The Veil, Again

Yes, some women who cover their heads smile, too.

Some strands of feminism have a long history of serving as adjuncts of Western imperialism. Today they also enable domestic prejudice. Gore Vidal once mocked George Bush’s idea of democracy promotion as being synonymous with: ‘Be free! Or I’ll kill you’. In a similar vein, some feminists today want to ‘liberate’ Arab-Muslim women by constraining their freedoms. These women can’t possibly know what they really want, you see. The European feminists, like Bush, know what’s best for them. What could my sister — who studied at a co-ed university (in Peshawar!) but turned to wearing the hijab after moving to Canada — know about her interests? She must be told by the enlightened Westerner. She must be liberated.

Ignorance and racism combine in this potent form of messianism to sanction prejudice which increasingly targets Europe’s immigrant communities. Like the Orientalists of yore, this brand of feminism insists on seeing the brown or black woman in the subordinate role, wistfully awaiting a Westerner liberator. They are childlike, they must be protected in the same manner that a responsible parent protects an unruly nestling. They must be saved from the hijab, or — God forbid! — the veil. To protect their freedom of choice, their freedom to choose must be revoked.

Today more and more assertive Muslim women living in the West are taking up the hijab, as a defiant assertion of their identity and independence. It is no longer just a religious symbol, it is also often a political symbol. But of course, the addled mind of the colonial feminist cannot fathom this — or the idea of diversity. It must cloak cultural supremacism as defence of a presumed universal value; it must elevate its cultural preference into a universal desire. It must erase all other, inferior, aspirations, such as those of the Arab-Muslim woman to choose how she dresses, what she does or does not want to wear. It must enshrine its own preferences in an official ban, and demand that others — the minorities — must assimilate. They must comply, or else be deemed un-emancipated. Prejudice against such unenlightened women thus becomes legitimate. Indeed, it becomes a moral imperative. Racism becomes a virtue.

Today militant disbelief is a far more potent threat than religious radicalism. It is perhaps no more implacable than religious fundamentalism but the instruments of mass destruction available to it are immeasurably more awesome. Its quixotic crusades are more numerous and far bloodier. Given its monopoly on power, it is often a shorter distance between its ideals and catastrophe. As, among others, John Gray has shown in Black Mass, children of the Enlightenment — from the Communists, National Socialists, Capitalists, to Neo-conservatives — have all rationalized mass-slaughter in the name of progress. Racism, likewise, is always in the service of a presumed noble ideal. As Sven Lindqvist highlights in his splendid work on Western colonialism, there was a time when, inspired by Darwinian ideas, the extermination of inferior races was seen as a necessary, indeed moral, imperative by enlightened Europeans. It was necessary for human progress. Natural selection could be expdited by unnatural destruction.

And so — as Kurt Vonnegut would say — it goes. Sarkozy’s government is once again at war with the 367 French women who wear the veil according to a July 2009 report. The Progressive London conference is rightly highlighting this issue to protect womens’ right to choose what they wear. But colonial feminists will have none of this. A reader forwards us this letter sent to the Guardian by one Frankie Green who illustrates all the stupidity and ignorance described earlier.

Let us hope discussion went further than the facile idea that this supposed ‘right’ is primarily about religious symbolism and the need to not embolden right-wing racists, and dealt with the question of what exactly it is about women’s bodies, hair and faces that requires their obliteration, and why women are shamed and blamed for men’s apparent inability to control themselves at the sight of bare female flesh. If conference-goers debated how to best support the brave women worldwide who have campaigned against the gender apartheid and patriarchal inequality of these misogynist practices, that truly would be progressive.

The contempt that this letter shows for the wog needs no elaboration. In this world view the display of ‘bare female flesh’ becomes synonymous with emancipation. But it is the complete immunity of this type of reasoning to irony that makes it most frightening. It is this cast of mind that needs to be liberated from the veil of ignorance and prejudice that so hampers its capacity for empathy.

Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

66 thoughts on “The Veil, Again”

  1. So, is the deal that westerners are thinking that the answer comes with a woman having rights to express herself as if that changes some man’s testosterone burst without holding to account the male response to anything? I need clarity.

    1. To begin – Western culture is superior. Why? Because in Western society, you have the right to criticize your moral and political opponents without fear of violent repercussions. You must understand that to those raised in Western cultures, the idea that someone might be forced to dress the way they do because they were intimidated is unacceptable.

      Islam has a track record of visiting violence on those that leave the faith, for example. It is entirely possible that some women wearing the veil would prefer not to, even if they live in Western societies. You ignored this possibility.

