Monday, December 28, 2015

Denying women agency: How socially coercive unveiling promoted religious extremism in Muslim communities

Debates about veiling and unveiling within the numerous Muslim communities across the world usually fall within the following two categories:

1) Are Hijab/Niqab/"Insert other female dress codes here"  religiously mandated? If so, which degree of head/face covering in women is required?

2) What is the effect of Hijab/Niqab and other "religiously" mandated dress on women in global Muslim communities? Are they oppressive or liberating?

The answer to #1 among majority of Muslim male clergy of all sects (except Aga Khani Ismailies) is yes for Hijab, despite no mention of female head/face coverings in the Quran (see 7:26, 24:31, 33:59). In Sunni Islam, clergy are still debating if the Niqab is mandatory, but many recommend it.

For #2, the majority of Muslim men and women today consider the Hijab/Niqab to be a visible symbol of the "respect" and "equality" that Islam affords women, a vanguard against the (harmful) objectification and hyper-sexualization of women's bodies associated with the spread of "Western" cultural values. On the other hand, many Muslim (often Non-western) and Ex-Muslims  emphasize (rightly) how the Hijab/Niqab enforce patriarchal social norms of women's sexuality, reduce women's visibility in the public sphere and are a visible symbol of Islamism (political fascist Islamic ideologies) in Muslim societies.

Debates about the Hijab/Niqab in Islamic law explicitly bar women from exercising any agency in how they dress. Since only men (traditionally) can interpret religious texts to determine Sharia law, women are also denied participation in any decision making process. This obsession with women's dress codes also limits the ability of women to interact with and experience religious spirituality beyond their physical dress. Additionally, by focusing mostly on obligatory dress codes when discussing women, these debates enforce existing misogynistic gender roles in Muslim communities (women can ONLY be mothers and homemakers), severely restricting any female self-determination.

However, in many Muslim majority countries unveiling has not always been an act of female agency.  Well known examples include Turkey, where Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's secularization limited veiled women from participating in the public sphere "resulting in tens of thousands of female students (forced to) leave universities" (see page 47) and Reza Shah Pehlavi's white revolution, which barred veiled women from holding jobs, attending schools and access to receiving services from restaurants, hotels and theatres (see page 84). In countries where such bans were not legally instituted, women's agency over their dress was suppressed by social coercion. My grandmother, who wore the Indian burka while attending university in the 1940's, was forced to remove it after marrying my grandfather. Her veiling and unveiling was determined by the class anxieties of her father, who enforced the Burka; normative of upper class Indian Muslim families (while sending her to post-secondary education, which was not normative at the time) and her husband, who enforced unveiling to signal his membership in the emerging modern middle class. My grandmother's story is not unique. Such experiences were very common among women in North Africa and South Asia during this time period (there were also many women that chose to unveil as well, but these remained in the minority).

The resurgence of the Hijab/Niqab, in Muslim majority countries cannot be understood completely without understanding the role that social coercion played in the unveiling of women almost 70-100 years ago. Feminist discussions on the oppressive and misogynistic nature of veiling in many Muslim majority countries never achieved prominence, often because of political instability and totalitarianism. This lack of public discourse meant that veiling and unveiling were never broadly understood as acts of individual female agency, making these societies vulnerable to Islamism. Islamism promotes the Hijab/Niqab as an antidote to the sexualization of women in society, making the veil appear as an appealing alternative, one that provides women agency over their own bodies. Without any existing frameworks to dismantle these false claims of agency, the daughters and granddaughters of women who were coerced into unveiling accept the veil and often Islamism as their liberation. Once a critical mass of women use their agency to start veiling within an Islamist context (where female agency is only limited to choosing to veil), a socially coercive culture of chastity and modesty is created. This modesty culture enforces veiling, making it difficult for (and sometimes actively prevents) other women to exercise their own agency and remain unveiled.

The decision to veil and unveil should be a personal decision. Muslim and Ex-Muslims fighting religious fundamentalism in their communities should unequivocally promote women's agency in choosing their dress. An unequivocal support of women's agency to veil or unveil, does not mean blind acceptance of the misogyny that the Hijab, and to a much greater degree, the Niqab represent. However, denying women agency to choose their dress, no matter how oppressive the dress is, empowers Islamists by supporting their narratives of victimhood. Additionally, any bans that limit the participation of veiled Muslim women in the public sphere only strengthen existing misogyny, especially in conservative Muslim communities where female public presence is socially/culturally limited or non-existent. Instead, a healthy public debate about the oppressive and misogynistic natures of these garments should be promoted, so that women can make informed decisions about veiling and unveiling; decisions that cannot be easily influenced by Islamists. The power of such debates should not be ignored. It is these debates that informed my personal decision to take off the Hijab.