Women, Islam, and the veil

The veil worn by some Muslim women has been a source of great controversy in Europe lately — first in England, where a Muslim teacher’s insistence on wearing the niqab (a veil that covers all of the face except for the eyes) made headlines, and House of Commons leader Jack Straw added fuel to the fire by revealing that he had asked niqab-wearing women to remove it in constituent meetings; now in the Netherlands, where the government has moved to impose a ban on full covering (the burqa and the niqab) in public places.

The latest Weekly Standard has an interesting story on the subject by foreign affairs consultant Olivier Guitta, pointing to the example of Tunisia as a traditionally Muslim country that banned the veil in 1981 as part of an effort to promote modernization and women’s rights, and revived the ban recently in response to the spread of radical fundamentalism. The ban is unquestionably illiberal and illiberally enforced, with the police sometimes tearing headscarves off women in the streets. But the article also offers some fascinating points to ponder:

Interestingly, the Tunisian author and feminist Samia Labidi, president of A.I.M.E., an organization fighting the Islamists, recounts that she personally started wearing the veil before puberty, after Islamists told her the hijab would be a passport to a new life, to emancipation. After a few years, she realized she had been fooled and that the veil made her feel like she was “living in a prison.” At first, she could not bring herself to stop wearing it because of the constant psychological pressure. But the 1981 ban on the hijab in public places forced her to remove it, and she did so for good.

Labidi’s experience suggests that in both Tunisia and France the recent banning of the hijab has actually helped Muslim women who are subject to Islamist indoctrination.

For Islamists, the imperative to veil women justifies almost any means. Sometimes they try to buy off resistance. Some French Muslim families, for instance, are paid 500 euros (around $600) per quarter by extremist Muslim organizations just to have their daughters wear the hijab. This has also happened in the United States. Indeed, the famous and brave Syrian-American psychiatrist Wafa Sultan recently told the Jerusalem Post that after she moved to the United States in 1991, Saudis offered her $1,500 a month to cover her head and attend a mosque.

But what Islamists use most is intimidation. A survey conducted in France in May 2003 found that 77 percent of girls wearing the hijab said they did so because of physical threats from Islamist groups. A series in the newspaper Libération in 2003 documented how Muslim women and girls in France who refuse to wear the hijab are insulted, rejected, and often physically threatened by Muslim males. One of the teenage girls interviewed said, “Every day, bearded men come to me and advise me strongly on wearing the veil. It is a war. For now, there are no dead, but there are looks and words that do kill.”

Muslim women who try to rebel are considered “whores” and treated as outcasts. Some of them want to move to areas “with no Muslims” to escape. However, that might not be a solution, as Islamists are at work all over France. The Communist newspaper L’Humanité in 2003 interviewed two Catholic-born French women who said they had converted to Islam and started wearing the niqab after systematic indoctrination by the Muslim Brotherhood.

In light of this, wearing the hijab may or may not be a manifestation of the free exercise of religion. For any individual, it may reflect the very opposite–religious coercion. In fact, millions of women are forced to wear the veil for fear of physical retribution. And the fear is well founded. According to Cheryl Benard of RAND, every year hundreds of women in Pakistan and Afghanistan alone are killed, have acid thrown in their faces, or are otherwise maimed by male fanatics.

I’m not sure all of this information is entirely reliable; I’d like to see the sources regarding the payments to French families to have their daughters wear the hijab, and the 77% of hijab-wearing French Muslim girls who say that they cover themselves because of intimidation. (I have contacted Guitta and will post more information as soon as I receive it). But Guitta makes a pretty strong case. It is also indirectly bolstered by the recent revelation in the British press that Aishah Azmi, the Muslim teacher who insisted on wearing the niqab on the job, had been guided not solely by her personal beliefs but by the instructions of an Islamic cleric from whom she has sought advice on the issue.

Meanwhile, Guardian columnist Naima Bouteldja is up in arms about the Dutch full-covering ban. She argues that it targets a non-existent problem since only about 100 women in the Netherlands wear such covering, and is an attempt to appeal to “far-right” votes. Then, Bouteldja writes:

The Dutch government’s proposed ban on both niqab and burka in all public spaces takes things to a new and disturbing level. The implication is clear: niqab or hijab-wearing women, and through them European Muslims, are being asked to submit not to the law of the land, but to each country’s dominant way of life.

But if the vast majority of European Muslim women do not wear the niqab or the burqa, why is the ban an attack on them? In fact, a recent column in the Middle Eastern English-language daily The Arab News argues that niqab-wearing women promote negative stereotypes of Islam in the West.

