An interview Professor Leila Ahmed of Harvard Divinity School
by Gordon Campbell
While different in obvious ways, the Slutwalk demonstrations and the hijab (or head scarf) worn by increasing numbers of modern Muslim women have one major thing in common. Both involve the deliberate adoption of clothing commonly associated with patriarchal oppression that the wearers are choosing to challenge, by appropriating it. Slutwalk for instance, has set out to ridicule the ways that women’s clothing and appearance are used by some men to justify acts of sexual aggression. To do so, Slutwalk has adopted and mimicked the clothing and behaviours traditionally associated with ‘immoral’ women, in order to challenge and subvert those sort of excuses.
Similarly in Cairo and in the Yemen, many young women – some in hijab, some in the niqab face veil – have been at the forefront of the demonstrations opposed to the old, corrupt order. With differing levels of conscious intent, Muslim women are challenging the subservience traditionally associated with such clothing. Rather than treat the hijab (or even the niqab) as a badge of conservatism, they are using it to assert a cultural identity and to pursue an activism quite at odds with the deference that such forms of dress are commonly taken to mean.
With both Slutwalk and the hijab, there have been some misgivings among older women, who know what such clothing routinely signifies. Clearly, any such act of appropriation runs the risk of further validating the patriarchal meanings still held by the wider public. Slutwalk has not escaped that criticism. More often, it has won the support (albeit grudging at times) of its feminist critics. Similarly, in Egypt, the 79 year old feminist icon Nawal al Saadawi has publicly revised her opposition to the niqab. After fighting it for decades, her reluctant embrace of the garment was noted in this New Yorker report on a recent meeting in her apartment:
[Amina} Shawky was the only attendee wearing a niqab—a full-face covering, something that El Saadawi has strongly criticized. “My friends asked me, ‘How are you going to meet Nawal El Saadawi wearing the niqab? How are you talking about freedom wearing the niqab?’ ” Shawky said. “I used not to look at women in the niqab. That changed in Tahrir,” El Saadawi said. “Tonight, I didn’t ask you why you are wearing it.”
This change in views, it should be stressed, has not altered al Saadawi’s fierce opposition to other allegedly Islamic modes of oppression of women : such as genital circumcision, and those inheritance and divorce law provisions that penalise women. In late July, al Saadawi told Reuters that post-Mubarak, Egypt is still a patriarchal system – and one that is now being re-inforced not by the old and corrupt secular elite, but by the rise of the Salafists:
Alarmed that Mubarak’s overthrow has left Islamists free to vie for power, women are forming new advocacy networks and feminists such as Hoda Badran, Mervat Telawi and Al-Saadawi are trying to unite women to defend their rights…..Women played their part in the 18-day popular uprising, occupying Cairo’s central Tahrir Square day and night and treating the wounded when police fired on protesters. Many complained of being sexually molested by pro-Mubarak thugs.
Saadawi, 79, has been fighting for women’s rights for decades. Jailed for her views in the 1970s, she was once threatened with assassination by religious fundamentalists. Age has not mellowed her forthright opinions. “Sharia is a lie,” she said, referring to Islamic law. “It is not written by God but by men. Tunisia banned polygamy, yet Tunisia follows Sharia. This is one of our goals now: to prohibit polygamy and introduce a secular family code.”
Now Salafists, ultra-conservative followers of a literal interpretation of Islamic texts, are demanding the government reverse a reform passed in 2000 that grants women a divorce if they return the dowry, give up property rights and provide eyewitness proof of physical abuse by the husband…..
“(Salafists) use Islam to justify all oppression of women,” said Al-Saadawi, a three-time divorcee herself. She said the divorce law was “already unfair since a woman has to give up all her economic rights to leave her husband.”
There is no single prevailing view among Muslim women about the revival of the wearing of the veil, whether it be the hijab or the full niqab face veil. See Mona Eltahawy for instance, for a trenchant feminist critique of the veil’s return and also this rejoinder by a Yemeni woman to Eltahawy’s argument.