      Second, “militant disbelief” poses little to no threat to anyone but the religious. Disbelief generally sides with the right to free speech. Faith often promotes the contrary, as was demonstrated by Revolution Islam’s response to a recent South Park Episode. You make broad assertions, such as the “crusades [which] are more numerous and far bloodier,” yet fail to mention specifics.

      You then jump through the rolodex of history’s “villains,” as if you can implicate all atheists by naming political groups (and oddly enough, Capitalists, calling into question your understanding of the word).

      Finally, I’d like to pose a rhetorical question: What do you suppose would happen to a woman if she were to travel to an Islamic country and decide against wearing the veil?

      That’s what I thought.

      1. To begin – Western culture is superior.

        Four legs good, two legs bad? Comment is superfluous.

        What do you suppose would happen to a woman if she were to travel to an Islamic country and decide against wearing the veil?

        I guess the same thing that happens to all women who go out wearing shoes. Nothing. Unless you are talking specifically about US ally Saudi Arabia, or Iran.

        You know that old internet adage? It is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought stupid than to open it and remove all doubt. Alexander Eddy, you are an arse.

  2. Muslim women are well aware of the fact that people who are against hijab in western societies never have their best interests in their minds. Most of the time people who relegiously support the wars waged against Muslims, the self proclaimed crudaders, take up every opportunity to condemn hijab.
    Anyways, the feminists have to realize that not every woman in the world wants to be considered a piece of meat or to be used as a public rest room!!!

  3. I am from Turkey, where the veil/hijab/headscarf is a huge issue and considered as a threat to secularism. As such, there is a huge clash between women who wear the headscarf and who don’t. As a feminist, I personally do not agree with the fundamental idea behind covering up, but I will viciously defend the right of women wearing it, if they will be able to take it off as easily as they have made the choice of wearing it. I do not think that is the case in my country.

    While I agree with the idea that the Western understanding of the veil mostly involves the need to “forcefully liberate” a group of women, I can’t stop myself from wincing at BT’s comment saying women who do not wear the hijab are a piece of meat or public restrooms. Firstly, as a non-practicing Muslim woman, I am offended that one person is audacious enough to speak about what I am aware of and what I’m not. There have been instances where I’ve read very insightful comments on the issue in the Western media, and times where I got very angry at the ignorance and obvious racism present in what I read. The Western media covering this subject is most certainly not a crusade, there just are different perspectives. Mostly I just leave these articles feeling that there is no way the issue could be fully understood by the Western media.

    Secondly, one does think, then, if the commenter considers the veil as a solution for harrasment, or a personal choice? I am very offended by that comment as I, as a Muslim woman who does not wear the veil, am constantly thinking if my own country, as a result of the ongoing conservative movement, will one day come to a state where I will be considered as a “public restroom” just because I’m not wearing it.

  4. I have heard this argument about men being unable to “control themselves” at the site of bare flesh being used before. It is nonsense. I wonder if anybody has done a study to see what causes these ripples to spread? The people parroting these phrases are far too unimaginative or intelligent to think of it themselves. Where is the pebble being dropped? I would love to know!

  5. omg I feel like I’ve been sitting in an ISNA convention. I defend the right of women to dress like this – I used to do it myself – but this was like reading one of those Islamist pamphlets they used to pass out at the masjid in the 90s. Next we’ll be told how the hijab makes men regard you for the intelligent things coming out of your mouth, instead of the size of your boobies. Disappointed in feminists who were reblogging this.

  6. Thanks for the excellent article.

    I understand the relevant Quranic verses which are of relevance and contention are these:

    “And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; and that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands.” (Quran 24:30-31)


    “O Prophet, tell your wives and daughters and the believing women to draw their outer garments around them (when they go out or among men). That is better in order that they must be known (to be Muslims) and not annoyed.” (Quran 33:59)

    Both are open to interpretation – personally I find the lowering of the gaze more of a confronting issue than any possible requirement of dress drawn from the above. However, it is up to Muslim women to decide their own garb without coercion either by patriarchal religious or secular figureheads or well-meaning western colonial ‘feminists’ who condemn Islamic dress on behalf of Muslim women.

    I support women’s and men’s right to choose freely their own apparel. As an aside, why is there not a brouhaha about the choice of male businessmen whether or not to wear ties and suits, both symbolic physical addenda, to the office?

  7. BRobsen. I apologize for offending you by my restroom remark..I personally believe that sleeping with randon guys or sexual emancipation is not more than letting ppl use your body as a public rest room.. but ofcourse this is my personal viewpoint.
    In the United States once I came across a group of “crusaders” whose only mission in Afghanistan was to liberate women socially and sexually. Those ppl would go there posing as social workers, teachers etc. Ironically,one devout Catholic member of that group addmitted to me that they envied Muslims for preserving their relegious values for over a thousand years. You draw the conclusion.

