“Veil in the Time of War” or “Veilin’ the Time of War”

In the context of the current multiple arenas of war and occupation in Muslim-majority regions, the issues of gender and sexuality are vitally linked to the casus belli, both within and without academia. Such linkages, with a long and complicated genealogy thoroughly imbricated in the politics of colonization, decolonization, and neo-colonization, also indicate an obsessive desire to re-enact the “discovery narrative” or the “rescue narrative.” Examining current contestations in popular media – including recent articles written by Maureen Dowd, Naomi Wolf and Phyllis Chesler et al and the poster designed by Alexander Segert, which was integral to the success of the anti-minaret Swiss referendum – this essay investigates whether, how, and where the neoconservative, neoliberal, and the mainstream feminist discourses converge, diverge, and intersect.

Segert's Anti-Minaret Poster

by Huma Dar

In the context of the current multiple arenas of war and occupation in Muslim-majority regions, the issues of gender and sexuality are vitally linked to the casus belli, both within and without academia.  Such linkages, with a long and complicated genealogy thoroughly imbricated in the politics of colonization, decolonization, and neo-colonization, theorized by Inderpal Grewal, Gayatri Spivak, Lata Mani, Leila Ahmed, Sherene Razack, Saba Mahmood, Sunera Thobani amongst others, also indicate an obsessive desire to re-enact the “discovery narrative” or the “rescue narrative.”  Examining current contestations in popular media – including recent articles written by Maureen Dowd, Naomi Wolf and Phyllis Chesler et al and the poster designed by Alexander Segert, which was integral to the success of the anti-minaret Swiss referendum – I investigate whether, how, and where the neoconservative, neoliberal, and the mainstream feminist discourses converge, diverge, and intersect.  I undertake to deconstruct the ongoing debates that obsessively revolve around the veil or the sexuality that is variously professed to be suppressed, annihilated, or even “discovered” beneath the veil by some liberal explorers.

The “Discovery Narrative” and its Discontents

In August 2008, Naomi Wolf writes about “Veiled Sexuality” in an article that Sydney Morning Herald headlined “Behind the veil lives a thriving Muslim sexuality.” Wolf describes her visits to Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt, where in the public sphere “all was demureness and propriety” but in the private sphere were women “as interested in allure, seduction, and pleasure as women anywhere in the world.”  It is as if the hypersexuality ascribed to the harem in the Orientalist fantasy is being reassuringly re-inscribed by Wolf only after the right to sexuality and its various competing discourses were first imagined to exist only in the supposedly emancipated West of the twentieth century.  Wolf exclaims with surprise over the “Victoria’s Secret, elegant fashion, and skin care lotions” that “abounded” in the homes she visits.  She writes about the bridal videos she is shown that suggest to her that “sensuality was not alien to Muslim women” (my emphasis) – her evidence is the “sensuous dancing that the bride learns as part of what makes her a wonderful wife, and which she proudly displays for her bridegroom.”

Wolf imputes a “recognizably Western feminist set of feelings” to women who declare themselves as free from the male gaze through the hijab.  The extent of Wolf’s adventure in “going native” is when she is in Morocco and dons the shalwaar-qameez: an ensemble traditionally worn in some parts of South and Central Asia.  Geography and the tiny details of particularity be damned where superpowers and its citizens are concerned!

In another article titled, “What Do Muslim Women Want?” (October 2009) Wolf defends her earlier stance on Muslim women’s sexuality by insisting that “women activists in Muslim countries tend to emphasize issues such as honor killings, legal inequality, and lack of access to education,” contrary to the Western fixation on the veil.  As much as I agree with the latter lacuna, Wolf’s woeful omission of wars, occupations, invasions and their devastating consequences, especially those unleashed by the US and its allies on some Muslim-majority countries in the list of major concerns of Muslim women, I argue, is anything but a benign oversight.

Wolf valorizes Jordan as “a country fascinatingly poised between tradition and innovation,” emerging as a “forward-looking monarchy that is seeking to modernize and, to an extent, democratize.”  Unfortunately she forgets to mention that Jordan acted as a “black site,” a “hub for US renditions” and is notorious for the “enhanced interrogation” of “ghost detainees.”  In fact most of Wolf’s itinerary on “Discover the Muslim world” tour seems like an overwhelming subset of such “black sites” studded with interviews or meetings with the élite.

