Terra Incognita: Veiled nonsense

Why are some feminists labeling oppression as liberation?

August 25, 2010 03:58
4 minute read.
A 31-year-old French veiled woman.

muslim woman burka 311 AP. (photo credit: Associated Press)


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Anat Berko, a research fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counterterrorism and former IDF colonel, wrote a book about female Palestinian suicide bombers. She hasn’t been met with wrath from the Right for sitting for hours with would-be murderers, but she has received vitriol from the feminist Left. Why, pray tell?

In a review of the book, Dr. Sarah Ozacky-Lazar, a research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, wrote that “a problem is that Berko appears to be chained to the theory that all Arab women are oppressed, restricted and under the absolute control of their male relatives, to the point where ‘they experience more freedom in prison than at home.’ That is an Orientalist, condescending and clearly unscientific viewpoint. Since this idea seems to be one of the author’s basic premises, it also dictates her conclusions. She makes no attempt to use critical or feminist theories to understand the complexity of the situation in which these women live.”

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Leaving aside the petty academic insult of calling Berko’s work “unscientific,” it is worth trying to understand how the Islamic woman has been turned into a liberated figure by some feminists. Katherine Bullock’s 2002 Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil is a good primer. Bullock was a conscientious convert to Islam – something she did while completing her doctorate. A self-described “strong and committed feminist,” for her the veil “can be experienced as liberation from the tyranny of the beauty myth. The popular Western notion that the veil is a symbol of Muslim women’s oppression is a constructed image [which] served Western political ends, and it continued to do so even in the late 20th century.”

In fact our notion that the veil is oppressive is based on our own “liberal understandings of ‘equality’ and ‘liberty’ that preclude other ways of thinking about ‘equality’ and ‘liberty.’” Thus basing one’s notion of equality on things being equal leads one to label Muslim women as oppressed. Thinking outside the box, i.e equal meaning unequal or “differing equalities,” the Muslim women is more liberated than the Western one.

The redefinition of Islamic women as empowered, radical, bra-burning (well not bra-burning probably) feminists all hinges on the notion that since the West viewed Islamic women one way and since the West is always wrong (i.e. it’s racist and colonialist), then the opposite must be true. If the West had come to the Islamic East and ordered the women into burkas, or just clothed them like Catholic nuns, and stoned them for adultery and closeted them in harems or sold them into sex slavery, one can imagine that today we would hear the opposite: Islamic women must be freed from the West’s oppressive embrace.

PART OF the reason that veiling women has become a cause in the Muslim world is because it is perceived as something the “enemy” is against. Thus in India the opposition to the use of Shari’a law in family courts, culminating in the infamous Shah Bano case of 1978, has come from those perceived to be right-wing Hindus.

In the Shah Bano case, a Muslim man divorced his 62-year-old wife, with whom he had five children, under Islamic law. She received no alimony – a discrimination, since all non-Muslim women in India were entitled to alimony.

When the Hindu nationalists supported her claims to equal treatment, the Left automatically supported the Muslims’ right to “different equalities” and Muslim women were encouraged to protest to protect their “family law” which granted them less rights than all the other women in India.

So those opposing the “right wing” must inevitably support Islamic family law as part of India’s “diverse fabric.” The same story played out in North Africa.

Franz Fanon, the anticolonialist, claimed the French believed “we must first of all conquer the women, we must go and find them behind the veil where they hide themselves, and in the houses where the men keep them out of sight.”

So, as with the Palestinians, to be patriotic came to also mean putting aside women’s liberation for colonial liberation, and honoring traditions to fight French secularism.

THE CONTRADICTION plays itself out today in the Sheikh Jarrah protests, where the organization Ta’ayush admonishes women who come to support the Arab cause: “Don’t forget to dress modestly” so as not to offend the locals. The same Jewish and Arab women who march in the gay pride parade thus don the head scarf out of a warped idea of “liberation.”

We see the trend all over the world. In Turkey the veil is seen as a “rebellion” against the state and its hated secular institutions.

Oddly this generally doesn’t happen among other groups. Extreme leftist Jewish women who oppose the state and its secular Zionism don’t become head-covering Orthodox Jews, they just become more secular “humanists.” Chinese women who hate the Communist Party don’t respond by binding their feet.

Returning to Berko’s work on suicide bombers, Ozacky-Lazar was partly right in her critique. The Muslim woman, whatever degree of oppression she suffers, is generally at the forefront of nationalism and Islamism. She is the activist in Kashmir and the suicide bomber in Chechnya. However, confusing the fact that Muslim women man the barricades wearing full nikab with the notion that their society has a “different equality” which is highly liberating is one of the great scams of modern times. “Different equality” in others places has been called “separate development” or “separate but equal”; the fact that some feminists, and their Muslim sisters, have been deceived by such slogans is a modern tragedy.

The writer is a PhD researcher at Hebrew University and a fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies.

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