  8. I for one resent the fact that Muslims insist on their rights to wear the veil in the West because Muslim societies insist that Western women dress “modestly” in their countries. If my wife can’t go around uncovered in Saudi Arabia — or wherever — then I don’t want Muslim women seen wearing one in MY country! What’s good for the goose is good for the gander as they say.

  9. Jack,

    Why do you wish to emulate the Saudia autocracy by applying its restrictive choices for women in the West?

    Isn’t that a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face?

  10. Just like any other chauvinism, the (intentionally) misguided idea of “liberating” adults from choosing their personal way of expression is nothing but an oppressive movement shoving their beliefs down peoples throats. Wanna wear a hijab? Your business, nobody elses. Refuse to wear one? Same rule applies.

    Quoting OTHER oppressive societies (eg Saudi Arabia) as some sort of excuse is in fact quite symbolic. Mr Smith clearly expresses his affinity for totalitarianism, he just prefers a different flavour to his.

    Dear self appointed Guardians of what is Right and Correct, please back the f off.

    1. We also choose what people can think by putting them in loony bins. Shall we liberate them all as they are entitled to think how they want and express themsleves how they want? Let’s also legalize heroin. If people want to indulge in it, why not?

      1. Of course, I forget. If a woman chooses to stuff her chest with silicone it is ‘choice’. If she chooses to cover her head, it is a pathology, or a crime, on par with lunacy or drug-abuse. Who could argue with such impeccable logic?

  11. “Anyways, the feminists have to realize that not every woman in the world wants to be considered a piece of meat or to be used as a public rest room!!!”

    And there it is. Only two posts in. I don’t condone banning the hijab but this is what I think western women find offensive. So, Muslim women are strong and independent when they choose to cover themselves but women who choose not to cover up are just whores and “unclean” in the eyes of hijab wearers. I agree with the OP, though; it’s ignorant and culturally insensitive to have people come from another land and lord their supposed purity over the natives.

  12. BT, I’m not sure you really understand how offensive your remarks about meat and toilets really are.

    Is having sex with someone really the same as being cooked and eaten, or pissed and crapped on? And why is it just women who are degraded in this way rather than men?

    The fact that you seem to think that a woman showing her face or hair in public must be ‘sleeping with random guys’ is both disgusting and unbelievable (would you say the same about a man? and would a man sleeping with ‘random’ women also be a toilet?).

    BTW, I disagree with the proposed ban on the niqab. In its illiberal disregard for individual and minority rights, it’s as much anti-Western as anti-Muslim.

  13. The notion of being ‘forced to be free’ is often parodied as sheer lunacy, the preserve of misguided, totalitarian proponents of Berlin’s ‘positive liberty’. But, in fact, it is not even remotely paradoxical, once the details are worked out: you can be liberated by having your freedoms restricted.

    How is that possible? Cohen has a great discussion of this problem in “Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equaly” p.54ff. Suppose I have authority over an island that A mostly owns and on which B one day washes ashore. Since A owns the whole island, B cannot even procure what she needs to survive without his consent. Luckily, A is willing to make her a deal: if B becomes A’s slave, A will feed her and otherwise make sure that she survives. A is unwilling to offer her any better deal. Clearly, accepting the contract puts B in a state of unfreedom, and one doesn’t need to appeal to some BS notion that she doesn’t know her own interests in order to see this. It would be best for B, in terms of her liberty, if she had the opportunity to survive (and prosper) without having to become A’s slave.

    Now vary the case slightly. Suppose that A stands to profit from B’s labour; that is, suppose that if she cannot make B her slave, she would like to employ B at a decent wage for a couple of hours work a day, because this is to A’s benefit. But suppose that she has enough bargaining power to drive B to accept the slavery contract, which is better for A. Now, I, as sovereign of this island (don’t ask what I’ve been doing all this time), prohibit slavery contracts. This diminishes B’s freedom in one respect, of course: it takes away a liberty that she previously possessed, namely the liberty to sell herself into slavery. But does it diminish B’s freedom overall? Of course not. In the absence of this prohibition on slavery contracts, she would have sold herself into slavery; now, she merely contracts to work a few hours a day, and she gets by. Clearly, she is more free under these conditions. You can, in other words, liberate someone by restricting their freedom. And, as you may have guessed, this rationale is the moral basis of a large amount of labour legislation, especially curbs on the highest number of weekly hours that someone can contract to work at.

    So we’ve seen that you can be liberated by having your freedoms curtailed. Could this reasoning apply to the case of the veil? I’ll leave it for discussion…

    1. You can liberate someone by restricting their freedom to be a slave? I thought the “freedom” to be a slave was the apotheosis of libertarian capitalism.

