Friday, October 27, 2006

Islamic feminism has many faces

My opinion piece in Today, dated October 27, 2006:

Strapline: In a multicultural world, it's time to think beyond the veil

RECENTLY, British MP Jack Straw urged Muslim women to discard their veils. He argued that wearing the niqab — the piece of cloth that some Muslim women wear to cover the face, hiding everything below the eyes — is a "visible statement of separation and difference", and that wearing the veil could harm community relations.

The argument is specious, as demonstrated by Mr Ziauddin Sardar, a columnist for the New Statesman. On Oct 16, he wrote: "How separate and different are women coming to consult their MP — presumably to secure or defend their civic rights as British citizens — seeking to be?"

Still, Mr Straw had his supporters. Veils "suck", said novelist Salman Rushdie. Even Prime Minister Tony Blair joined the chorus, calling the veil a "mark of separation".

This controversy is not new. There have been public disputes in France, Turkey and elsewhere about Muslim headscarves. I don't think the veil issue in Britain will evoke the same passions — among some mullahs and their followers — as the Danish cartoons and the recent, anti-Islamic remarks quoted by the Pope.

Most commentators agree that Islam does not have a monopoly on the veil (it pre-dates Islam by centuries). The Quran asks for modest attire only, and does not order women to cover their faces or their bodies from head to toe.

Because some ambiguity surrounds the question of the veil in Islam, it can stand for various things. For some, it is a sign of oppression and male dominance; for others, it is a sign of religious piety.

For some, the veil even stands for Islamic feminism. "The veil is freedom. The veil is liberation. The veil is choice," chanted British protesters on Oct 14 in Blackburn, greeting Mr Straw in his constituency.

In a post-911 world of increasing discrimination, a number of Muslim women stopped wearing their headscarves in public. Paradoxically, a backlash was triggered among younger women, who began to assert their Muslim identity by wearing headscarves and veils. It is a mark of separation that they chose for themselves.

British women who wear the niqab, Mr Sardar noted, felt they could fully participate "in society without being demeaned, reduced and pigeonholed by the conventions of a commoditised consumer culture and its insistent sexualisation of women".

For now, the debate on the veil in Britain has crystallised around Ms Aishah Azmi, a teaching assistant who was suspended for refusing to remove her full-face veil during class, in the presence of male teachers. Last week, an employment tribunal dismissed her claim of discrimination.

Another, quite different, incident comes to mind. Not long ago, Indian tennis pro Sania Mirza, a teen Muslim icon, was chastised by hardcore Muslims in India for her short skirts and modern dresses. She valiantly stuck to her sartorial style.

Elsewhere, especially in the United States, feminists like Irshad Manji, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Asra Nomani are challenging male hegemony in Muslim communities.

While Ms Manji, the author of The Trouble with Islam Today, strives for equal treatment of women in Islam, Ms Ali champions an overhaul of Quranic teachings to bring them more in tune to the present realities.

In her autobiography, My Life, My Freedom, Ms Ali, a former Dutch MP who now lives in the US, even suggests changing the doctrine of "virginity before marriage" in Islam. "If we manage to change that, women will be free," she once said in an interview.

Ms Nomani is another champion of her gender. In November 2003, she became the first woman in her mosque in West Virginia to fight for her right to pray in the male-only main hall, defying centuries-old gender barriers in Islamic tradition. In March last year, she organised the first modern, public woman-led prayer of a mixed-gender congregation.

Despite widespread, adverse Muslim reaction, it is women like Ms Manji and Ms Nomani who are redefining Islam in multicultural societies, and pressing ahead with their own fights.

Thankfully, for every Aishah Azmi, there is a Sania Mirza in the Muslim community. Someone once said that every intelligent person invents his own religion. This applies to both the Azmis and the Mirzas of the world. A truly multicultural and free society should allow them to follow their choice of religion and tradition — of course, within the boundaries of accepted social behaviour.

In the British context, going beyond the veil is the real challenge for politicians like Messrs Straw and Blair, who are struggling to cope with the radicalisation of a segment of Muslim youth angered at the deployment of British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Full text also available here.


Sharanya Manivannan said...

You might find Karen Armstrong's recent article in The Guardian an interesting and related read, as I did.

Sharique said...

Well first things you believe that women like Ms Nomani, Ms Ali and Ms Manji are conforming to the teachings of Islam. It is very easy to criticize a religion but have they ever tried to follow it in its true spirit...they blabber because of impiety. Why don't they leave Islam? Who is forbidding them? There are many ardent followers of Islam who don't need demented reformers like them who try to insinuate their vicious ideas like mixed gathering prayers and women leading prayers.

