head coverings, including veils, hijabs, chadors, and niqabs, worn by Muslim women have come to symbolize the intersectionality between race, status, gender, and power. Discourse on the veil is often paradoxical in nature, as staunch feminists who otherwise champion the rights of the oppressed judge the head covering with a voice of colonial disdain. Unlike Western feminist discourses, which attempt to fuse anti-colonialist and anti-patriarchal sentiments, the Muslim feminist discourse can and often does distinguish between the two to champion the rights of women to choose how to express their identity. Muslim women often straddle the line between allegiance to their gender and allegiance to their ethnicity, culture, or religion. The veil itself has become an ironic symbol of both liberation and oppression, giving rise to meaningful discourse on intersectionality, accountability, and solidarity.
The tone of discourse about Muslim female head coverings has shifted considerably, as more Muslim women have entered into the conversation. As Bullock points out, by the eighteenth century, the veil had already come to represent an “oppressive custom among Muslims,” (1). Interestingly, a British woman was the first to champion the notion that the head covering is liberating as opposed to oppressive (Bullock 1). Thus, anti-veil discourse seems to have been dominated by patriarchal voices presuming that (a) Islam is oppressive because it is “other,” or “foreign,” and (b) Muslim women do not choose to wear the veil and are, therefore, oppressed. These two assumptions continue to plague and cloud open and constructive discourse on what the veil truly does represent in terms of identity and social status. Joanmohamad goes so far as to point out that anti-veil sentiments are the crux of east-west culture clashes: “If the position you start from is that Muslims are ‘other’, then no wonder interaction is difficult,” (Janmohamad). It therefore becomes politically expedient to understand the role the veil plays in forming Muslim female identity.
Central to the discussion of the veil is the notion of choice. Choice, freedom, and individualism are categorically Western philosophical concepts, which are being projected on non-Western societies. Al-Sarrani and Alghamdi ask why Western feminist scholars seek to “universalize values like freedom and agency,” rather than to approach the veil from a more genuinely liberally minded point-of-view (1). Likewise, there is an ongoing tendency to “generalize and make unwarranted assumptions” about Muslim society (Al-Sarrani and Alghamdi 1). Linked to the tendency for ethical absolutism related to the veil is a new form of the “white man’s burden,” in which Western feminists seek to “rescue” their Muslim sisters from the yolk of oppression. Janmohamad refers to the way Western feminists act as if they are superheroes entrusted with the power to liberate Muslim women (as if they need liberating) and by doing so, “infantilize” them (1). Similarly, Al-Sarrani and Alghamdi protest the way Western feminists use terminology suggesting than Muslim women need to be rescued. Janmohamad reminds the Western audience of the need to distinguish between genuine oppression and a simple article of clothing.
Discourse on the veil is always related to the intersection between gender, social status, and power. Thus, protestors of the veil are the new colonialists: those who would seek to subjugate veil-wearers on the grounds of cultural and ideological superiority. Ahmed notes that the current veil discourse echoes colonialism and its use of symbols as a means to subjugate. Usually, discourse on the veil can be reframed in terms of discourse on social class status. Social status often impacts identity, and views toward Western superiority. “The lower-middle and lower classesâ€¦had a different perspective on the colonizer’s culture and ways than did the upper classes and the new middle-class intellectuals trained in Western ways,” (Ahmed 1). In other words, social class status is related to affiliation with Western cultural norms. The voices of ordinary, not elite, Muslim women have been systematically silenced.
The silencing of voices is also a critical component in the debate over the veil. As Ceretti points out, “Muslim women have become increasingly important symbols in struggles over war, feminism, immigration, and civil society while rarely having the space to communicate about themselves and their perspectives,” (1). Giving Muslim women the microphone means facing the uncomfortable truth that many Western feminists are loathe to hear: that many Muslim women choose to veil not because they are forced to or because they are oppressed, but because they want to for reasons ranging from personal taste and piety to solidarity and ethnic allegiance. Bullock, a convert to Islam, chooses to veil because of all of these reasons and argues that a new camp of feminism is finally coming to recognize the validity of those voices that have previously been silenced.
