I’ll add my two cents later. Maybe.
(Hey, I’m slack.)
The article on ‘The Veil’ to which Angry is responding is taken from the first issue of The Anvil, the newsletter of the MAC-G (January/February, 2007). It states that ‘The Veil’ — by which term is meant Islamic women’s dress as a whole — is both a symbol and an instrument of women’s oppression. According to the MAC-G, as physical instrument, the veil — of which the experience of a Guardian journalist wearing a niqab, a “strict” form of Islamic dress, is taken as being typical (Zaiba Malik, ‘Even other Muslims turn and look at me’, October 17, 2006) — is oppressive because it restricts freedom of movement and constricts the wearer’s ability to breathe, thereby rendering its wearer weak(er) and (more) physically vulnerable.
The second reason the veil is objectionable is because of its use as a means of patriarchal social control. That is, it is understood in Islamic societies that should a woman choose not to wear the veil, she is effectively granting men permission to sexually assault her. Such forms of control are, it is noted, not absent from Western societies such as Australia, but assume a different form. Thus under Western dress codes the wearing of the veil is not, in this sense, mandatory; but a woman who is condered to be exposing ‘too much’ of (parts of) her body, in many if not all contexts, also invites ‘unwanted’ sexual responses in men (and is assumed to be at least partly responsible for their occurence if she does). What distinguishes the use of the veil from Western dress codes, however, is its more apparent function within such (presumably Islamic) societies as gave rose to its use.
This, then, is the basis on which the MAC-G argues that the use of the veil should be opposed, and that the societies in which its use predominates among women be altered such that the wearing of Islamic dress by women is no longer being coercively achieved through the threat of rape or sexual assault.
What then, is to be done (and to whom?), in order for these changes to occur?
Outlawing the use of Islamic dress, it is argued, somewhat mysteriously, won’t bring about these changes, and British Foreign Minister Jack Straw’s recent refusal to meet with women in Islamic dress is objectionable because it reproduces the same logic; that is, men should be in a position to impose dress codes upon women. Outlawing the veil is also objectionable — again, in reference to Western societies — because for some Islamic women it has a different symbolic content: the ‘defiant’ expression of a cultural difference. It is also acknowledged that the veil may be used by women as an instrument by which they may actually extend the scope of their freedom, especially in ‘negotiations’ with family and community members.
In essence, then, the most reasonable position to take for those opposed to women’s oppression is to defend a woman’s right to wear what she chooses without economic, legal, political or social penalty. In addition, “anti-Islamic racism” must be fought, and fought not only because it is wrong, but also because it reinforces the tendency of Islamic women to wear the veil as an assertion of ‘difference’.
Angry draws attention to a couple of potential faults in the MAC-G’s line of reasoning. First, the manner in which it conflates religion with race: Islam is a religion, not a racial category. Therefore, strictly speaking ‘anti-Islamic racism’ is a nonsensical category.
Secondly, he accuses the (white, Western, male) MAC-G of arrogance, arrogating to itself the right to recommend a course of action to a population of 500 million non-Western, Islamic, women. Further, this fault is compounded by the assumption that the experiences and understandings of such a vast category of people can easily be summarised in such a manner. In this way, the MAC-G perpetuates a colonialist mentality, one criticised by writers such as Chandra Talpade Mohanty, and described by her as embodying a “methodological universalism”. Such an approach robs women of their political agency.
Angry’s third criticism relates to the actual physical limitations the wearing of the veil imposes. The suggestion is that it would make more sense to cite the experience of women who wear the niqab frequently, rather than once, as in this case. And reading the article itself confirms that it is based, very much, on one woman’s experience, one who also claims that “The women I have met who have taken to wearing the niqab tell me that it gives them confidence. I find that it saps mine. Nobody has forced me to wear it but I feel like I have oppressed and isolated myself.” Malik also states that “I don’t understand the need to wear something as severe as the niqab, but I respect those who bear this endurance test — the staring, the swearing, the discomfort, the loss of identity”. For Malik, wearing the niqab is discomfiting and oppressive; for some other Muslim women, the niqab provides a sense of confidence and a confirmation of their identity as Muslim women.
It’s in this respect, I think, that the MAC-G’s failure to distinguish between the wearing of the niqab and the wearing of any form of Islamic dress by women becomes most apparent. In other words, the niqab is one of a number of forms of Islamic dress, not the only, and the wearing of it, its necessity and its significance, is contested. A recent article in Newsweek on the subject of the significance the wearing of the veil has for Europe’s Muslims, for example, reveals an array of different attitudes and approaches (Fareena Alam, ‘Beyond the Veil’, November 21, 2006).
The fourth criticism Angry has of the MAC-G’s analysis centres on “[t]he image of Muslim men as rapacious sex fiends”. I think that this criticism is probably mistaken, as it assumes that the MAC-G is making a normative statement with regards the essential nature of men’s sexuality in Islamic societies. As I see it, the argument that the MAC-G is making is in reference to Islamic religious doctrine, and its understanding of male sexuality — not that of Islamic men as a whole. Thus “[i]n societies where the veil is customary, the assumption is that women are sex objects and a man in the presence of an unveiled woman to whom he is not related cannot reasonably be expected to control himself and keep within the bounds of morality. Women who do not wear the veil are therefore seen as ‘asking for it’.” This raises an empirical question: how is sexuality understood “in societies where the veil is customary”? Further, is it true that there exists in such societies this assumption regarding the probable implications of the wearing of the veil (and its refusal)?
Finally, with regards the question of the symbolic meaning of the veil, it makes sense to fight against those cultural currents which seek to coerce Islamic women into wearing one: to the extent that ‘Islamophobia’ is one such current — and to the extent that the wearing of the veil is little other than a ‘defiant’ reaction to such prejudice — the removal or diminution of Islamophobia in Western societies will likely witness a concomitant decrease in the prevalence of the veil. However, I am unclear regarding the question of whether or not the MAC-G regards the veil to be objectionable beyond this basis. Given the identification of the niqab with Islamic women’s dress as a whole, it would appear that it might, and that consequently, the MAC-G actually seeks the abolition of Islamic dress codes (for women — and for men?) as a whole.