I have just one suggestion for them...if you cannot follow Islam correctly then just leave it...muslims are alone to blame for the chaos you see and NOT ISLAM

Zafar Anjum said...

Thanks for your comments Sharanya. I think Karen's article gives a good historical background to the modern debate on the veil, but the larger point she makes is not something that is alien to my piece:

"Today in the US, more and more Muslim women are wearing the hijab to distance themselves from the foreign policy of the Bush administration; something similar may well be happening in Britain.",,1931671,00.html

In another piece, Sadia Dehlavi of India makes makes a similar (to what I have argued) point:

"A woman must have the right to choose her dress code. The banning of headscarves for students in France is as oppressive as the Taliban forcing women into purdah. Last year, seven states in Germany banned the hijab for teachers. In an attempt to be part of the European Union, Turkey has banned hijab for women in public institutions who are on the government payroll. In each case, it is the woman who is being used and has become the symbol of those who want to purify Islam or demonise it."

And this point is definitely very relevant to the discussion here:

"In Muslim societies — from Egypt to Iran to Indonesia — many skilled professional women wear the hijab as a matter of choice and should not be necessarily viewed as being repressive. The hijab is often a matter of culture and tradition. In rural and traditional India, women, irrespective of their religions, cover their heads. In the Muslim ghettos of India, they have little or no access to education or jobs, their faith is all they have and they cling to its symbols.",00300006.htm

Zafar Anjum said...

Thanks Sharique for sharing your thoughts here.

You have made a remarkable point towards the end of your message: "muslims are alone to blame for the chaos you see and NOT ISLAM."

The question to ask is: why has it happened and what can be done to correct the situation? Some are already trying to do that--they might get it all wrong, or might push it to the other extreme but some have initiated their efforts. And that is the point.

Manzoor Khan said...

Hijaab should ideally be an attitude. But more often it becomes a custom, a tradition, and a ritual.

Go to any public-park in Hyderabad, and you will see loads of ladies in veil openly flirting with who-so-ever. A few put on the veil to conceal their identity, but many are actually from the veil-wearing background. So...

The Quran is clear on this part, when it says: "Tell to the believing women to lower her gaze and guard her modesty". The idea of wearing turtle-ninja type veil covering one's face is not recommended by the Quran (however, there is no prohibition, either). A non-hijaab wearing girl can any day be more chaste and modest, provided she has the correct attitude.

My observation is that wearing hijaab is more of an environment thing. In Chhattisgarh, you would rarely find any Muslim lady wearing a hijaab, although they are dressed in the modest attire. That's not because they are all immoral, but because the place doesn't have any veil culture. And you will find several places like this all across India.

But apart of all this, I completely agree with the writers above that wearing or not wearing a veil is a very personal choice, and no one can impose a ban or discourage someone from wearing it.

Most often, the idea of stopping someone from wearing a veil or a turban is simply a racist assault from the very civilized and culture West.

Zafar Anjum said...

Agree with you Manzoor. That has been the point of my piece too. Hijab or veil is more cultural than anything else.

bibliobibuli said...

i think the issue is getting confused here. the hijab amiong british moslems is a fairly recent phonomena - let's not forget that

i lived and worked in largely immigrant areas in inner city birmingham in the 70's and early '80's and it wasn't something that you saw at all. hijab began to appear among british muslims after the iranian revolution, as it did in it is an import and it is political ...

up to that time muslim women might loosely drape a dupatta or a selandang (or in africa, where i also lived, a sarong length) for modesty. (my pakistani students wore no hair covering even outside school, but always covered theie legs). were these women any more sinful or less observant of god for not being covered? of course not.

i don't think jack straw and others have difficulty with the hijab per se (unlike the french) and i think britain has largely been very accomodating of people of other beliefs. (i saw this as a teacher e.g christian references got dropped from the school assembly for eg. so as not to offend the children of other religions).

jack straw was not referring to the covering of the hair but by the covering of the face! and it is alienating!

i was so shocked to see BBC footage of muslim women in britain covered head to toe in black with faces veiled. i just wonder how things have gone so badly wrong.

sorry for the little rant here, zafar

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I've observed even here youngsters taking to traditional practices like wearing headscarves and prayer caps to college. Even seen some college girls wearing tight jeans and short tops, but with their heads and faces covered. Another aspect of dynamism maybe?