  14. The above commenter’s argument is based on a glaring fallacious notion that “the liberty to sell herself into slavery” is indeed a liberty. It most certainly is not. The person would be driven to this “choice” by compulsion, remove the compulsion and no-one would choose this “liberty”, a weazel word if ever there was one in this context.

    1. Attributions of freedom and unfreedom are often controversial, so it’s no surprise that a question should be raised here. However, I think I’m on pretty solid ground in describing B as free to sell herself into slavery. In the first scenario, she has two options: she can starve, or she can become A’s slave. I assume that she is free to become A’s slave because it is within her power to do so. In the second scenario, the law prohibits her from choosing to become A’s slave, so she loses a freedom that she previously possessed. Chyrsalis suggests that someone cannot be free to pursue an option that she would not pursue apart from need for survival. But if that is the case, we would not be free to breathe, or to eat. Remove the vital necessity of breathing or eating, and I wouldn’t bother; but I’m still free to breathe. Similarly, if B did not need to sell herself into slavery in order to survive, she would not do so: but that in no way cancels the fact that she is free to sell herself into slavery.

      In any case, presume that B isn’t free to sell herself into slavery. This seems to me to be a point of semantics if anything, since she clearly has some kind of opportunity or power to sell herself into slavery. I then reformulate my original quesiton about the veil as follows: does taking the opportunity to wear the veil away from Muslim women increase their overall liberty, as taking away B’s schmreedom to sell herself into slavery increases her overall liberty?

  15. Again, I am not hearing the accountability of men’s role in this. I can’t figure it out. If there is social cultural evolution and men are supposed to become more whole, embracing the feminine, not as a means to an end, but as a self completing learning of self through the mirror of mates and others, where is the responsibility of men in this conversation?
    Also, western women use overweightness to speak to men’s lust not unlike the veil, do they not? If “he” can’t see the real me, through the veil of weight or cloth, is that not the test?

  16. I feel this so strongly. I’m a western feminist, but am often criticized for my modest clothing. I happen not to be a lesbian and I don’t feel repressed but am often told I’m one or the other. I have a husband and didn’t have to dress “slutty” to meet him and I’m not looking to attract other males. I dress nicely, but I just don’t care to show so much skin as I don’t see my role in life directly connected to how sexy I look to strange men and I’m sensitive to chills. If I go to the beach I hate to hear the comments people will make and can’t have much fun. Now THAT is part of the problem, but how can you blame women if they would rather wear a tank top and shorts so that they can just concentrate on having fun instead of how men are looking at them?

    The problem here isn’t just with racism, but also with the fact that some feminists just don’t seem to get that the whole POINT is to allow women to make their own choices about what is important to them and how to solve problems. Raise consciousness about the PROBLEMS, but the veil is not a problem it’s one of their solutions.

    Maybe those choices can be better informed, but it is wrong to assume for instance that a woman who cares to wear hijab hasn’t made that choice for herself intelligently or that she isn’t able to appreciate increased opportunities. I support a woman’s liberty to dress how she likes. If she wishes to dress more flirtatiously that is fine, but it should also be fine to dress conservatively without being taken for an idiotic repressed child.

  17. @blueelm Finally someone with a logical reasoning.

    I wear the hijab and I did it all by myself, no one talked to me about it and no one forced me to wear it or even pressured me. I wore it when I felt like it as a form of self-expression of my religious beliefs. Whatever reason I had to wear the hijab is my own and whether it’s a stupid reason or a justified reason, it is still up to me since my decision affects no one else but me.
    So if you really want to support women’s rights, you need to have an open-mind to believe that not all women want the same things or think the same… We are all here on Earth as equals and we should be free to do what we feel comfortable with since no one seems to agree on a universal right or wrong way to do things.
    If you want to walk around naked, then by all means do so, I can’t stop you and I really don’t care what you do.
    If you want to wear red pants, a yellow tshirt, with a blue tie, dirty boots, and an old hat… who cares! Got my point?!
    So if I want to cover up my hair and my body then it should be none of your business, and it should in no way be a measure of how smart I am, or how educated I am, or what my personality is like!

    Thank you for this post, I wanted to write something like that after I read the news about the new law in France against veiled women.

    1. It was only 10 years ago when I was introduced to Islamic culture. I was born and raised in NYC and probably met many women who were Muslim, although I had no clue about their culture.

      In time, I’ve learned to respect women who wear the hijab, or just use the veil because I educated myself on the reasons why Muslim women do this. I don’t veil myself because of my upbringing, but I’m not against the hijab. I find it victorious and a statement to not be looked at for just a sex symbol. Such a shame that many think it’s like a part of slavery.

