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Below are two excerpts, one from an interview with Saba Mahmood and the other from a piece by Melinda Holmes, that highlight differing perceptions of the hijab or veil worn by some Muslim women.  

From "Interview: Saba Mahmood — The Light In Her Eyes":

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?

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."

From "Vernacular Freedom: Locating Feminism in Post-Mubarak Egypt":
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."

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.

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.
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.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Epistemic violence of secularism, my ass.n/t (7+ / 0-)

    It's not the side effects of the cocaine/I'm thinking that it must be love

    by Rich in PA on Thu May 08, 2014 at 06:27:51 PM PDT

  •  "Unmediated Secularism" (5+ / 0-)

    is what is going to save this world from religion, and all of the crap that "faith" entails.

  •  I favor banning the face veil (and all public (4+ / 0-)

    mask wearing) in western countries.  The veil represents misogny.  Further, it presents security issues. We have security cameras now in many public places--how can we allow individuals to make themselves an exception to the cameras.  

    •  A hijab isn't a veil... (4+ / 0-)

      ...it only covers the head, with the face exposed.

      Float like a manhole cover, sting like a sash weight! Clean Coal Is A Clinker!

      by JeffW on Thu May 08, 2014 at 06:55:53 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  If that's the case, then I have (0+ / 0-)

        no problem with the hijab. It's the face covering I object to.

        •  I have a problem with it only... (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Alhambra, Oh Mary Oh

          ...if the veiled woman is asking me a question, and I can't understand her. This has happened zero times.

          I have more problems with Hasidic Jews, if they happen to find out I'm apikorsim.

          Float like a manhole cover, sting like a sash weight! Clean Coal Is A Clinker!

          by JeffW on Thu May 08, 2014 at 07:03:01 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  True, but if someone's continually referring to (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Radiowalla, Be Skeptical

        "veiling" and "unveiling," it's natural to assume that a veil covers the face.

        "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

        by Diana in NoVa on Thu May 08, 2014 at 07:08:37 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  A hijab is a veil ... (0+ / 0-)

        Merriam-Webster's defines a "veil" as "a piece of cloth or net worn usually by women over the head and shoulders and sometimes over the face".

        •  Splitting hairs... (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Ahianne, Calamity Jean

          ...a hijab covers the head and shoulders. A niqab covers the face, and I would consider that a veil.

          Nobody seems to consider the woman's point of view: she's used to dressing like this in public, and would probably be close to agoraphobic if forced to be out and about with her head and face uncovered.

          But hey, what do I know?

          Float like a manhole cover, sting like a sash weight! Clean Coal Is A Clinker!

          by JeffW on Thu May 08, 2014 at 07:30:27 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  Not Splitting Hairs (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Oh Mary Oh

            Sorry, but using words as they are defined in mainstream, standard references and in common usage is not "splitting hairs" merely because it doesn't conform to your prejudices.

            As for "the woman's point of view" if you'd actually read the excerpts then you'd see that both of the writers are women who are doing ethnography on the subject at hand from "the woman's point of view".

            •  Translation here obscures. It would be better... (5+ / 0-)

              ...if al-hijab (which is, of course, often translated as "veil") were translated as scarf, because that is closer to its meaning in Arabic. In English "veil" is almost always taken to mean a covering or partial covering of the face, which, as others here have said is "niqab."

              My step-daughter, raised in Libya, dressed hijab but never niqab in her first two years in the United States. She finally decided on her own to stop.

              I highly recommend the book edited by my friend Jennifer Heath, which discusses the issue of the veil (in its broadest meaning) in considerable depth: The Veil: Women Writers on Its History, Lore, and Politics.

              Here's the publisher's blurb:

              This groundbreaking volume, written entirely by women, examines the vastly misunderstood and multilayered world of the veil. Veiling— of women, of men, and of sacred places and objects—has existed in countless cultures and religions from time immemorial. Today, veiling is a globally polarizing issue, a locus for the struggle between Islam and the West and between contemporary and traditional interpretations of Islam. But veiling was a practice long before Islam and still extends far beyond the Middle East. This book explores and examines the cultures, politics, and histories of veiling. Twenty-one gifted writers and scholars, representing a wide range of societies, religions, ages, locations, races, and accomplishments, here elucidate, challenge, and/or praise the practice. Expertly organized and introduced by Jennifer Heath, who also writes on male veiling, the essays are arranged in three parts: the veil as an expression of the sacred; the veil as it relates to the emotional and the sensual; and the veil in its sociopolitical aspects. This unique, dynamic, and insightful volume is illustrated throughout. It brings together a multiplicity of thought and experience, much of it personal, to make readily accessible a difficult and controversial subject.

              Don't tell me what you believe, show me what you do and I will tell you what you believe.

              by Meteor Blades on Thu May 08, 2014 at 08:36:30 PM PDT

              [ Parent ]

  •  Thanks for an interesting, thoughtful diary that (12+ / 0-)

    presents a non-Western point of view.

    Unfortunately, I just can't buy into this whole notion that the veil symbolizes women's freedom. How can a woman be free if she's not free to refuse to wear hijab?