This debate offers a curious role reversal, with conservatives in The Weekly Standard backing the feminist attack on cultural traditions that oppress women (and even the argument that government power should be used to help dismantle such traditions!), and liberals (some liberals, at least) defending a viciously misogynist custom. And viciously misogynist, by the way, it is. See this essay for an excellent critique of the idea that veiling is somehow feminist-friendly or even feminist-compatible. And here, in case you missed it, is the story of the Australian Islamic cleric who preached in a sermon that women who walk around without proper covering are to blame for rape and compared them to “uncovered meat” inciting the appetite of cats.

To quote from my own recent column on women and Islam:

using the language of tolerance to justify oppressive practices is a grotesque perversion of liberalism. The veiling debate is a case in point. No amount of rhetorical sleight of hand can disguise the fact that the full-face veil makes women, literally, faceless. Some Muslim women in the West may choose this garb (which is not mandated in the Koran), but their explanations often reveal an internalized misogynistic view of women as creatures whose very existence is a sexual provocation to men. What’s more, their choice helps legitimize a custom that is imposed on millions of women around the world who have no choice.

After my column appeared, I received an email from a reader criticizing me for being too faint-hearted and pussyfooting around the fact that the oppression of women is sanctioned and required by the Koran itself. That brings us, of course, to the much-debated issue of whether intolerance and extremism are intrinsic to Islam. I think the problem is one of resistance to reform and modernization; there are equally misogynist passages to be found in the Bible and in many Christian texts. The difference is that mainstream Judaism and Christianity have largely moved past the patriarchal mindset. At a symposium I attended in October at the American Enterprise Institute, Women in the Middle East: The Beacon of Change, moderator Michael Ledeen made made an apt observation: “The notion that a religion cannot change has always struck me as bizarre and it is a violation of what I understand of religious history to be all about, and for every religion.”

As I noted in my column:

Several panelists spoke of Muslim feminists’ efforts to reform Islam and separate its spiritual message from the human patriarchal baggage. Some of these reformers look for a lost female-friendly legacy in early Islam; others argue that everything in the Koran that runs counter to the modern understanding of human rights and equality should be revised or rejected. These feminists have an uphill battle to fight, and they deserve all the support they can get.

For Western liberals to defend misogynist practices in Islam on the grounds of multicultural tolerance is not a good way to support Islamic feminist reforms.

Update: Olivier Guitta informs me that the information on French Muslim families being paid by extremist organizations to have their daughters wear the hijab, and on 77% percent of hijab-wearing girls saying that they cover themselves due to intimidation, comes from a May 2003 series in the French newspaper Liberation. I have been unable to find the article so far. It’s hard to tell, without reading the original source, whether such payments are a widespread phenomenon. I’m going to be frank and, at the risk of offending Wafa Sultan’s many admirers, say that something about her story strikes me as fishy. She is indeed a very brave woman, but she is also passionately devoted to her cause; and even the bravest people devoted to the noblest causes have sometimes had lapses. Unless there was some particular reason for Sultan to be singled out at that time, I find it very hard to believe that the Saudi regime, rich as it is, has routinely offered such large amounts of money to Muslim or Arab imigrant women in the U.S. to get them to wear the hijab.

As for intimidation: I’m sure it exists, and I’m sure it’s a factor in many women’s “choice” to veil themselves. I just wonder if it comes from “Islamist organizations” or from family members.

21 Comments

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21 responses to “Women, Islam, and the veil

  1. Rob

    Of course the burqa is misogynist, but I wonder whether a ban on its wearing would be the best solution. I would think that there are many women who have grown up with it, and would find it well-nigh impossible to discard it. What of them? Should they be forced to discard it, thereby possibly forcing them to remain indoors?

    Of course women should have the choice, and any coercion should be dealt with harshly. But I’m troubled by having one form of coercion answer another. Islam must change, and that can only be done by Muslims.

  2. Rob

    One other point. High-heels are misogynist, as well as bad for the feet, and hazardous (I see several women every year get their heels caught in grates, and some fall flat on their faces). Shouldn’t they be banned as well? Nobody explicitly forces them to wear the shoes, but societal pressure is very strong, particularly for young women.

  3. colagirl

    Hm, I don’t seem to recall hearing of any countries in which a woman can be stoned to death for *not* wearing high heels, nor do I see men hassling women on the street for not wearig high heels, or clerics giving speeches that women who don’t wear high heels are “uncovered meat” who invite sexual assault, so I’m not entirely sure that that’s an accurate analogy.

    (Personally I hate high heels–don’t even own a pair. I sure hope the high-heel mutaween don’t come to get me!)

  4. Rob

    colagirl, it’s not meant as an accurate analogy, but as a “where do you draw the line?” comparison.

    Banning articles of clothing, however dubious their provenance, puts all the pressure on their wearers. Solutions should put pressure on those who force women to wear them.

  5. Wombat

    I agree with coalgirl high heals are not a good analogy. But how would she react to a ban on women covering their breasts?

