Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The veiled on the veil

Well, it's been a while, and I've been meaning to put together some more coherent thoughts about it. But Quebec's Bill 94 continues to make me kind of fucking furious whenever I think about it.

Well, anyway. It is a curious fact—I just can't get over it—that those who attack the veil do so on the pretense that they are concerned about the autonomy of the woman who wears it... and yet in almost every case they are pretty much entirely disinterested in actually finding out about these women's lives. So: what about the women in question?

A friend of a friend speaks up about why she recently started to wear the veil, and what that has been like for her. (She does so in response to a truly grotesque attack on the burqa by a group of atheists. The video footage of it almost makes her cry—no doubt part of some clever strategy to empower her to throw off the Islamic patriarchy. I say about all I want to say about this in the comments thread.)

My name is Sayira – I am 21 years old and I recently started wearing the headscarf. I tried to wear it once before when I was a junior in high school. That did not work well for me; part of the reason was because I was treated horribly because of it. Some of my classmates asked if I had gotten married, if I was being forced to wear it, if my father beat me, if I was allowed to do anything on my own, if I had to marry a cousin – the foolish list goes on and on.


At this point [returning to the hijab as an adult], I had decided that I wanted to be grow more in my identity. No one forced me: not my siblings, not my parents, not my friends, not anyone in my religion – it was all my choice and mine alone to deepen my relationship with my tradition.


To say that all women who wear the headscarf or burka are oppressed is fallacious beyond belief. To say that showing skin is the only way of being free is taking away from the freedom of having the choice to be who you want to be. I can wear the hijib and cover from neck to toe yet still be free. Who is anyone to judge me? If you do not know me and the circumstance of why I cover my hair, how can you say that I am oppressed? Do you imagine that I am some timid woman dominated by male influence? What if I told you that I will be testing for my black belt in Karate within the year; would that change your mind? What if I told you that I will be graduating with a Hospitality Management degree this year, a major I chose all on my own and not something my parents decided for me – would that change your mind?
Well, truth be told, I'm not holding my breath for the mind-changing, but this sort of testimony can't hurt.

Incidentally, Naema Ahmed, the niqabi whose struggles to learn French sparked this whole debacle, is a trained pharmacist. This was reported fairly regularly in media coverage, but it didn't put much of a dent into the popular caricature. (Did her husband make her pursue that career, and maybe also tell her how to answer each question on her exams?)

From the BBC, a niqabi speaks up. She is told she is controlled. However:
Kenza Drider scoffs at any such notion.

Relaxing on a bench in the park in Avignon, the mother of four young children explains how she bought her niqab nearly 11 years ago and did not tell her husband until she put it on to go out shopping with him one day.

"He knew very well it wasn't up to him whether I went out like that," she says, recalling that he merely said "OK, let's go", and she has worn the niqab ever since.

And she says that for women who wear the niqab in France, the majority of them French-born and many of them converts to Islam, "it's a personal decision, it's their freedom" to do as they wish.
I don't know if anyone has done any studies of this (the sample size of niqab-wearers in the west is not exactly large), but I've heard other anecdotal evidence that agrees with this profile of women who wear the niqab in the west. They tend to be born in the west, and are more likely to be new converts. And if anything, they tend to take up the niqab against some level of resistance from the rest of their family, who would rather they dress in a way that sticks out less and would allow the family to assimilate more easily. They do what they do because they think it will be pleasing to God, and (I think often) because they want to make a maximally bold and vivid and in-your-face proclamation of their Muslim identity, in defiance of a society which they see as opposed to that identity (gee, however could they get that impression).

Anyway, as best as I can tell, this situation, where a woman (and convert) asks for advice on how to deal with a husband who resists her desire to wear the niqab, is fairly typical, as is suggested by the advice she receives:
I think before you make the final decision....
Hold on, is that a Muslim woman telling another Muslim woman that the niqab is in fact her decision? Should I be shocked?
I think before you make the final decision, you should sit down with your husband and have an honest conversation of why he does not want you to wear niqaab. Some men have issues with it because they feel their wife will stand out more, or that their family will be critical, or that it may affect your time together when you go out, as doing simple things like eating are more complicated. He may feel that the political situation in your country is such that is dangerous to be identified as a "fundamentalist" Muslim. All these are valid concerns, but as you reply to them you must not become angry or defensive. Understand his point of view and respect it.
Back to Kenza Drider, who has a few things to teach the French about the ideals professed by French society.
"The MPs who talk about liberty, equality and fraternity don't really understand the French Republic," she says back at her apartment in Avignon where, with only family and other women present, she removes the niqab and sets about making dinner for her children.

"Liberty means freedom of conscience, of expression," she says. "Equality means not judging the foreigner and fraternity means the support of French people for a French citizen."
Well, those sure sound like the words of an oppressed women, whom the patriarchy has never allowed to think for herself.

* * *

Well, this is off of the stated topic of this post, but the BBC article also includes this curious opinion from a French feminist:
By hiding your face, Mrs Badinter explains as she sips a small black coffee in her elegant apartment in Paris, you breach the principle of equality.

"She who hides her face is in a position superior to mine," she says. "She sees me but she refuses to reciprocate."
So the veil is either a sign of powerlessness, or an exercise of power—but it's definitely intolerable for at least one of those reasons!

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