The veil dilemma

Speaking out against the veiling of Muslim women is hugely problematic because of the way niqab has been politicised, and also because the experience of North Africa shows that when Western feminists get shrill about Islamic oppression of women it seems to mean that more and more women are coerced into donning the veil or getting their genitals cut as a form of anti-colonialist solidarity.

Jack Straw, the British MP, caused a furore this month by asking women in his constituency to please unveil when meeting him. Straw has a special interest in seeing people’s faces as he is hearing impaired and relies on lipreading to better understand the speech of others, but he was also clear that he found niqab disturbing in its own right as a denial of personhood to the women wearing it – this cultural tradition deliberately makes them unpeople without faces.

Polly Toynbee had an excellent article in last week’s Guardian examining this.

When it comes to something as basic as women hidden from view behind religious veils, is it really so hard to say this is a bad practice? Because some racists may jump on the bandwagon to attack Muslims, that’s no reason to pretend veils are OK. Meanwhile, Labour has given away yet more state education to all the religions – 42 of the first 100 expensive academies gifted to Christian groups, seven new Muslim schools, with 150 in the pipeline. Why, in this least religious of nations?

The veil turns women into things. It was shocking to find on the streets of Kabul that invisible women behind burkas are not treated with special respect. On the contrary, they are pushed and shoved off pavements by men, jostled aside as if almost subhuman without the face-to-face contact that recognises common humanity.

I choose not to be shrill and confrontational in general about the practise of niqab, but the article prompted me to make it clear that I see no doubt that the practise is hugely oppressive and not at all a sign of respect for women’s persons as apologists like to claim. I have little problem with simple headscarf hijab because I can still see a face, catch a glance, share a smile with the women in the headscarf. I can’t do that with a woman in niqab, and that’s the whole point of the veil – isolation and dehumanisation.

Do I think there should be laws against the veil? No, although it’s an interesting security dilemma. But obviously, if the veil is banned in public, then the women in families where it is expected will simply become totally prisoners in their own homes. It might make some people feel better just because they don’t see women in niqab anymore, but it certainly won’t do the women any good.

So how do we walk the tightrope between indicating that we find the veil dehumanising and oppressive without further isolating and punishing the women who feel compelled to wear it?

Categories: culture wars, Politics, religion, social justice

Tags: , ,

25 replies

  1. It’s a tough question. I’ve always wondered if telling a veiled woman that she must unveil in public is like telling me that I must go topless in public. Shouldn’t it be my choice, how I dress? What if my wearing a blouse and bra is offensive to the culture in which I find myself? What if it’s offensive to me to accommodate that culture’s mores?
    I have no doubt, having had Muslim students in my classes, that going without a headscarf or long sleeves or a long skirt or trousers would be deeply uncomfortable for them. I take care not to seat a woman with a headscarf next to a male student, having been informed (politely) by a woman that she could not sit where I had assigned her to sit. (That’s a problem when putting together lab groups, too.)
    So, what is the answer?

  2. My wife and I have gone back and forth on the veil debate recently.
    She feels it is none of the State’s business dictating how religion is practiced and does not feel that the veil is a threat to Western socities at large.
    Me, I am not so sure.
    Certainly Yurpean countries are conflicted over the issue. But Yurpean countries are closely tied to a particular cultural identity that is threatened by the veil.
    They have two problems: how to assimilate people of different cultural backgrounds (and none of them have been very successful or diligent in that) and to what extent they can demand that immigrants hew to their cultural norms.
    Yurpean countries have not decided if they are primarily or democracies whose sole point of common reference is a set of self evident truths.
    I suspect that the issue of the veil would not be as vexing in the US (or Australia or New Zealand I suspect as well) as it is here in Yurp.
    Since the US in theory has no cultural or religious identity, there is more reluctance to impose a lot of restrictions on the practice of religions. The other factor is the crushing ignorance of Americans that forms the baseline of American society.
    Yurpeans are intensely aware that there are peoples living nearby that do things differently and hence have a pretty good handle on their cultural identity, if only it is We Are Not Those People. In America, everyone is expected to be American, in spite of whatever country or cultural background you hail from so the suppression of cultural difference is a lot more thorough because of its unconsciousness.

  3. Vicki, I’ve taught many Muslim women wearing various kinds of Islamic dress as well. None of them have ever presented the slightest issue except the two sisters in the same group who wore the full burqa where you cannot see anything of their features. It is bad enough not being able to see a person’s face but in a group that meets again and again we had the situation of two people in the group who couldn’t be told apart and whose personalities were also veiled. We struggled on of course but the effect on the tutorial group was most unfortunate and hung around all semester. The boys acted defensive and when we discussed anything to do with sex in the books we were studying everyone looked at the veiled women. I know what you mean about feeling it’s impossible to ask them to modify their dress but I would not feel similarly bad about asking a woman who wore nothing but a bikini top to class to get some clothes on.

