Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Islamophobia or women's rights? Another perspective.

This post is partially in response to Emily's post earlier, but is also intended to highlight another question about feminism and Islam: privilege.

In her post, Emily mentioned that a positive impact of the French law is that "The law will discourage Muslim women who are debating about wearing the veil from doing so, since a Muslim woman who is only considering wearing the veil is unlikely to feel strongly enough about it to risk legal issues." To be honest, I completely disagree. Let me explain.

While I was in my undergrad, I was fortunate to take a class entitled "Women in Judaism and Islam," and for a class that had limited time to discuss some pretty complex topics, all of us- the vast majority female, the vast majority either Muslim or Jewish- had a great opportunity to start digging into some of the material that we'd never really encountered before in studying either religion. As you can imagine, hijab- the practice of modest dressing and comportment- came up quite frequently. Several of my Muslim classmates, who were from Toronto, Pakistan, and the States, wore hijab by choice; many of those who weren't were considering it.

The history of hijab is, of course, too complicated to explain here. This website offers a decent background in a nutshell, though. Essentially, the practice of hijab comes from a small and obscure phrase in the Qu'ran that instructs women to "draw their veils over their bosoms" when meeting men in the street. There are other passages that instruct modesty for both men and women, but this is the clearest one. Over the centuries, male and female scholars have debated the meaning of this phrase, and the answer has been everything from polite behaviour to segregation of the sexes to burkhas for women. True to the diversity in the history of hijab, my classmates all practiced hijab in different ways- they wore scarves around their neck and long pants, they only wore black and wore a scarf over their head, they wore a burkha without a niqab (face veil).

The women in my class who were wearing hijab had chosen to do so for a variety of religious reasons- daily reminder of one's faith, encouraging the self towards fuller religious participation and life- but a lot of additional reasons had nothing to do with religion at all. Rather, they were political. For many of the women from the States and Canada, especially, wearing hijab was an election to visible practice of a faith that's been taking a savage beating in western media. It was a way of defying the all-too-common assumption that hijab is an oppressive practice that's only imposed by men (a classmate from Pakistan, for example, told us about her aunt who elected to wear a burkha and niqab daily). My classmates also spoke to the unification they felt with Muslim women in the Middle East, for whom religion could be a struggle between personal faith and imposed politics, and how they felt that wearing hijab wasn't just a sign of faith, but also a sign of the diversity and empowerment that that faith has to offer. My classmates wore hijab as a reclamation of their Islam from a mass media massacre.

For me, when I read things like what I quoted from Emily, the first thing I think of is the passion that my classmates expressed when they spoke about their faith and the decisions they'd made. I don't want to imply that their choices were reactionary in North America, because many of them had chosen hijab in other cultural contexts and other political times. But the point remains that viewing hijab solely as an imposed patriarchal tool misses the variety of ways in which people interact with their faith, regardless of what their faith may be. I can only envision the women of France choosing to wear hijab specifically to defy the French government for presuming that it was the French government's choice to "liberate" them. "We don't need to be liberated!" my classmates are probably saying, wherever they are now. "We've made our choice. Stop assuming we're ignorant, or terrorists, or abused."

This, in turn, raises another question. My classmates were from around the world- Pakistan, Dubai, Toronto, etc.- and had all had the opportunity to make this choice. At the same time, they were also at one of the world's best universities and studying for their bachelor's degrees. The element of choice, for them, was probably more obvious and more accessible than for women growing up in families with different attitudes about women's education. This isn't to say that women at universities in the Middle East aren't experiencing similar feelings about hijab, but to say that education can make a world of difference in how someone interacts with her faith. The outcome may be the same as for the woman who wore hijab by command, but the fact of choice means everything. The privilege in being able to make that choice is, for me, the critical question.

1 comment:

  1. I actually hesitated about suggesting that as a positive outcome, but I wanted to look at some of the arguments in favor of this law in order to make sure I wasn't being biased. Not only because it suggested that discouraging women from wearing it was the right thing, but also because many people react against such moves. If someone told me I couldn't cover my forearms, for instance, I'm pretty sure I'd wear long-sleeved shirts in defiance.

    Based on your experience, do you see any positive outcomes from such a law? (Even if they're outweighed by the negative outcomes). You're in a much better position to weigh in on this than I am.