Q: Why do you think hijab is such a hot-button issue? Why is it so important to these women [i.e. Egyptian women associated with "The Piety Movement" - A.R.] and why are the West and secular people within these societies so resistant to women wearing the hijab?From "Vernacular Freedom: Locating Feminism in Post-Mubarak Egypt":
A: The reason hijab is such a volatile symbol now in the confrontation between the West and Islam is because of the colonial legacy. Colonial regimes declare the veil as a symbol of Islam's cultural inferiority because of the way it treats its women, in other words, Islam treats women as inferior and the most visible symbol of that is the veil and you find it over and over again in colonial literature.
In many places like Algeria, there is the public unveiling of women as freeing them from the clutches of patriarchal Islam through forced unveiling. For example, Reza Shah when he comes to power in Iran, the first thing he does is to ban the veil. The same thing happens in Turkey; in Egypt, the first feminist woman Houda Sharawy [a.k.a. Huda Sha’rawi - A.R.] marching out and publicly taking off the veil and saying this is our freedom. Its not surprising that generations later, Muslim women claim that this is not the symbol of our oppression but it's the ultimate symbol of our freedom. I think there are a lot of Muslim women who say this is our identity, this is Islam.
And there are many women who really don't have a position on that but plainly and simply think this is God's command and this is my road to piety. I think that position is so hard for the West to understand. It is also representative of a different kind of sexuality that is very distinct from liberal society's own relationship to sexuality. Its not like Islam covers up sexuality and Europe is indifferent, but they understand sexuality differently.
There's so much literature that's been produced on this for years about the over-determination of the symbol of the veil as the marker of Islam's backwardness and therefore the necessity to remove the veil in order to bring civilization. And the backlash against it, which is "this is the marker of our civilization."
Since Huda Sha’rawi ushered in the Egyptian feminist movement with the public removal of her veil, the subject of women covering themselves has remained entrenched as a primary topic for all those concerned with the liberation of Muslim women. This presents us with the question of why it seems that the physical and material constructs of Islamic practice are often given priority status, both by Muslims and by non-Muslims, over matters of spirituality and ethics. In this lies a false dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual. Saba Mahmood treats the subject carefully in her work, bringing in the discordance of Aristotelian and Kantian ethics with regard to the manifest form of ethical practices. In Kantian ethics it is conceived that conscious intent (as opposed to conformity to social norms) must precede the moral act. In contrast, Aristotelian ethics places moral value in behavior or practices themselves, and in their motivation. This is instructive because, as Mahmood argues, "one consequence of this Kantian conception of ethics is the relative lack of attention paid to the manifest form ethical practices take, and a general demotion of conduct, social demeanor, and etiquettes in our analyses of moral systems." Perhaps this can explain why Western scholarship addressing Muslim practices has found much difficulty in accepting subjects' stated ethical motivations for wearing the hijab, relegating morality, piety, and virtue to the category of "imaginings of the hegemonized."This excerpt below from Holmes is a bit off-point in that it doesn't reference hijab but still it has something useful to say about Western secularist discourse and policies.
In elucidating the specific role that Islamic feminism has and could play in efforts to achieve equality and justice for women and men, one is confronted with cognitive dissonance when reflecting on the primacy of the veil in current debates both within Islam and in Western circles of thought and media. The attention of both critics and adherents of Islam seems too often to be distracted from the ethical message by the temporal proscriptions of the faith. As Mahmood has summarized, this association of temporality with superficiality, to the exclusion of spiritual depth, is an all too common assumption with its source in the experience of secularism in Christian Europe and the privatization and compartmentalization of faith. In the Islamic tradition there are strong grounds for the dismissal of the division of self into body and spirit. [This is also true of orthodox Christianity as exemplified in the doctrines of the Incarnation and the bodily resurrection of the saints - A.R.]. By understanding this, we imbue supposedly temporal distractions like the veil with new spiritual depth enabling us to relate on an ethical plane instead of dismissing the values of others.
The presentation of Islam as opposing democracy only serves to generate resistance by positing democratic reforms as a choice between a political system and faith, which for most Muslims exists as an all-encompassing, coherent, and complete worldview. This conflict plays out similarly in the positioning of the Qur'an and shari'ah as inherently opposed to "universal standards" and norms of human rights. Attempts to promote universal moral standards with what Barlas describes as "unmediated secularism" have succeeded mainly in alienating the faithful with their blind rejection of worldviews that frame their morality with religious belief. Demonstrating that they may understand freedom better than those promoting it, targeted audiences grasp that they are experiencing "epistemic violence of secularism in its garb of 'universal reason.'" To accept the premise of Islamic feminism, we must engage with the possibility of a Qur'anic hermeneutics of sexual equality that might do a better job at achieving this than universalist secular norms have done.
The idea of a liberatory theology, and the reality that Islamism is a "powerful source of critical debate … against the economic and ecological violence of neo-liberalism," should be celebrated as a tool in post-colonial discourse, but it is not.