      The real question is: Does it really hurt people that a woman wears the hijab? If so, in what way? The stupidity of being offended of a woman veiling herself is as idiotic as any dumb question.

  18. It isnt about the hijab at all …its just the western world waking up to islamic abrasiveness and willy nilly throwing up defences in a kneejerk fashion . No Minarets , NO hijab …watch this space .

  19. The article misses the fundamental difficulty: an argument over what women should wear or chose to wear is easily made in the West, and very difficult in many Muslim countries.
    If the West, or more specifically France, refuses these liberties to women, is it worse than Saudi Arabia? If not, don’t these arguments about liberty necessarily contain a critique of Muslim polity? The French proposal, that demands adherence to secularism in public, represents a politically debatable demand, subject to change at law. Are Muslim polities subject to such debate and change?

    1. No, actually you missed something fundamental — viz, the point. If I am opposed to the ban in France, then I must perforce be a supporter of forced veiling in Saudi Arabia? Is that what you are suggesting? I hope not, because that’s a silly assumption. The argument is rather clear: women anywhere in the world should have the right to dress the way they want. They shouldn’t be forced either way: to wear or not to wear what they do or do not want to wear. What’s so complicated about that?

      If the West, or more specifically France, refuses these liberties to women, is it worse than Saudi Arabia?

      So now France must compete with Saudi Arabia, a medieval monarchic despotism? Well, Saudis will win, since they never had any claims on tolerance or liberality. It is France that has the double standards. And, incidentally, like the US, France has done its bit to preserve the monarchy in Saudi Arabia. In the late 70s its special forces helped the Saudis put down a rebellion against the monarchy.

      The French proposal, that demands adherence to secularism in public, represents a politically debatable demand, subject to change at law. Are Muslim polities subject to such debate and change?

      As a matter of fact the political debate in most muslim socieites is more vibrant, that’s why the west encourages and assists local tyrants to suppress it. It is not a formality, as in France, US or UK. It has tangible outcomes. Heads roll, government’s change, tyrants pay.

      This is type of silly argument someone was making about the Chilcott inquiry: ‘look we even put our PM’s in front of commissions’. Not really. he’s in front of the commission precisely because the commission is chosen by his cronies, and the outcome is a foregone conclusion. If there was a real threat that his head will roll, there’d be no commission, or an appearance by Blair.

      1. Thank you for your reply.

        I was candid of you to make clear that the clothing at issue may be worn as a form of religious or cultural submission, or, as in your case, an act of political defiance.
        My questions went to this.

        The French recognize that this sort of political defiance attacks the basis of the state’s secular freedom. Your defense of the “vibrant” muslim polities where “heads roll” (yikes!) and your apparent contempt for democratic changes in government that you describe as “formalities” makes the point as well any French official could.

        1. The French recognize that this sort of political defiance attacks the basis of the state’s secular freedom.

          Why not ban dissent too then? Doesn’t it attack the basis of the state’s political freedom?

          Your defense of the “vibrant” muslim polities where “heads roll” (yikes!) and your apparent contempt for democratic changes in government that you describe as “formalities” makes the point as well any French official could.

          You can’t be that obtuse, so I am assuming you don’t understand English very well. I am afraid I don’t have the time to paraphrase or translate.

    2. ‘are muslim polities open to debate and change?’

      No, they are not. Things in the Muslim world are excactly as they were 1400 years ago. It is not true that twenty years ago in Syria and Egypt almost all women on the streets were not wearing hijab. In Lebanon you do not see women in hijab walking with women in miniskirts. My articulate female friends and students in Oman did not argue their own reasons for choosing hijab.

      It is also true that in the West dress choices are always easily made and are entirely free of cultural context. Wear a niqab to work tomorrow and see.

  20. What a deceptive post, no surprise here. The author makes it seem through the picture of the nice smiling lady who’s covered up and through carefully selected words that imply the ban is on the hijab or the overall concept of hijab rather than the burka.

    With the Wahabists controlling most of our mosques today, its no surprise that the majority of women who wear the BURKA are converts who have been told that the abaya and niqab are required clothing for a ‘true devout muslim” and women who attend these mosques are increasingly donning Arab clothing under the guise that Islam requires it. Unfortunately, this is nothing but Saudi culture masquerading as Islam. Truly, the arabization of Islam is one of the worst things to happen to Islam in recent times.