Wolf emphasizes the Chanel clothing of princess Rym Ali whom she interviews.  Wolf also delights at the appearance of Mary Nazzal whom she describes as seeming as if Nazzal had just “stepped out of a fashion shoot for Marie Claire.”  Mary Nazzal is a Barrister-at-law trained in England and chairs the board of the Human Rights Legal Aid Fund.  Wolf calls Nazzal “Marta Stewart meets Che Guevara,” because, when not refurbishing her stylish hotel, “she is suing Israeli generals for war crimes that she claims were committed against civilians in Gaza.”  Perhaps someone should remind Wolf that running her own hotel while fighting the regional, nuclear-armed Goliath is not exactly the reason for Martha Stewart’s notoriety.

I base my critique of Wolf not just on her Euro-American-centered and Neo-Orientalist vision, but also on her erasure of race and class, history and geopolitics — the latter is crucially constitutive of the former problem.  The New York Times reports that up to thirty percent of women [in the US] are estimated to suffer from supposedly “deficient desire” – a figure very possibly exaggerated by the multinational pharmaceutical corporations as they experiment with female aphrodisiacs and search for the ultimate “Pink Viagra” to “treat” a demand they themselves are creating.  Given this context, Wolf’s “discovery” of “thriving Muslim sexuality” behind the veil is not only patronizing, but is more revealing of the contemporary circuits of neo-colonial desire and fantasy, excess and lack, than being a serious preliminary study of Muslim sexualities.[1]  The obsession, in fact, gives a glimpse of the psyche and politics of neo-imperialism and its imbrications within the system of global capital, consumerism, and the beauty industry that Wolf had earlier denounced in her book The Beauty Myth (1991) — though even there an analysis of race and class was painfully missing.

The “Rescue Narrative” and its Punitive Intent

Phyllis Chesler, Jamie Glazov and David Horowitz – the self-declared “champions” of the “oppressed” Muslim women noticed Wolf’s article next year in August 2009 and there occurred a little battle on the blogosphere regarding Muslim women, their veil, sexuality or lack thereof.  Chesler writes an article titled, “Burqa: the ultimate feminist choice?  Naomi Wolf discovers that shrouds are sexy,” in August 2009.  Of course, nowhere does Chesler mention that the multiple wars on/of terror in the Muslim world do indeed entail shrouds for hundreds of thousands of Muslim women, children, men, and those of the third gender.  Whether it might be more prudent living with a burqa versus dying in a war and getting buried in a shroud is not a question that Chesler examines though.  In fact, Chesler is very much a supporter of the war on/of terror.  (See Sunera Thobani’s excellent article “White Wars: Western Feminisms and the ‘War on Terror'” in Feminist Theory for more.)  Nonetheless even the neoconservative Chesler points out that Wolf’s condescending portrait of Muslim women is that of “well kept courtesan-wives.”

The purported sympathy of Chesler, Glazov, and Horowitz however slips off more often than not, to unveil an Islamophobia based not on “saving” the Muslim woman but on fearing and marginalizing the Muslim communities at large, including the Muslim women, especially if they refuse to assimilate to the Euro-American norm, protest the multiple wars, or choose to veil – such a “choice” is invariably considered an oxymoron.  Regarding the recent death of a woman whose burqa “got snagged under a go-kart” in a recreational park in Australia, Chesler writes that “all those who taught, forced, encouraged, the woman in New South Wales to wear the burqa should be tried as accomplices in her death.” The interest is clearly punitive rather than redemptive.

The Visuality of the Veil and the Surveillance Society

The purported “victim” of the veil increasingly becomes the explicit object of fear and paranoia as also shown in the Swiss referendum and the posters of menacing black minarets and black burqa-clad woman (see above).  Alexander Segert, the designer of the Islamophobic poster – called a “political Molotov cocktail” by Michael Kimmelman – recounts the design process.  Segert rejected some initial “all-text trials” for being “too wordy.”  A rendering with “missiles without the woman,” and another with a burqa-clad woman “without eyes” were both thrown out for being “too impersonal.”  Segert and his colleagues at length inserted eyes, and then deliberated whether they should look “sexy, not sexy?”  Finally the “look” they settled on was “less aggressive than helpless.”