What is clear is that the veil is indeed experiencing a resurgence – despite the assumptions that its use would gradually fall into decline, under the impact of Western social influences. For whatever mix of reasons – cultural identity, resistance to the West’s military adventurism, social pressure and personal choice have all played a part – the veil is on its way back. To date, the most thorough history of the veil’s meaning throughout history has been written by Professor Leila Ahmed of the Harvard Divinity School. Her book A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America is pretty much the standard text on the issue, and there is constructive criticism of the book here and in this Guardian review here. In her own article “Veil of Ignorance” published a couple of months ago in Foreign Policy magazine, Professor Ahmed provides a useful potted summary of her book’s main arguments – as she traces the rise and fall and resurgence of the veil, and the historical reasons for it.
In late July, Werewolf editor Gordon Campbell spoke to Professor Ahmed by phone from her home in Boston, Massachusetts about the resurgence of the veil.
Campbell : Why is wearing the veil becoming more prevalent rather than – as some historical trends might have led us to expect – less so?
Ahmed : ….That’s a very deeply political and complicated issue – just as unveiling was. The reasons that women unveiled in the early 20th century were as much political as they were to do with gender. Probably, even more so. They were about colonialism, with the desire to be Westernised, with the colonial view that the veil was backward, and the local acceptance of that. So, there’s no way of separating the unveiling which happened in the early 20th century, or –re-veiling which happened in the second half of the 20th century, from the profound effect of politics – both local politics, and politics in terms of imperialism.
Yes, but that’s what many in the West are struggling with. How can wearing the veil be seen as empowering, when it is more often seen to be dehumanising ? Can you tell me how it can be felt to be empowering?
I don’t think [in the past] it was seen as dehumanising. More as backward, or as less civilised. That’s how I viewed it myself when I began the book. I reacted against the idea of seeing women in veiling – just as many Westerners do, though I didn’t see it as de-humanising. The idea that it is dehumanising is a Western construction which many Middle Easteners like myself accepted, as being actually true. But if you think of the hijab – which is the head scarf or head covering – lets leave aside the burqa for the moment – then its really no different from what nuns used to wear. Some of them are going back to wearing it. I don’t see that as de-humanising.
Right. The usual response in the West conflates two things – one, that the decision to wear the veil (or not) is rarely a free choice. Your Foreign Policy article talks about the ‘ferocious social pressures’ that exist in some societies to wear the veil. Secondly..the reason it is seen as dehumanising is because it is seen as an inherently uncomfortable and inexpressive garment.
There are several important questions here. Lets separate burqa and hijab here. Lets talk just about the head covering. The question is whether if it is enforced in some countries can it be liberating in others? It can. In the countries where it is enforced it is not liberating and can have no positive meaning for women. The only places where it can have positivity and meaning is where women are free to choose to wear it, or not. That’s the number one separation we must make. There is no universal meaning of the hijab or the veil, and no universal sense in which it is oppressive, everywhere. In some countries it is appallingly oppressive, and – in countries [eg France] where it is forbidden – it is actually a form of protest, a call for liberation, a call for the freedom to choose to wear what you wish.
Now, the call for whether it is oppressive. At my age, when I see young women – skinny as anything, because in the West they are told they have to be skinny – or tottering around in high heels that I couldn’t bear to wear (laughs) ……People have to be free to choose perhaps to suffer, in how they want to suffer.
Arguably. choosing not to make your appearance available as a sexual billboard could be felt to be empowering, in itself.
I think it can be. You mentioned Slutwalk, which I wasn’t familiar with until you mentioned it and I looked it up. I certainly remember the bra burning days of feminism and when women were refusing to shave their legs – and in America, this was part of a very similar thing – as a form of protest against how women’s bodies were socially constructed, sexualised and so on. Today in the West…it is generally accepted that where it is freely chosen, dress can certainly be a protest against sexualization, and against manipulation by the media.
Fine. Yet while the burqa doesn’t participate in the sexual display common in the West, to most Westerners it seems a most impractical and uncomfortable garment for the climates where it is often enforced. That’s part of why it gets rejected as being any form of emancipation. Because wearing it is usually enforced, is impractical and its form seems to arise from a sexual fear and ignorance among those men demanding it.
Again, that runs together several questions.
Right. Start with the impracticality one. When women look at their sisters sweltering in hot climates in this black, all encompassing garment it seems hard to believe this could be worn by anything other than oppression .