    Different societies have different ideas about what constitutes decency/modesty/reasonable attire.

    The Hijab is, of course, much less opressive than the pre Vatican II habits of Catholic Nuns.

    Personally I think it is reasonable to ban burqas and niqabs on the grounds of security in areas where motorbike helmets and balaclavas are banned.

  6. Anonymous

    Why is a pre-Vatican II nun’s habit oppressive? The nunnery is a freely chosen location. Many male religious orders used clothing that was just as austere and unrevealing.

  7. Cornelius

    there are equally misogynist passages to be found in the Bible and in many Christian texts.

    While there are misogynist passages in the Bible, I wouldn’t claim they’re equal. The New Testament certainly doesn’t prescribe directions on how to beat your wife.

    And I would also add that while Timothy may have the attitude that “a woman should learn in quietness and full submission”, that really only says something about Timothy, not much about God. The Koran on the other hand is, literally, the word of God according to Muslims. The whole enchilada. There is no interlocutor, other than Mohammed, who was merely mouthing the words of god, parrot-like.

    And then there’s the Hadiths, replete with examples of medieval behavior to buttress the prescribed word.

    Rob,

    What’s the point of making an analogy if it’s innacurate?

    Regardless, high heels are designed to enhance a woman’s beauty, not hide it. In this regard, this behavior is entirely natural..

  8. Eric

    But I’m troubled by having one form of coercion answer another.

    Why does coercion bother you? The legal system is replete with coercion. And it is replete with coercion that, like this instance, is meant to enhance an individual’s life, whether he wants it enhanced or not. Examples are desegregation, equal opportunity, and wearing seat belts.

  9. passingthru

    The analogy is inherently flawed because you cannot compare a voluntary policy with an involuntary policy.

    There are no laws in any nation that I know of that requires women to wear high heels, and peer pressure is simply peer pressure. I’ve never worn more than an inch and a half heel in my life, and have no intention of ever doing so. Somehow, I’ve managed to survive a good long while without ever being lectured about my footwear. Nor have the “Manolo Police” ever tried to beat me for refusing to wear their styles.

    You cannot say the same about women in Saudi Arabia, who are beaten if they show any skin. The Taliban murdered uncovered women, and an Australian imam just blamed uncovered women for being raped.

    There is simply no comparison whatsoever in Western treatment of women.

    I would also take issue with the labeling of high heels as misogynist. Sometimes, women with aching feet blame woman-haters for inventing and promoting the high heel, but you would be hard put to prove that is so.

  10. Gertrude

    Solutions should put pressure on those who force women to wear them.

    Yes, and my impression is this usually does turn out to be male family members, often acting under the influence of Islamist or conservative clerics or congregations. The problem with just banning the burqa and calling it good is that, if this is happening in a woman’s household, the burqa is most likely the least of her problems. I might support treating the wearing of a burqa as probable cause for a domestic abuse investigation (more or less equivalent to bruises on children seen by school officials, for example), but not banning outright. For one thing, in a household like that, it’s just as likely the male relatives will react by forbidding the woman to leave the house at all if she can’t go out in full covering.

    I should clarify that I’m speaking of what it means to be wearing a burqa or niqab in Europe or North America. Countries where full covering is actually the norm are a different issue. Many majority-Muslim countries have included bans on Islamic covering in attempts to modernize over the years, I would say with mixed results. (Turkey under Ataturk is one example, Iran under the shah is another.)

    I think some Muslims who don’t endorse the burqa or niqab per se might perceive the idea of a burqa ban as an attack on their religion, btw, because the religious rationale for wearing the much more common headscarf is identical to that for wearing full covering. The difference is one of degree rather than kind.

  11. Matoko Kusanagi

    moi, je parles le francais.
    I’ll look for the Liberation article, Cathy.
    And then I’ll post the translation on Eteraz. If i find it. =)

    Wafa Sultan is a flake. MEMRI only translated her half of a dialogue on the al-Jazheerha call-in show Opposite Directions.
    The topic was supposed to be Clash od Civilizations. Wafa screeched like an off topic fishwife on her personal beeves with al-Islam.

  12. Anonymous

    One writer says the solution is not to ban the burka, but to bring pressure to stop the coercion. Are you crazy? Just what pressure did you have in mind that would stop these homicidal maniacs from their murderous, savage behaviour. Feel free to stroll into their neighborhoods and apply your pressure.

    The same writer says the solution is not to ban articles of clothing but because that puts pressure on the wearer, etc. Not too strong on thinking are you. Banning the article of clothing takes all the pressure off the wearer because now they can refuse to wear the article because of the law, not because they are defying their masters, the male gender.

