funeral, and a deceased dad also figures in Broken Moon. This absence leaves the heroine vulnerable to the roving, indiscriminate, uncivilized “bad” men who will beat her for going out without a male escort (The Breadwinner and Broken Moon), confine her to the house (The Breadwinner), or beat her to preserve the honor of the community (Broken Moon).
In this context of an absent/immobilized parent, the girl is placed at the center of the plot, further emphasizing the danger and vulnerability of her existence. Parvana in The Breadwinner and Parvana’s Journey, Nadira in Broken Moon, and Najmah in Under the Persimmon Tree each cut their hair and disguise themselves as boys. This cross-dressing draws heavily on Western ideas that girls should be unfettered by the requirement to cover themselves, and authors present this type of transformation as the only humane alternative to wearing a burqa and the only way to travel safely outside the domestic sphere.
The veil or burqa, which has exclusively functioned as the short-hand marker of women’s oppression, is a much more complicated thing. To give you a sense of the range of meaning of the veil, consider for instance that in Turkey—a predominantly Muslim country—the veil (or “religious dress”) is outlawed in public spaces as a means to underline the government’s commitments to Kemalism, a “modern,” secularist stance. In response and as a sign of resistance, some women, especially young university students and those in urban areas, consider the veil to be a marker of protest against government regulation of their bodies and the artificial division of “modern” versus “faithful.” Similar acts of resistance are taken up by feminists in Egypt who wear the veil as a conscious act of resistance against Western imperialism. As another example, before 9/11, the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan (RAWA) documented the Taliban’s crimes against girls and women by hiding video cameras under their burqas and transformed the burqa from simply a marker of oppression to a tool of resistance.
It is problematic to wholly and simplistically equate women’s oppression with the burqa, just as it would be problematic to claim that once Western women stop using make-up to cover their faces, it will mean an end to domestic violence in the United States and Canada. While veiling has different meanings in different contexts, it exclusively carries a negative connotation in the “save the Muslim girl” texts. For example, in The Breadwinner, the reader is educated about the burqa through the main character, Parvana:
“How do women in burqas manage to walk along the streets?” Paravana asked her father. “How do they see where they are going?” “They fall down a lot,” her father replied.
Nusrat, the American aid worker in Staples’s Under the Persimmon Tree, describes the burqa similarly: “In the cool autumn air, Nusrat forgets how suffocating the folds of the burqa’s synthetic fabric can be in hot weather, and how peering through the crocheted latticework eye piece can feel like looking through the bars of a prison.”
In contrast to these confined women, the heroines of these novels, like “free” girls in the West, wear pants and experience freedom of movement. The freedoms associated with Western women are further emphasized in these texts by the addition of non-Muslim characters. The French nurse in Parvana’s Journey (who works in Pakistan for a relief agency) and the American Nusrat in Under the Persimmon Tree (who establishes and runs a school for refugees) each choose to come to the Middle East to help. A white woman veterinarian who “wore the clothes of a Westerner” tends to the camels in Broken Moon. These “choices” that enable non-Muslim women to move and to work are placed in contrast to the experiences of the girls/women in the story who are at the mercy of violent events and settings in which their mobility (not to mention their way of dress) is strictly regulated and supervised.
There is a compelling character in The Breadwinner who offers the potential to represent Afghani women’s liberation in more complex ways. This is Mrs. Weera, who leads a women’s resistance group. She also convinces Parvana’s mother to join her in running a covert school for girls. It is regrettable that Mrs. Weera does not occupy a more central place in the story since, unlike any other adult woman in the “save the Muslim girl” literature, she offers a transformative representation of activism among Muslim women in Afghanistan.
Again, we want to reiterate that we are not arguing that women and girls in the Middle East or predominantly Islamic societies do not experience domestic violence. In fact, we believe that domestic violence is a global epidemic that most countries, including predominantly Christian countries such as Canada and the United States, have neglected to face head on. Rather, we are arguing that the victim narrative that is so often a part of these young adult novels about Middle Eastern women reinforces the idea that the region is inherently violent and that women must be protected by outside forces. These young adult novels serve as de-facto legitimization for the U.S.-led incursions in the region as a project of women’s emancipation. As Laura Bush argued in her radio address on Nov. 17, 2001: “The brutal oppression of women is a central goal of the terrorists.” In this way, the complexities of Afghanistan’s history, as well as U.S. interest in the region and ties to violence, escape attention.
That girls in the Middle East are consistently at risk of gendered violence implicitly suggests that girls in the “civilized” West are immune to such threats. The education students with whom we work are very familiar and comfortable with the stereotype that the lives of Muslim women are inherently scary, that they cannot work or vote or walk around without the threat of violence. Of course there are Muslim women who live in oppressive or patriarchal regimes (in the Middle East and elsewhere). What we contend is that young adult novels written by white women and marketed and consumed in the West consistently reinforce the idea that Muslim women are inherently oppressed, that they are oppressed in ways that Western women are not, and that this oppression is a function of Islam. By positioning “Eastern” women as the women who are truly oppressed, those in the West pass up a rich opportunity to engage in complex questions about oppression, patriarchy, war, families, displacement, and the role of values (imperialist or faith-based) in these relations.
While some might argue that an author’s literary imagination is her own, we suggest that these representations of Muslim girls do not—and cannot—exist independent of a social context. That these “save the Muslim girl” stories continue to be marketed by major publishers, reviewed favorably by literary and educational gatekeepers, and/or achieve bestseller status like The Breadwinner suggests an intimate connection to the current ideological climate within which these stories are told, marketed, and consumed.
Stay tuned tomorrow for Part III!