  4. Vicki, I would think that a student choosing to wear the full veil or burqua would be a real problem in your place of learning with its high proportion of hearing impaired people. Just like Jack Straw, how can your deaf/Deaf students and colleagues use their lipreading to alleviate their impairment if they can’t see a face?
    Simple headscarf hijab simply doesn’t concern me as much, as I said above (at least you can see emotions cross a face under a headscarf) although I can see the problem with group assignments etc. Do any of the Christian superconservative sects have similiar issues with women working with men in assignment groups, or do they just homeschool their daughters and do college by correspondence so that the issue never arises?
    It’s not that I don’t have concerns about any religious group which fetishises female hair to the extent of dogmatising that it’s either covered as in hijab or uncut and unbound as with the Prairie Muffin type Christian fundamentalists. I think all practises that insist women and men have visibly different headcoverings/hairstylings are oppressive to some degree (to both genders).
    There’s still a vast gulf between covering hair and covering faces.

  5. Yeah, I find it hard to believe that hair is such a priority for God.
    I love the sentence from the Toynbee article “No citizen’s face can be indecent because of gender.”
    The tension in Laura’s comment – that asking someone to wear more clothing would be easier than to unveil – reminds me of a discussion at (I think) Pavlov’s Cat, about the impact of an exhibitionist breastfeeder in class.
    And as an anecdotal aside, a friend who lives in Lakemba suggested that many of the fully burka’d women there are Anglo converts, who get so enormous attention if their pale skin is visible. I suppose converts may tend to go for the more intense variety of belief that attracts them.

  6. ‘The tension in Laura’s comment – that asking someone to wear more clothing would be easier than to unveil – reminds me of a discussion at (I think) Pavlov’s Cat, about the impact of an exhibitionist breastfeeder in class.’
    Yep, that was me — and that was exactly what Laura’s comment reminded me of, before I even got to Zoe’s.
    For those who haven’t read it but think they could struggle along with it, there’s an essay by Deleuze and Guattari (yes yes, I know, I hear your cries of anguish) in A Thousand Plateaus called ‘Year Zero: Faciality’ which addresses how the face works as a signifier and as a humaniser (and also, more interestingly and difficultly, an anti-humaniser). ‘The face is not an envelope exterior to the person who speaks, thinks or feels … The form of subjectivity, whether consciousness or passion, would remain absolutely empty if faces did not form loci of resonance.’ There’s also an essay somewhere by a Lacanian called Patrizia Magli called ‘The Face and the Soul’.
    Does anyone know if anyone has used either or both of these essays as a basis for writing about the veil? Great project, if not. If only one were still an academic … but then, of course, one would not have the time.

  7. I agree wholeheartedly with your point, Viv: I dislike the veil because it’s dehumanising. I also think it reflects a polarising ideological shift in parts of western Muslim communities that isn’t to be welcomed, and with responses to it that are no more satisfactory than the issue itself.
    I had an (online) discussion with a Irish blogger friend with this about a year ago, and it surprised me then how invariably discussions about the veil and Muslims end up in a “them and us” approach, Muslim as other, and over there. Even some of the most liberal commentators still haven’t gotten their heads around the fact that Muslims are part of westeren societies.

  8. It’s a good discussion (and you’re all so smart and stuff).
    I do think the nijab and burka are oppressive, but I’m incredibly wary of taking the ‘veil’ or the headscarf and turning them into the symbols of women’s oppression under Islam, and the focus of western feminist efforts to somehow help alleviate women’s oppression in the Middle-East (and Australia, and anywhere women are oppressed). Does that make sense? I guess I think it’s so easy to get caught up in discussing this one element of Islam and women under Islam that sometimes we seem to forget everything else.
    A bit like how some western feminists sometimes get caught up in the ‘high heels and brazilian wax’ debates.
    And it seems so easy for certain sections of the community to take the ‘niqab is oppressive’ as a way to further penalise Muslims. I also think that forcing Muslim women not to wear the veil or the headscarf is not something a true secular democracy should do.
    All in all: I just don’t know.