I argue here that despite the “less aggressive” epithet from the designer, the presence of the black burqa-clad woman with the niqab on her face in the foreground is meant precisely to strike fear in the heart of the White, Christian, purportedly secular spectator and voter.  In the background are eight menacing, black minarets, stuck like darts into the ground of the red and white Swiss flag — exactly twice the number of the actual minarets in all of Switzerland.  If the minarets figure as the prolific phallic threats posed by the racialized Muslim immigrants, the veiled woman posits the problem of impenetrability of the Muslim woman.  The burqa phobia is shot through with shades of queerphobia and the related anxiety of a perceived inability to properly implement a “surveillance society”: could the burqa be hiding a Muslim man or woman, a pregnant woman hiding the “demographic time bomb,” or someone hiding a bomb?

Constituting the Self: Refracting through “Muslim Women”

As Ahmed, Razack, and Thobani amongst others have argued, the constructs of Muslim women analyzed above are crucially constitutive of the subjectivity of the superior “Western,” non-Muslim ones.  A recent example is Maureen Dowd’s “Worlds Without Women” in the New York Times (April 10, 2010), where she lambasts the Catholic Church for what she calls its “emotional schism”: Pope Benedict XVI’s delayed and deficient responses to the molestation incidence in the Oakland diocese of California in the 1980s.  Curiously though, Dowd frames this issue with a refraction through the “women’s problem” in Saudia Arabia.

“When I was in Saudi Arabia, I had tea and sweets with a group of educated and sophisticated young professional women,” Dowd begins her piece.  She asks them “why they were not more upset about living in a country where women’s rights were strangled, an inbred and autocratic state more like an archaic men’s club than a modern nation.”  At their “defensiveness” she ponders, “How could such spirited women, smart and successful on every other level, acquiesce in their own subordination?”  One wonders how Dowd would feel if one asks her why she was “not more upset about living in a country” that had let loose unjust and unjustifiable wars on innocent women, children, and men?  Or that her country supported those very dictatorial monarchies whose misogyny she is probing?  Isn’t Dowd’s reprehensibility, although indirect, and unwitting or otherwise, a bit more deserving of getting “upset” about?

Her segue into the ills of the Catholic Church is deceptively smooth when she confesses that she “too, remained part of an autocratic society that repressed women and ignored their progress in the secular world…  Negating women is at the heart of the church’s hideous — and criminal — indifference to the welfare of boys and girls in its priests’ care.”  Beyond the obvious difficulties of suggesting an analogy between a centralized transnational religious institution, the Papacy, and one without such singular authority, and leave alone that she is comparing the Papacy to a particular country – after all the Pope does not derive his power from the Vatican City, but vice versa – Dowd’s argument deserves some scrutiny.  Dowd never explains this last leap further nor does she explain how the suppression of women’s rights in the “country” called Saudi Arabia is equivalent to or at the heart of children’s issues there?  What indeed are the children’s issues in Saudi Arabia?  Are molestations and abuse of children by Imams and the silencing of such inhumanities [by whom? the Shah?] also rife in Saudi Arabia?  Unfortunately such careless thinking has become naturalized in much of the global media as the contemporary moment frames “women’s problems” or those of molested children only or especially through Islam and the use of facile terms as “Talibanization.”

As the examples above show, explicit and implicit Islamophobia is crucially intertwined with questions of gender and sexuality.  How might we then decolonize the academy and popular media by insisting on crucial critical thinking skills and cultivating sensitivity to historical and political contexts?  How and when are Muslims invisibilized and in what particulars contexts?  How is the trope of the “Muslim women” deployed or hidden especially vis-à-vis the so-called war on terror?  How are issues of race, class and geography silenced in the creation of the monolith: the Muslim woman?  What might such silencing accomplish?

What Muslim Women Don’t Want and the Incomplete Questionnaire

Sigmund Freud once said, “What do women want?” The only thing I have learned in fifty-two years is that women want men to stop asking dumb questions like that.

This is the very first time I find myself citing Bill Cosby, nonetheless he does hit the nail on its head regarding the dumbness of the question.  Freud infamously compared female sexuality to the “dark continent,” a 19th century term used for Africa at the apex of colonial fantasy – a prime “Freudian slip” that unwittingly reveals the intertwinement of the colonial with the sexual and the racial in the western imaginary.  Even those who do not proclaim feminist credentials correctly identify Freud’s original question cited by Cosby as inadequate or “dumb” and as saying more about the questioner’s own ambivalence towards women and their sexuality.  Implicit in the question is a complaint about the perceived intractability and illegibility of women and their desires.  Many women find this complaint exasperating precisely because the often male questioner, in spite of the posture of innocent curiosity, is very often implicated in the patriarchal oppression of women at worst, or in making the articulation of these same desires or needs difficult or impossible at best.  In other words, the entire context of the questioner and the questioned and where the balance of power lies between the two is entirely elided.  Who are the questioner and the questioned, and where are they located – temporally, geographically, and regionally?  How are they related across the powerful matrix of nation, class, race, gender, sexuality, and yes, religion and foreign policy?