    This might be acceptable in Saudi Arabia where women are confined to their homes but in the west and in most societies where women play a part in the civil society and isn’t stuck in some medieval mindset, identity is shown primarily through the face. In public spaces the burka is not only completely UNACCEPTABLE but also INCOMPATIBLE. A man or woman can wear whatever they want inside their own homes to satisfy whatever ridiculous religious or cultural views they hold but in public spaces, this is a real concern. It is no wonder the burka is the preferred clothing for suicide bombers, prostitutes (in Bangladesh) and recently, bank robbers.

    Hence, its no surprise that the Indian Supreme Court recently passed laws preventing women who refuse to show their faces to vote. After all, how are we supposed to know who you are if we do not know what you look like? Ridiculous!

    1. It is no wonder the burka is the preferred clothing for suicide bombers, prostitutes (in Bangladesh) and recently, bank robbers.

      Pants are the preferred clothing of most of the world’s rapists and serial-killers. Why not impose a ban on the trouser?

      It is just this kind of puerility that I am trying to address with my post.

      1. As I have said in my post earlier which you conveniently ignored, the face is used to identify someone in modern society. Burkas are the preferred clothing because it hides the face completely thus making their identity unknown.

        Same reason why masks are banned at the banks. Same reason why India will not allow burka clad women to vote. Same reason why during Hajj or Umrah, men and women must not cover their face.

        Pants or shirts or kurta or kameez or saris or skirts or dresses or tagiyah or even a headscarf does not conceal the face.

        Please, you and I both know this. That knee-jerk defense was completely unnecessary and quite idiotic.

        1. Speaking of quite idiotic, you should have mentioned that the veil is banned in India and Saudi Arabia, you’d then have an argument. I am now indebted to you for bringing this to my attention. Otherwise your argument will sound as lame as saying that since in many places people are required to take off dark sunglasses — eyes being another object used to identify people in ‘modern society’ (what do primitives know about identification, eh?) — they must be subject to a ban.

  21. I notice that the article does not make any distinction between a veil, which obscures the face (and which raises security issues in our Panopticon Society) and a head-scarf, which symbolically hides the hair (as the above photo makes clear, it does not in fact hide the hair, but rather draws attention to it.)

    I believe that it is reasonable for a state to require its citizens not to hide their faces in public, but unreasonable to forbid the symbolic covering of hair.

    I note that the Koran does not explicitly require women to wear a veil, but rather to be modest in dress and demeanour. It is a socio-political practice and as such open to many interpretations. I am certain that there are instances where the hijab functions as an instrument of oppression, and also instances where it is felt to be a means of liberation.

    I think that all feminists will agree that the more patriarchal a society, the worse off women are in that society. In all traditional Islamic societies women are excluded from public life. For some analysts, this exclusion has come to be symbolised by the hijab.

    I find it ironic that while some progressive thinkers have gone down this route, it has been left to the European right to actually enact laws, and thus turn it into a racist / clash-of-cultures issue.

    1. In all tradtional Islamic societies women are excluded from public life.

      Yep, more cultural-supremacist drivel.

      I didn’t know Pakistan, Bangladesh or Indonesia were feminist societies. After all, they all elected women to their highest offices. How many women has France elected to the president’s office? Who was the last woman president of the United States?

      1. Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia are former colonies and thus for historical do not enjoy traditional Islamic governance. I applaud them for electing women, even if the logic behind some of the elections was more dynastic than feminist.

        Of course their election no more makes these countries bastions of feminism than Obama’s election means that the US is free of racism.

        1. Unless you are talking specifically about Saudi Arabia, I don’t see what your argument is? And if you are talking about Saudi ARabia, then you don’t have an argument. Since SA is more of an aberration than an exemplar of traditional Islam: its medieval system is sustained by Western (including French) support.

  22. So what has the “freedom” to run around half naked in so called ‘civilized” society done for the status of women in the West? It has demeaned them and made it more difficult for them to be taken seriously. This can be shown in the fact that even now, in 2010, women still earn from 25% to 50% less than men, working in the same fields. Women increasingly turn to having their bodies hacked away with plastic surgery, in order to make themselves appear as perfect as a Barbie Doll in a bikini.
    The bodies of women have become exploited to the sense that a woman in the Western world often work to derive their sense of identity and worth to how well they can turn a man on, be ‘pretty” for him.
    Advertisers use womens bodies to sell everything from candybars, to cars, to fast food hamburgers. and what can women do a bout it? Nothing- by the allowed over-exposure and exploitation of the feminie form, once we put it out there it becomes public property, to be used as is seen fit. Some freedom we’ve got there!

  23. Muslims want civil rights in the west while they give none to westerners in their home countries. Islam should be wiped out in order to make the world a safer place.