  9. You’re right, Kate — I was using ‘veil’ as a sort of cover-all (heh, sorry) term for anything that covers the actual face. My guess is that it’s used in an even more general way as a signifier of all that we in the west find oppressive about Islam and its attitude to women — just as, say, the crinoline is an instantly recognisable signifier for all things Victorian (despite the fact that it was actually in fashion for less than a decade).
    Heels and Brazilians are maybe the western equivalent — signifiers of everything in western feminism and femaleness that seems contradictory.
    It is terribly unkewl to be anti-Brazilian in the current climate, I know (frankly, my dears, I’m glad to say I’m too old to care; the inevitable root canal will be more than enough anguish to be going on with, thank you) but I must say this mad fashion is just as oppressive, in the pain it involves, as anything I’ve seen any other culture dish up. And it makes me wonder just how thoroughly we in the west have internalised the notion that our own gender-based customs are normal and non-oppressive and everyone else’s are weird and sexist.
    My own inclination is to think through this veiled=dehumanised thing very carefully, like a kitten I once saw walk through a chess game. I have never seen the faces of most of my fave bloggers, for example, but does this mean I feel alienated from them? No, it does not. If truth be told, in fact, it means the contrary. Not having to feel apologetic and compulsively competitive about one’s physical presence is actually very liberating. Observe the almost universal shyness and apprehension about attending grogblogs.
    Note I am not saying I therefore approve of covered faces. What I am saying is that I’m not sure the ‘dehumanising’ thing is always true.

  10. I think mentioning that B word popped you into moderation, PC. I’m glad that I’m middleaged and longmarried to a man who grew up with more luxurious 70s expectations of the pubic zone myself. I agree that our gender customs are just as weird and sexist as most other cultures. Does equally sexist mean equally oppressive? That’s the question.
    Back to veiled vs online, I think there is a different expectation/reaction in what, interestingly for this conversation, is idiomatically referred to as face-to-face interactions. We become intimately acquainted online through others’ writing-voices before we ever see them, so when/if we do see them our perceptions are filtered through that intimacy with their written personality.
    But how much does the world at large get to hear a veiled woman speak? I’m sure if I got to know a woman in niquab through work/neighborliness the same way I’ve got to know some of the Muslim mothers at school who wear headscarves, and got to recognise her voice, I would no longer feel that she was depersonalised (a word I think makes an important distinction from dehumanised, and I wish I’d used it from the first).
    It’s also important to remember that hijab and niquab are very much an external gesture. From what I understand, few Islamic women in the West wear more than simple hair-coverings in their own home, and many not even that unless there are male visitors who are not close relatives. Their personality is far from hidden amongst their family, friends and neighbours, even if it is hidden from us outsiders.

  11. er – luxurious should be luxuriant above. curses.

  12. “luxurious should be luxuriant above. curses.”
    Oh, I dunno. ‘Uxorious’, maybe…
    Anyway, I want to say (although it probably fits better on PC’s thing about meat, but that devolved into the evilness of cats) something from a bloke’s perspective.
    Have you any idea how de-humanizing it is to be told that you are such a bastard that can’t be trusted, that we have to cover up the women to protect them? Or that we have so little self-control that the sight of an ankle sends us into paroxysms of lust?
    Ooh, it makes me good and proper narked.

  13. Oh yes. There’s all sorts of anti-feminists accusing feminists of misandry, but we’re the ones who expect that men should and can in fact control themselves, while they’re the ones who say that women shouldn’t expect men to even have the ability, even if they wanted, to control themselves.

  14. /me works my way through the pronoun maze.
    Ye-es. So the anti-feminists are actually also anti-masculinists.
    Which kinda doesn’t do it for me. I’ve never described myself as a feminist in public, but I guess if I believe that men and women inherently have equal rights, *responsibilities* and choices then you’ll know where I’m coming from. And like in all areas where rights are discussed, the complementary issue of responsibilities tends to be ignored. Norwegian (?) boys not being allowed to pee standing up, q.v.
    I’m not going to hijack your thread with a “woe are we SNAGs” meme 😉 so I’ll stop there.

  15. Sorry about the pronoun maze (in a rush to do the school taximum run).
    The anti-masculinist idea that men can’t control themselves is pretty depersonalising, too. Except this time instead of the cloth covering the face it’s a projection of sneering lust.
    It doesn’t make it easy for men and women locked into depersonalising stereotypes to negotiate meaningful relationships.

  16. I have as many uneasy feelings about the niqab as the next woman but the bottom line for me is that I don’t think I/we have any right to tell any women what to wear or not wear. That doesn’t mean I think wearing the veil is a simple ‘choice’. I think the most any of us non-Islamic women can do is try and make connections with Islamic women, personal and/or political.

