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Women, Islam, and the veil


By Cathy Young                                                                                            

Cathy Young is from Location:New Jersey, United States

Writer and journalist, author of Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood (1989) and Ceasefire: Why Women and Men Must Join Forces to Achieve True Equality (1999). Columnist for Reason (monthly) and The Boston Globe (weekly). Born in Moscow, Russia in 1963; came to the United States in 1980. Rutgers University graduate.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

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 immigrant 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.


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