  24. Ivan, do you think wiping out Islam would make radical Christians stop shooting people in abortion clinics? Without Islam, who will Israel use their mass weapons of destruction on? Wow, the world would be a better place for sure, right?

  25. I respect the author’s goal of unmasking racism in the West, and specifically the kind of racism that masquerades as women’s rights. There is no doubt that certain forms of liberal feminism have provided much needed legitimacy to the colonial and neo-colonial projects. In the Indian sub-continent, the British colonial rulers explicitly used the status of indigenous women to justify colonial rule. One does not have to look too deep in the colonial archives to find mention of so-called “traditional” practices like sati, child-marriage, and polygamy, which, for the British, reflected the barbarism of the Indians. For the British rulers, this meant that Indians would have to change how they treated their women in order to qualify for independence. It’s noteworthy that most of the practices that the British identified and attributed to Indian tradition were themselves the products of British colonial rule. There are striking parallels to this situation today; the condition of women in the Muslim world is frequently cited as a justification for invasion and continued occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, I’m not suggesting that feminism should be blamed for this, only that a certain type of liberal feminism lends itself to these imperialist projects because it focuses narrowly on the relationships of power between men and women (patriarchy) within a society without much regard for the relationships of power between various communities, cultures, nations in a global system. This of course is not at all where most sophisticated feminists stand today, a point the author should have made more explicitly.

  26. It must erase all other, inferior, aspirations, such as those of the Arab-Muslim woman to choose how she dresses, what she does or does not want to wear.

    Could it be that “the addled mind of the colonial feminist” does indeed respect the aspirations of a woman to choose how she dresses, and that this might go some way to explain its discomfort with the dress that is imposed on millions?

    1. Is Ken aware that ‘western’ dress has been imposed on millions in the Middle East? In Ataturk’s time in Turkey, the Shah’s time in Iran, in Syria in the early 80s, in Tunisia today, it has even been done at gunpoint.

      All the hijabed women I know well – wife, sisters, cousins, friends – chose to wear hijab IN OPPOSITION TO THE WISHES OF THEIR MENFOLK.

      Ken, your assumptions are all wrong. You are ignorant of the true situation. Your complacency in making sweeping statements is therefore very worrying indeed.

      Personally I do not think the hijab is Islamically necessary, and personally I really don’t like the niqab or burqa. I agree with Hassan about the bad influence of Wahhabism, and I agree with the person who wonders ‘where is men’s responsibility’. Debates about women’s dress and role in society are ongoing in the MUslim world. What we are discussing here, however, is a woman’s right to CHOOSE how she dresses (my preferences and interpretations are not very relevant here), and the ugly, arrogant habit of some western ‘liberals’ of trying to choose for Muslim women, and even of using their ignorance as an excuse for imperialist wars in Muslim countries.

  27. There was a detailed discussion of this issue on The South Asian Idea Weblog (Burqa: Principle, Prejudice, and Preference) with 140 comments. The conclusion was that an action ought to be proscribed if and only if:

    1. It causes anarchy (i.e., it harms others or society)
    2. It is not freely chosen
    3. It is not based on full information
    4. It violates a pre-existing law (which may be challenged through the legal process)

  28. Personally, I find all forms of organized religion to be dangerous to society. Not so much of the religion itself, but the subversion of the messages by flawed humans who want nothing but to satisfy their lust and insatiable desires.

    In Malaysia, the society is currently embroiled in an argument which should have NO place in the modern world today where Muslims claim sole right to use the word Allah and the Catholics and claiming the same.

    Both ironic and borderline hilarious should I be Satan himself as no one claims Satan’s name yet proceed to burn Churches and dump heads of pigs into Mosques in Malaysia in the name of God.

  29. Hi,
    I see your reasoning but it is absurd. I am sure that people *do* use feminism for evil ends, just as people use religion for evil ends (and the latter more often, with far more success).

    If there are women who chose to wear this attire then I agree that they should be free to do so, of course. But which feminists, ANYWHERE in the world, have the power to compel them otherwise?? Or are you arguing that western women should not have opinions?

    But should people chose to wear they bear some responsibility for legitimising and reinforcing the grip of those who compel other women and deny them choice.

    And of course, it is very hard to argue with reason with anyone who believes and invisible, timeless deity has willed women to hide themselves in this way.

    1. you don’t have to believe in the deity. you just have to understand that in Muslim society covering female hair is considered normal. In France women can go publicly topless on a hot day, but not so in Britain. Is this a huge problem or just acultural difference? Different cultures have different ideas about what should be covered. It may come down to the strength of the sun (most male Muslims cover their heads outside too).

      Those women who wear underwear to nightclubs must also ‘bear some responsibility for legitimising….’ etc.