    And why does she have to cover her hair in the first place?  Hair is just hair. If men have a problem looking at women's hair, they should wear blinkers, like horses. This would keep them looking straight ahead.

    I strenuously object to the abayah of Saudi Arabia, the chador of Iran, the burqah of Afghanistan. The idea that women to have to move around in these sweltering fabric prisons to  conceal themselves from the male gaze because women are too dirty, offensive, and profane to be the subject of "pure" men's gazes, makes my blood BOIL.

    In Jordan one September the temperature in Amman was 100+ degrees and whereas the men were walking around as comfortable as could be in their white dishdashiyas (with western-style boxer shorts beneath, I noticed), and flip-flops, women had to wear long, smothering coats over their regular clothes. In that heat! I saw schoolgirls wearing ankle-length pantaloons under their coats and tunics and pitied them mightily.

    What kind of religion demands women's suffering as the price of piety?

    And I do believe niqab (full covering of the dreadful, offensive woman's head and body, leaving only the eyes exposed) constitutes a security risk. Who knows what could be underneath those black robes?

    "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

    by Diana in NoVa on Thu May 08, 2014 at 07:06:56 PM PDT

    •  In my experience... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      poco, Calamity Jean
      And I do believe niqab (full covering of the dreadful, offensive woman's head and body, leaving only the eyes exposed) constitutes a security risk. Who knows what could be underneath those black robes?
      ...it's a young woman doing grocery shopping at the Jewel-Osco.

      Float like a manhole cover, sting like a sash weight! Clean Coal Is A Clinker!

      by JeffW on Thu May 08, 2014 at 07:18:36 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Exactly! (0+ / 0-)

      It's the Supreme Court, stupid!

      by Radiowalla on Thu May 08, 2014 at 07:20:47 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  So, you don't consider that the woman... (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        poco, Ahianne, Calamity Jean

        ...under the robe and veil might feel uncomfortable in western clothes?

        Float like a manhole cover, sting like a sash weight! Clean Coal Is A Clinker!

        by JeffW on Thu May 08, 2014 at 07:24:14 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  I think if a woman freely and willingly (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Rich in PA, cjtjc

          chooses to wear a religious covering, she should have every right to do so.  I only oppose the mandatory wearing of such garments or the covering of faces in public places.

          I also agree with the French government's requirement that religious attire be prohibited at public schools.  But that's only because of the particularities of the French secular state.  In the US, I would not favor such a policy.

          It's the Supreme Court, stupid!

          by Radiowalla on Thu May 08, 2014 at 07:29:12 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  Or possibly a terrorist with a full bandolier and (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        sandbox

        weapons capitalizing on the stereotype that women are peace-loving, gentle, and unarmed.

        "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

        by Diana in NoVa on Thu May 08, 2014 at 07:25:21 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  In my experience... (4+ / 0-)

          ...both hands are usually out in the open, and there's no telltale bulge of bandoliers and an AK-47 under her robe. I see quite a few Muslim women shopping in my local supermarket, and the few wearing an abaya appear to be lacking in those weapons-bulges, appearing to be petite with their robes hanging slack.

          Should I fear more at the jewel than a lack of banana-nut muffins for two weeks in a row?

          Float like a manhole cover, sting like a sash weight! Clean Coal Is A Clinker!

          by JeffW on Thu May 08, 2014 at 07:36:03 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  You're welcome but ... (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Alhambra, Ahianne

      it doesn't really matter whether you "buy into this whole notion that the veil symbolizes women's freedom". That is the lived experience of many modern Muslim women and your inability to grasp that does not negate it. That said, I am unaware of any women who view hijab as liberatory who also think it should be compulsory. In my experience, those who think it should be compulsory have a much different perspective from that described by Saba Mahmood and Melinda Holmes.

  •  Women in Iran and other countries forced to veil (8+ / 0-)

    The women in the picture linked here didn't think hijab was a choice. This is Iran in 1979 -- women out in the streets protesting the law requiring hijab. They lost the fight. It is against the law in Iran for a woman to go out with hair uncovered. This kind of thing is why many of us are concerned about hijab. If it's a genuine free choice, great. But what about all the countries where women are forced to wear it? Who's out protesting to defend the right of women to go out with hair uncovered?

    Women protesting in Iran

  •  I'd be more concerned about the violence (8+ / 0-)

    promoted by people like Islamic cleric Shahid Mehdi of Copenhagen, who publicly declared that women who walk around without hijab are asking to be raped. He was later arrested for trying to rape a woman. The views he was espousing are about as clear an example of "rape culture" as one could ask for.

    The epistemic violence of secularism seems a bit abstract by comparison.

  •  What I always find interesting (0+ / 0-)

    Is that so many American women get so bent out of shape about Muslim women wearing any sort of head piece, and yet American women are largely silent these days about how all women are socially and often legally required in many situations to wear bras in this country. Whatever happened to the days of burning bras?

    I don't really have an issue with what Muslim women choose to wear. However, it's a really complex issue. It's sort of ironic that during the time period in which Spielberg placed Raiders of the Lost Ark, most Egyptians in Cairo dressed no differently than folks in the US or Europe, many women were even wearing bikinis. And yet by the time Spielberg actually filmed his first Indiana Jones movie, the way so many people dressed in Cairo, particularly young women, had radically changed.

