Are you a Muslim woman living in the US/Europe? Is there too much attention on your veil? Do you hate being defined by your veil? Then you might agree with Faisal al-Yafai’s article in the Guardian’s Comment is free today. The veil, he argues, is a prominent focus on the mainstream feminist agenda. Too much focus he reckons. One possible reason why obstacles Muslim women face in obtaining education and work take the backseat to a piece of head cover is because western feminism hasn’t won its own war yet. He writes:
One of the dilemmas feminists in the west face is the lack of an overarching narrative. With initial struggles for voting, education, equal pay and abortion rights largely won, feminists have grappled with less tangible issues such as family-friendly working hours, glass ceilings and societal expectations. Unable to agree on big themes, feminists have grasped at small issues. That would explain why nothing – absolutely nothing, not forced marriage, not losing their sons and daughters to bombs from the air, not being denied an education – nothing seems as important as the veil.
It is why feminists have struggled to work out a coherent response to coercion. The Taliban forcing Afghan women to hide under burqas is condemned; the Tunisians, Moroccans and Turks forcing them to uncover is not. But coercion is coercion.
The veil should not be a big deal at all. There are more pressing issues that need to be addressed and acted on. However it must be said that the veil is far from just being a symbol of subjugation (because western women cannot bear the idea of their sexuality being hidden from view), the veil is a marker of how complex Islam today is. And like al-Yafai says, they can be tools for men to control women and for women, empowered by choice, to be free from conventional concepts of liberal dress. If some feel comfortable, even safe, from wearing more cloth than the average woman, then more power to them.
I’d like to add further: sexuality is a vital ingredient in making the western female identity. What constitutes a complete woman, if defined by the liberated, educated, and privileged, is a lot about how she looks and who she sleeps with. That is why arranged marriages are so shocking – the idea of marrying someone who you haven’t had sex with and not lived with for at least two years is unacceptable for so many. The veil stands in the way of what feminism had fought so long for. It sits with other sexually ‘backward’ stereotypes of the docile Hindu woman, the red-hot Latina, and the shy East-Asian girl/woman.
Re-prioritisation can emerge once feminists (of the Muslim and secular persuasion) and non-feminists alike understand that for some Muslim women, the veil is a personal choice. And by pushing for greater access to education, job opportunities and being a fully-functioning member of society, Muslim women will reward themselves the freedom of re-evaluating their choices whenever they see fit.
Update: I wanted to include on a separate post about a two new books out there on Muslim youth culture featured on Salon.com’s book review page, but I’m too tired from the interview (it went really well, by the way) and I just don’t think they’re worth my effort.