      Of course western women can have opinions, but it seems rather arrogant, rather a waste of time, and based on a false assumption of understanding, to have opinions on what Muslim women should wear. Do you also have strong ideas about what Tibetan men should wear? Do you feel the need to crusade against braided hair in Africa, or toplessness in the cenrral African forest, or tribal scarification?

      I know Muslims, especially women, who are eager to liberate Western women by preaching to them how theuy are disrespecting themselves by revealing their bodies, to sell their sexuality or to advertise their worth. My answer to those Mulsims is the same a smy answer to you: GRow up. Let them do what they want. Stop assuming you know better than them, and stop assuming you understand their lives.

  30. The author doesn’t seem to know much about feminism – or he would have written otherwise. the liberty-question addresses norms, patriarchal norms – which the author totally ignores.

    When it is to wear the veil because of protecting oneself from intrusive glances of males – that we should talk about how MEN actually see women. It is embarassing also for men to be reduced on sexistic attitudes, as if he is not to be able to look at an unveiled women without having second thoughts.

    True and sadly enough, also women in Western societies are often sexualised and reduced to sexistic stereotypes, no matter what they wear.

    let’s just, for one moment, seriously focus on this side of the equation: men and their interests (some are very eager to keep women under their control, with or without veil, n’est-ce pas?). If women are free to learn, free to have all the education they want, apply for the jobs they dream of, if they can discuss and decide on politial and societal questions and shape society as do their male counterparts – then the question of what they wear really becomes secondary…

  31. When people keep referring to feminism, or calling themselves a feminist I think it would be good if they differentiated between the first, second and third wave, so that we might get a clearer picture of their predominant perspective. From my very limited understanding, each movement seems somewhat different in various respects.

  32. I don’t think the various ‘burqa bans’ are entirely or even primarily about women’s liberation. It seems like the purpose is to send a message to immigrants: ‘you owe us assimilating into our culture, we don’t owe you accommodation. You came here, into our land, and you must not forget that we’re top dogs.’

    I think, to be completely honest, that that’s an acceptable message to send. Immigrants ought to assimilate, and the majority population wanting them to do so is perfectly legitimate.

    1. Or to put it another way freedom is relative to the wishes of the majority. If the majority of the citizens of the Confederate States of America wanted to keep African’s as slaves, then that was perfectly legitimate. After, if demand for assimilation is legitimate, then by the same token so is the rejection of integration.

  33. When someone migrates to another country, what makes the new country any less “theirs” than people who happened to be born there? What is so threatening about diversity that makes people advocate assimilation? It seems pretty silly to assume that the populace is all one monolithic, homogenous entity to begin with.

  34. “When it is to wear the veil because of protecting oneself from intrusive glances of males – that we should talk about how MEN actually see women.”

    Whether a woman chooses to wear the veil because of religious observance, spiritual or cultural identification or as a rejection of being sexualised or for any other reason which is self determined and not imposed, I would think it’s ultimately an empowering act. I’m not really understanding the argument of how women are contributing to the oppression of other women by making choices which are right for them. Perhaps, someone might elaborate? :)

  35. As a man, I would not presume to tell women what they should wear or not wear (not that they would listen anyway)…however, what I can say with certainty is that the mixture of religion and politics is a deadly mixture. The wearing of the Hijab in Western societies has become a political statement, not only a religious one. To deny this is very naive. You can try to parse it any way that that you want, but at the end of the day, you have chosen to come here, and live here…and if you would like our respect, you must also respect us. Part of that respect involves not trying to change our society into something it is not. We appreciate the fact that we can argue with each other without either killing each other or otherwise trying to shut each other up. It is impossible not to see that in many Muslim countries it is not that way at all. At other times in history Islam was far more liberal than it is today, and did not look upon questioning as threatening, and women dressed far more freely. Today it’s different. Will (or can) Islam evolve? Everything now suggests not…that it will likely become more repressive as more and more hate speech about the West is encouraged. Where does that leave US? Feeling as if we are under attack by people who want to drag us back to the 12th century. So as you argue about your “right” to dress as you want, and your other rights…remember that they were secured by means of years of struggle to separate religion from the political arena (Turkey too, by the way, and Morocco…and other Islamic countries who have chosen this way to go) and to establish societies where women can actually make choices. But smarter women will always make smarter choices. You can say this is a very arrogant comment, but that’s just how I see it from the outside…

  36. … as for me.I choose to have the sun on my head and arms and legs. There is nothing more delicious after a cold winter then feeling the warmth of the sun on my limbs, and the wind in my hair, It`s one of life`s greatest pleasures.(I can do that and still remain modest.)
    If there are women who choose not to do as I do, then that is their choice.

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