  17. BK’s last couple of comments say half of what I wanted to repeat about what I’ve observed of the effect a couple of fully covered women have on a group where everyone else reveals their faces. That being that the men in the group are placed in a difficult position and everyone knows it.
    Where there is one covered woman it is not too bad but where there is more than one in a group it’s very hard to tell them apart. My burqa’d students almost never said anything.
    I don’t accept the analogy with online voices, sorry Pav. In internet space we are all on a very equal footing in terms of having no physical presence or a muffled one.
    I wouldn’t tell a woman to uncover herself either, but I don’t think there’s much hope for making meaningful connections except in really exceptional circumstances.

  18. I wouldn’t tell a woman to uncover herself either,
    Which is relevant to Jack Straw’s efforts. He made it a very personal issue, about his hearing difficulties when meeting constituents who were veiled, and how it would make communication so much easier if veiled women would uncover their faces while speaking with him in his constituency offices. Certainly he drew the larger situation of depersonalisation of veiled women in the community into the picture, but his emphasis was on what it meant for him personally.
    I would never wish to force a woman to uncover unwillingly, but I have no problem with making known my own problems with the impersonal nature of the veil. With neighbours/colleagues, it is obviously important to work past it, but I don’t think that necessarily involves pretending that it’s easy to do so.

  19. ‘In internet space we are all on a very equal footing in terms of having no physical presence or a muffled one.’
    Oh, absolutely. I wasn’t even putting a case, really, just working through the notion of ‘face=presence’. And maybe suggesting that if everyone — including men — in a room were veiled (which was what the ‘online’ analogy was supposed to be for), then there would be a lot more equality of presence than if everyone in a room were not.
    But I’m always getting into trouble for speculatively asking the ‘what ifs’ and managing to sound (wrongly) like I’m advocating them, so I shouldn’t keep following this one. And I’ve certainly never had to teach a veiled student (though on the Jack Straw point, I did once have a very difficult, aggressive and understandably angry profoundly deaf student with her own personal signer, who insisted on having every single comment made by anyone in the room repeated; that made teaching a challenge, too).

  20. Sorry Pav, I really didn’t mean it to seem like I was debating with you. I just didn’t properly read what you said in the first place, I think.
    I’ll just add that one reason I’ve almost always stayed away from publicly advertised blog meets is that there are a number of people in the blog circuit who I’m pretty keen *not* to meet face to face.

  21. What Laura said about meaningful connections is, I think, probably one of the ‘points’ of the full-face covering burqa or niqab. It erases individuality and makes it impossible for a covered person and a non-covered person to communicate with parity. It is a marker of difference: in Islam, it marks the woman as different and lesser. In the West, it marks her as Muslim woman and different and victimised. Double whammy.
    I personally think the world would be a much better place if we were all pacifist feminist atheists, but I seem to hold the minority view on that one.

  22. Is that the Larvatus Prodeo Pacifist Feminist Atheist Fridge (TM), Kate?

    Shove on over, I think we might need to upgrade to the TARDIS model.

  23. I’ve been reminded by this discussion of the reaction of my best mate (a UN employee and therefore a veteran of all manner of weird world outposts) to visiting Iran 15 or 20 years or so ago — a really violent visceral response to the full-on burqa as the female norm, and the way it made human contact impossible. This reaction was not helped when she got arrested for not having her corrupt western blonde hair covered properly.

  24. Dammit, the ‘Kate’ thing again – I’m the other one.
    We are rather anonymous with out ‘Kate-ness’.
    Several years ago I embarked on a one woman campaign around inner-Melbourne. I smile at any woman wearing a face-covering. I don’t know these women, they aren’t my workmates, or my next-door neighbours, or friends of friends. These are women in my supermarket. Women walking down my street.
    I feel uncomfortable being seen by, but not being able to see, but I think my discomfort is my problem (it’s not a verbal communication issue) in this case. I came to the conclusion that arriving in Australia from Africa and the Middle East indicates that they have bigger worries than the way I see them. I assume that settling in a country where you have to learn a new language, navigate a new school system for your kids, and it’s tough to find a job. Maybe those things bring out a woman’s most conservative instincts. Maybe they’re doing anything that helps them feel safe in a strange environment. (Although they might also be converts from Anglicanism, I don’t know)
    I have no idea if the strangers I smile at smile back. Maybe they think I’m deranged. I hope they think there’s at least one bare-armed, cropped-haired white woman who doesn’t think they should go back where they came from. It isn’t enough, I’m not devoting hours to the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre, I’m not even getting to know new people, but it’s a start.
    Maybe one day those women, or at least their daughters, will feel safe enough in Australia to wear a little less.

  25. Snap, Kate. I don’t see women in my neighbourhood in face-veils, but I do make a point of acknowledging women wearing headscarf hijab with a neighbourly smile.
    It’s a very small thing, and I don’t devote time to Resource Centres either, but it’s a start.

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