    Another writer writes that the bible and other laughed-at, ignored publications contain absurd prohibitions as well. Wake up please! This is not a critique of Muslim literature, it a critique of their enslavement of half their people, and their psychological and/or torture of those who refuse to submit.

    Another writer discusses the issue as a custom peculiar to Muslim society and how all societies have peculiar customs. In this case the custom is practiced by only half the society. The half that enslaves the other half. Does that still meet your definition of a peculiar custom? If so, we Southerners have been badly wronged.

  13. The Monster

    Eric,

    Why does coercion bother you? The legal system is replete with coercion. And it is replete with coercion that, like this instance, is meant to enhance an individual’s life, whether he wants it enhanced or not. Examples are desegregation, equal opportunity, and wearing seat belts.

    The state has no right to ‘enhance’ my life against my will. Seat belt laws are completely unjustified, and many laws enacted in the name of deseg or equal opportunity are as well. The coercive power of the state is only justfified in opposition to coercion; to define and punish transgressions against the person or property of others. If you can tell me who the victim of the ‘crime’ of wearing a burka or high heels is, and that purported victim is someone other than the person choosing to dress that way, then there is a legitimate state interest.

  14. MikeT

    Funny thing is that Christianity is a completely voluntary religion at its core. You cannot find a verse that in context justifies forcing non-Christian women to live like Christian women. Contrast that with Islam which exhorts its followers to expand Dar al-Islam via any means.

    In Islam as practiced throughout the ages, every feminist and libertarian’s fears are realized. For feminists, its fruit has been something resembling a return to the chattle status that pagan women enjoyed in the areas that were Christianized before the Muslims wiped out the church. For libertarians, it is a ruthless, warlike religion that sees separation of religion and state as treason to god himself.

  15. MikeT

    For the sake of clarity, I was trying to say that Islam in practice, when it went into christianized lands undid the advances that Christianity brought, resurrecting the old hostilities toward women that were common in the pagan ages.

  16. Anonymous

    Several comments made here are a bit unfair to Islam. First of all, the Koran does not exactly instruct a man on how to beat his wife. What the Koran say (the exact meaning of the words have changed over the years, so there’s a bit of arguing in the Ulema) is that a man can only hit after seeking counseling, and non-violent ways of showing dissatisfaction, and only to the extent that no marks show. Incidentally, even in America, if a man slaps his wife, its not necessarily considered abuse, but if brusing shows than it is.

    Also, it is stated that Islam forces a dresscode on women. Not precisely. It doesn’t say anywhere in the Koran that women have to where Niqab or the Burqa. What it does say is that women should cover their ‘adornments’ One could reasonably believe that means to cover one’s breast, or it could mean to cover ones hair or even the whole face. Point is, Islam doesn’t have a forced dresscode.

    Finally, Islam did not destroy women’s rights. Actually, the practice of the Hijab and veiling was borrowed from the Christian cultures of Syria and Persia. Indeed, Hadiga, the Prophets first wife, was considered to be the wealthiest women and ran a succesful business. He even relied on her for protection for quite some time. The Koran itself makes some important precedents regarding women’s rights including the right to property, the right to work, the right to divorce (although it was a much simpler process for men), and Mohammad was completely against female infanticide. The whole anti-female bit of Islam comes more from the patriarchal societies in which it developped and less from the faith itself.

    I know this post is getting a bit long, so I guess I’ll stop.

  17. Rob

    To the various anonymous posters – it would make things a whole lot simpler if you got a blogger id, or even just signed your name or pseudonym.

    Just what pressure did you have in mind that would stop these homicidal maniacs from their murderous, savage behaviour.

    Well, if you assume all fundamentalists are homicidal maniacs, there’s not much you can do. But it’s these kind of assumptions that are half the problem.

    Banning the article of clothing takes all the pressure off the wearer…

    Um, no. Not if you have lived your whole adult life wearing a burqa outside.

  18. Tutorialblog

    so dam right

    Reg Marv
    My Photocommunity

  19. USpace

    Excellent post, it’s in, thanks!

    absurd thought –
    God of the Universe cares
    what women wear…
    .

  20. bernie

    Rob, you wrote, “Of course women should have the choice, and any coercion should be dealt with harshly. But I’m troubled by having one form of coercion answer another. Islam must change, and that can only be done by Muslims.”

    Muslims cannot change Islam. Those who try are Fatwa’d with a death contract.

    China and other countries make sure that Islam is practised without the violent elements by watching closely what the Imams give sermons about and regulate what they can read. A few more attacks in western countries and I believe Muslims will either be deported or heavily regulated.

    Something very bad will happen: either by violent attacks or social revolution when Shariah is instituted in a European country.

    We merely have to wait.

  21. Anonymous

    Real Answers to Real Questions:
    Jesus, the Bible, origin of Christianity & more . . .
    http://bibleislam.com

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