OK, But again, it comes back to choice. If she chooses to be hot….I really don’t see that as any different [in principle] from wearing high heels or some other bizarre fashions that people are pressured to wear. If it is freely chosen, that is the critical test. To me, a bikini looks extremely uncomfortable, and yet one could say that a bikini is almost obligatory for any young woman in America.
Can any woman feel entirely free to embrace a garment like the burqa that carries patriarchal meanings for sisters elsewhere ? What I mean is…when it comes to matters of solidarity, can one ever freely wear the garment of the oppressed?
Let me put a question to you. Can you think of any country where the dress of men and women is not separate? Dress is symbolic everywhere. Before the feminist revolution – and it is really hardly any different in America – one could have easily argued it was about the inferiority and sexualization of women – in the way women had to dress as distinct from men. There are many feminist analyses as to why men could wear suits, and women wearing trousers isa fairly recent thing for women in America. So dress is always symbolic, is always about gender. And I think the idea that the hijab is necessarily more patriarchal than other dress…if you think of Victorian dress with their corsets and broken ribs…people really broke their ribs to get into them..
Yes,.but we have got past that. Isn’t it alarming that we seem to be reverting to adopting [with the burqa] what is widely seen as a badge of oppression in most contexts ?
But [conversely] in a country which bans the hijab such as France.or like Turkey [wearing the hijab] is an active call for justice, and for equality. How can you tell me I can’t dress this way, when you call yourself a free country…So it depends where it is.
Which is a flaw in the argument. That in order to free Muslim women, the authorities in the West are telling them what they can wear..
One of the interesting things about the footage from the Yemen has been that the people at the forefront of those protests have been women wearing full covering. Similarly, some of the important demonstrations during the Arab Spring both in Cairo have been led by women wearing full covering. For you, that must have required a re-appraisal – as someone who has spent a good deal of her life with decidedly mixed feelings about this garment?
That’s right. But by the time I finished the book I had ceased to have mixed feelings. Not to the point where I could wear it myself, that would be too bizarre. But in my own words, I point out something we should be aware of – which is, [those] women in Yemen who were wearing it and are out there protesting –and women in Egypt – this is just normal dress for them. Just as not wearing one is normal dress for me. They would have to twist their heads around to see there is anything wrong with it – just as I would have to twist my head around to start wearing one. So this is just normal dress, and it is us who are constructing this as being an either/or. And you know, in a world where there is a lot of Western aggression and in Muslim countries that are suffering…and they are the targets of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are both Muslim majority countries. The veil can take on meanings – of [saying] that this is not right, this is wrong, we’re human too !
In much the same way Jewish people may have taken to wearing the yarmulke?
In countries where social pressure does exist to wear the burqa, there is a sense that there is an underlying sexual fear involved. Do you see this requirement [to be veiled] as the end result of a misogyny and a sexual tension in any way inherent to Islam ?
No. For one thing, the veil didn’t start in Islam. It was used by the Jews and the Christians when Islam spread. It is not by any means an originally Muslim, or only a Muslim, garment. In fact, it was the norm in and across the Middle East until Western colonialism – regardless of what religion you were after. It was how men dressed too, in that they covered their heads and wore loose robes, and if you think of the Pope…They [Catholic priests] dress like Muslim men, too. And Muslim women [resemble] the nuns.
But to repeat – there is a perception that Islam is far more hung up on sexual matters than the liberated West. And that the burqa is expressive of those hang-ups.
I think you are right to identify this, but it is completely incorrect. I don’t think there is any evidence really. All monotheistic religions that I can think of [display these tendencies] …Even some non-monotheistic ones but particularly the monotheistic ones have all been very patriarchal, and very misogynistic, historically. I can’t think of an exception. I could quote to you from the Bible, as well as from the Koran – that women have to cover, and be silent, and so on. So I don’t think there is an anything inherently about Islam that is different from any other monotheistic religions. [Though] It is not as open to interpretation as other monotheistic religions.
Arguably, the war in Afghanistan has focussed attention on the extreme behaviours found in rural, clan-based societies – as if that was the norm for all of Islam, and when it has little or no basis in core teachings.
That’s right. It is also true that these things have emerged most saliently in places like Afghanistan that have been devastated by war and violence for decades. So one can’t de-contextualise it. It is not Islam. It is that entire context….