There is in fact a call for greater accountability on the part of Western feminists. Western feminists need to be accountable for the truth, and to recognize the ways anti-veil attitudes are colonialist in nature. The desire to “rescue” Muslim women from the veil needs to be reframed as the desire to oppress Muslim women and silence their voices. Muslim women also point out the fallacies perpetrated by the Western media, let alone Western scholasticism. The media has contributed to the anti-veil sentiment by perpetuating the idea that those who wear a head covering of any type are automatically labeled as being ignorant, low class, or oppressed. Often, the opposite is true in which Muslim women are actively choosing to veil as a form of political protest against Western cultural hegemony.
Most Muslim women are perfectly aware of the discomfort their veil causes to Westerners, and may cover their heads purposefully to reveal their solidarity and allegiance with their Muslim sisters. The trend toward voluntary veiling is becoming increasingly common among Muslim women in the United States (Read and Bartkowski). Moreover, the veil has been framed in the media as a symbol of potential danger, as if all veil wearers carry weapons. “Contrary to high-pitched opposition in the media discourse, women who cover their face are happy to lift their veils for identification such as in airports to ensure security” (Janmohamad). Likewise, Asfar notes how Western media is bent on perceiving Muslim women as being oppressed and even “dangerous,” (1).
Clearly, conversation on the veil is becoming richer and filled with the potential to create meaningful social change. As Read and Bartkowski point out, Muslim women who actively choose to veil call attention to the ways “their gender identities reproduce and reformulate existing Muslim gender discourses,” (395). Muslim women are accountable to their communities, and their communities are defined as much by their ethnicity and religion as by their gender. The intersections between race, class, religion, gender, and power are played out in the sense of accountability both Muslim and non-Muslim women have to each other. Veiling challenges non-Muslim women to examine their biases and tendencies to oppress those who are different. The colonialist trend toward “Orientalizing” the East continues, as the veil symbolizes oppression much as foot-binding in China once did. Yet unlike foot binding, the veil is simply a piece of cloth and not something that genuinely restricts human activity.
Western feminists need to become more accountable for perpetuating Islamophobia and Orientalization, as well as the types of divisiveness that can hinder constructive and proactive discourse on peace (Afshar; Ahmed). Women do have allegiances to each other, and are accountable for the way their actions impact those from other racial, ethnic, or status backgrounds. When participants in feminist discourse fail to be accountable, their actions stifle organic growth of ideas and genuine exchanges of truth. By contrast, once participants practice accountability they open the pathway toward mutual respect and understanding.
Feminists use the term “solidarity” without actually applying it to real-world interactions between those from different cultural backgrounds. The third wave of feminism has contended with the domination of feminist discourse by upper class white American women, and the struggle to hear alternative voices continues. To champion the rights of Muslim women to wear the veil in no way condones the actual brutality meted out on women throughout the world, Muslim and non-Muslim. Yet focusing on the veil to the exclusion of real problems does a disservice to all women and all oppressed people around the world. “What is more important is to realize we share more in common in terms of the problems we must tackle together as women. These range from topics as wide and fundamental as poverty, education and legal rights, to access to healthcare, domestic violence,” and more (Janmohamad). The new feminist discourse needs to be more global and inclusive in nature, more open minded, and more dedicated to respect than to divisiveness and symbolic oppression. A fourth wave of feminism will recognize the intersections between race, status, and gender, practice accountability for colonialist attitudes, and reach a new level of solidarity.
Afshar, Haleh. “Can I See Your Hair?” Ethnic and Racial Studies. Vol. 31, No. 2, Feb 2008.
Ahmed, Leila. “The Discourse on the Veil.” In Women and Gender in Islam. Retrieved online: http://www.onbeing.org/program/muslim-women-and-other-misunderstandings/feature/discourse-veil/2224
Al-Sarrani, Abeer and Alghamdi, Alaa. “Through Third World Women’s Eyes.” Analyze. No. 2. Retrieved online: http://www.analize-journal.ro/library/files/alaa.pdf
Bullock, Katherine. Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil. Herndon, VA: The International School of Islamic Thought.
Ceretti, Josh. “Seeing Muslim Women with Western Eyes.” The Feminist Wire. 2 Aug, 2012. Retrieved online: http://thefeministwire.com/2012/08/seeing-muslim-women-with-western-eyes/
Janmohamed, Shelina Zahra. “Calling All Feminists.” Al Jazeera. 25 Sept 2013. Retrieved online: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/09/calling-all-feminists-get-over-veil-debate-focus-real-problems-201392573343242621.html
Read, Jen’nan and Bartkowski, John P. “The Veil Or Not to Veil?” Gender and Society. Volume 14, No. 3, June 2000.
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