“What do Muslim women want?”  is just the fin-de-siècle version of that question.  I usually refuse to succumb to the question, “So how does it feel to be a Muslim woman?” – another version of the “What Do the Muslim Women Want?” – firstly, on the ground of its severely deficient framing, a framing that flattens all Muslim women into one monolith regardless of geography or class.  “So how does one feel as a Christian/Jewish woman?” one might ask in return.  Is it not important to locate the coördinates of class, nation, region, race, sexuality, and marital status amongst other factors before one can even begin to attempt this question?  Wouldn’t an upper class Christian woman, a single mother in Nairobi, face a different set of issues from a working-class Latina Christian woman, married and living in the Dallas, from those faced by the single Palestinian Christian woman who teaches and lives in Gaza, from the queer Christian Tibetan woman studying in Beijing, from the widowed Somali Christian woman who is a refugee in Denmark, from the Christian woman from Nagaland fighting for independence from India, from Sarah Palin?  Why is a similar complexity not acknowledged for the category “Muslim women” even when such simplification is rightly laughed-off for “Christian women”?

What is the calculus of grief that makes some lives more valuable and grievable and others just “collateral damage” and not even worthy of counting?  Why are some issues of sartorial choice or even the lack thereof more worthy of spilling tears, ink, or blood than issues of life, justice, and the crucial freedom from wars, occupation, and torture?  Why is it so easily, so liberally assumed that struggles of gender and sexual justice are completely distinct and separable from struggles against racism, Islamophobia, class exploitation, and imminent or current wars?  The insistence on the separation of these entwined and intersecting struggles is not innocent but entirely complicit in manipulating the former struggles against the equally vital latter ones.  Don’t we all remember the proliferation of Afghani burqas on the hallowed pages of the New York Times in the days leading up to the war to “rescue” the Muslim women?  What about the abominable flogging video purportedly from Swat that went viral in the days leading up to the US-directed Pakistani military action there, and which was later exposed to be a fake?

In a war justified at least partly to “liberate” Muslim women, the fact that rapes and murders of women in Afghanistan have increased exponentially since the US occupation goes mostly unreported and thus veiled in the mainstream global media.   This disastrous back-story is always missing, always veiled in a setting that facilitates insistent and cultivated amnesia.  I hope it is now clear why the prima facie innocent “What do Muslim women want?” is as or more irksome than “What do women want?” especially when the debate obsessively and facetiously revolves around the veil or the sexuality “obscured” or “revealed” beneath the veil.  The question betrays a lack of bona fide intentions at its very core.  In the set of multiple choice responses “generously” and “liberally” made available to us, one choice is conspicuous in its absence:

  • End all wars and occupations right now, and offer reparations and justice to the ones whose countries have been destroyed, who have been wronged and have survived genocidal wars.

[1] Check an online bibliography and the books below for a peek at this vigorous field of study:

Ali, Kecia.  Sexual Ethics & Islam: Feminist Reflections on Qur’an, Hadith, and Jurisprudence. Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications, 2006.

Babayan, Kathryn and Afsaneh Najmabadi (eds).  Islamicate Sexualities: Translations across Temporal Geographies of Desire. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2008.

Husain, Sarah.  Voices of Resistance: Muslim Women on War, Faith and Sexuality. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2006.

Joseph, Suad.  Encyclopedia of Women & Islamic Cultures: Family, Body, Sexuality and Health , Volume 3 (Encyclopaedia of Women and Islamic Cultures). Leiden: Netherlands: Brill Academic Publishers, 2005.

Kugle, Scott.  Homosexuality in Islam: Islamic Reflection on Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims. Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications, 2010.

Massad, Joseph A. Desiring Arabs. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Ze’evi, Dror.  Producing Desire: Changing Sexual Discourse in the Ottoman Middle East, 1500-1900. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006.

4 thoughts on ““Veil in the Time of War” or “Veilin’ the Time of War””

  1. Huma, you have summed it up pretty well. There is a lapse in the secularist scholarship on the issue of veil, it almost like an obsession with categorizing the entire world in neat meta-narratives. It somewhere rests on the assertion of the secular moral high ground and it stinks (to stay the least).

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