    Some of it was women willing to do so. There was a massive revival of Islam in the 1970s, and it was particularly popular among young women. Many women began reading the Quran on their own, and actually forming religious societies. They chose to wear some form of a hijab as an expression of this faith.

    There are also villages in which women wore something similar to a hijab around their head not as a religious expression but as a social expression of their community. It was an expression of pride in their roots.

    However, many women also made a social contract around the time of the late 1970s and early 1980s to put on the veil in exchange for leaving the home and entering the work force. Women had always worked, of course, but it was largely ignored and mostly in rural areas. By the 80s, many of the females working were in cities, and it caused a massive case of male anxiety.

    The US had the same issue at right around the same time, by the way. Shoulder pads for women, anyone? Or did we all just decide to forget about that horrible (and uncomfortable!) fashion necessity from those days.

    The problem I have with the veil, from my little perch way on the other side of the ocean, is that I am not sure how many women are choosing to wear the veil, and how many are doing so because they fear the social repercussions if they do not.

    After all, how many American women are brave enough to leave home without a bra on?

    Time is of no account with great thoughts, which are as fresh to-day as when they first passed through their authors' minds ages ago. - Samuel Smiles

    by moviemeister76 on Thu May 08, 2014 at 07:52:35 PM PDT

    •  AFAIK, there never was any actual (5+ / 0-)

      burning of bras. The idea is enshrined in popular culture, but public bra burning did not happen. Some were tossed in a trash can during a protest against beauty pageants.

      While I agree that the wearing of bras should be a matter of individual choice, I have yet to see a connection between uncomfortable (for some) undergarments and the lack of voting rights, the ability to refuse marriage, the rights to drive, education, personal safety, equal say about the welfare of one's children, and the other things that women in non-veil wearing cultures enjoy. Access is, of course, not the same as rights.

      •  I almost got fired back when I was poor (0+ / 0-)

        And all because I chose to not wear a bra. It would have been economically devastating to me at the time. And yet I never see American women discussing it. We just continue to wear the ridiculous thing.

        Time is of no account with great thoughts, which are as fresh to-day as when they first passed through their authors' minds ages ago. - Samuel Smiles

        by moviemeister76 on Thu May 08, 2014 at 09:55:13 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  This happened in Libya, too, in the '90s. ... (5+ / 0-)

      ...Women who used to dress in western style, or at least with their hair uncovered, started dressing hijab (and later, a percentage dressed niqab, too) and joined women-only Q'ran study groups. Some of this occurred because it gave them a chance to talk politics in a society where that was forbidden unless it was mostly worshipful "study" of the sayings of the "Dean of Arab Rulers," as Moammar Gaddafi named himself.

      Don't tell me what you believe, show me what you do and I will tell you what you believe.

      by Meteor Blades on Thu May 08, 2014 at 08:46:06 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  It was the same in the 19th century (2+ / 0-)

        Many elite Egyptian women joined religious groups, including one of the women mentioned in the cited work, and they did so for pretty much the exact same reason. It gave them freedom they had never experienced before. And it was within the framework of religious piety that those same women became active in pushing the English government a few decades later to build a social welfare network for Egyptians. It's a remarkable story of working from within to make great change.

        Time is of no account with great thoughts, which are as fresh to-day as when they first passed through their authors' minds ages ago. - Samuel Smiles

        by moviemeister76 on Thu May 08, 2014 at 09:07:44 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

    •  I am aware of no laws (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Ahianne

      that require women to wear bras.  Please elaborate.  

      It's the Supreme Court, stupid!

      by Radiowalla on Thu May 08, 2014 at 09:02:15 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Not so much laws as codes (0+ / 0-)

        Female soldiers are required to wear bras. They can get into big trouble if they do not, up to and including being charged with disobeying the USMCJ. I have also worked at certain jobs that required women to wear bras, and was grounds for dismissal if you did not. Plus female civilians who do work with the military and other government agencies are also required to wear a bra. I almost got fired once for not wearing one.

        Time is of no account with great thoughts, which are as fresh to-day as when they first passed through their authors' minds ages ago. - Samuel Smiles

        by moviemeister76 on Thu May 08, 2014 at 09:14:28 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Dress codes are not laws (0+ / 0-)

          and employers are free to impose them as they please, I believe.  A law is an entirely different matter and I am aware of no law that says women must wear a bra.  But if anyone can find one, I'd be glad to hear about it.  It's an interesting topic.
          Thank you for your answer.  

          It's the Supreme Court, stupid!

          by Radiowalla on Thu May 08, 2014 at 09:24:54 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  why would I care about this? (0+ / 0-)

    I don't expect people on the other side of the world to have an opinion on what we consider to be our cultural norms.

    I wish WE weren't so obsessed about our cultural norms.

    This Rover crossed over.. Willie Nelson, written by Dorothy Fields

    by Karl Rover on Thu May 08, 2014 at 11:34:40 PM PDT

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