The politics of veil

'Do Muslim Women Need Saving? 'Resistance or Submission?

In our latest article, we discussed the interlocking issues of postcoloniality and colonial feminism as we took our cue from Mahsa Amini, the 22-year-old Kurdish woman who was arrested and murdered by the Guidance or Morality patrol in Tehran on 13 September 2022. Tracing the history of Iran, it became clear that the current protests for women’s rights and against the compulsory hijab are not the first of their kind in the country, but rather a part of a complicated and longstanding genealogy of the wider and intersectional Iranian Democracy Movement that has been at the heart of the abovementioned Iranian protects. On top of that, the war against women in Iran is not a recent phenomenon, but rather one deeply rooted in the recent history of the country with references to both political regimes and religious reforms at least since the late 70s, that is since the Iranian or Islamic Revolution. 

The unjust and sexist killing of Mahsa was indisputably the spark that set fire to the patriarchal institutions in Iran thanks to the widespread protests across the country, a revolutionary surge that put under question well-cherished social, political, and religious beliefs, but it was also another ‘oriental spectacle’ for the western media that have covered Mahsa’s story and the generalized civil unrest over the past few months. This orientalist media coverage of these events was the main subject matter of our second article dedicated to this issue. This incessant flow of news that has fuelled our smartphones, laptops, or TV screens revolves around a particular piece of cloth, the veil, and in this particular case, the hijab. 

As we argued before, the veil, either a religious commandment, a societal expectation, or a state law, is a polyvalent signifier around which there has been an explosion of discourses and representations from time to time in the ‘West’ that inevitably make it a constitutive part of a long history of orientalism and (post)coloniality in recent global history. As such, the ‘veil’ has been mobilized numerous times as a shorthand invested with immense affective powers and symbolic associations. When invoked this way, that is as a means to an end, the thematizations of the ‘veil’ tend to be reductive, generalizing, and moralizing, a ‘western’ monologue on a ‘Muslim’ matter that does not take into serious consideration the cultural logic, the sociohistorical context, and the complex embedded and embodied experiences of the Muslim women themselves. More importantly, western feminists tend to fall into this trap wearing themselves what we called a ‘veil of ignorance’. And it is exactly at this point that the teachings of the postcolonial feminist theory seem to be indispensable as a guide that persistently reminds us to check our white western privileges and cultural conceptualizations.

In this third and final installment, we would like to take the veil and what it metonymically stands for a step further by delving into some useful insights by a famous feminist and postcolonial anthropologist of the Middle East, Lila Abu-Lughod. Our starting point is what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak aptly calls ‘sanctioned ignorance that every critic of imperialism must chart’ in order to eloquently describe the purposeful silencing through the ‘dismissing of a particular context as being irrelevant’. It is this social, historical, and cultural context of the current Iranian women’s protests that I tried in our latest blog articles to bring forward, and it is precisely this silencing that I evoked there when I talked about a ‘veil of ignorance’. The abovementioned anthropologist went to great lengths to discuss the issue of the veil in a way that did justice to Muslim women’s own cultural conceptualizations of womanhood and resistance by bracketing the western epistemologies and political theories of how feminist resistance should look like in order to count as such

She showed that this taken-for-granted western framework of thinking about agency and resistance not only limits the scope of feminist claims regarding justice and freedom, requiring any rights claims to be articulated and any political action to be bodily and affectively performed in certain, prescribed terms, but also establishes the ways in which ‘gendered Others’ can be recognized as such in the first place as feminist subjects. Let us keep also in mind that Denise Riley (1988) in Am I That Name? questioned -among many other feminist theorists of the Third Wave- the very category of ‘woman’, the political subject of feminism par excellence, exactly as it is understood in western metaphysics, that it is as a cross-cultural and trans-historical biological substance. As such, one could argue that feminist and postcolonial anthropologists are particularly equipped to dismantle this western phantasy of the woman and the feminist political subject as both being universal and independent of history and culture. 

Lila Abu-Lughod

Writing ‘Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others’ (2002) in the aftermath of September 11 and the declaration of the xenophobic ‘War on Terrorism’ that used the former as an Islamophobic justification for the imperialist and neocolonial interventions of the USA in the Middle East, especially Iraq and Afghanistan, Lila Abu-Lughod takes as her starting point the consensus in the West that Muslim women need saving propagated by the sensationalist reports of honor killings, disfigurement, and abuse by human rights groups and the media. She set out to question whether generalizations about Islamic culture can explain the challenges Muslim women face on the basis of their gender only to answer that the popular image of women victimized by Islam does not correspond to the narratives of Muslim women themselves and as such, ‘the problem of gender inequality cannot be laid at the feet of religion alone’. Drawing our attention to the dangers of reifying culture, she argues that ‘we need to develop, instead, a serious appreciation of differences among women in the world—as products of different histories, expressions of different circumstances, and manifestations of differently structured desires.’  Her argument formulated through her research in various communities in the Muslim world is worth quoting at length:

‘…rather than seeking to "save" others (with the superiority it implies and the violences it would entail) we might better think in terms of (1) working with them in situations that we recognize as always subject to historical transformation and (2) considering our own larger responsibilities to address the forms of global injustice that are powerful shapers of the worlds in which they find themselves.’

Regarding ‘the politics of veiling’ that continues to play a key role in ‘tendencies to plaster neat cultural icons like the Muslim woman over messy historical and political dynamics’, she maintains that ‘not only are there many forms of covering, which themselves have different meanings in the communities in which they are used, but also veiling itself must not be confused with, or made to stand for, lack of agency.’ In other words, we need to deconstruct the reductive interpretation of veiling as the quintessential sign of women's unfreedom, even if we object to state imposition of this form. If we accept the fact that veiling is a deeply cultural and social practice for Muslim women and that what freedom means is always dependent on the certain social and historical contexts and belonging to particular communities that shape one’s desires and understandings of the world, then we should not be too quick to judge the feminist pedigree of Muslim women. 

In fact, anthropologist Hanna Papanek (1982) argued that in some cases, the burqa war considered by her Pakistani female informants as a ‘portable seclusion’ that enabled them to move out of segregated living spaces into the male-dominated public sphere while still observing the basic moral requirements of separating and protecting women from unrelated men. This way veiling is embraced by these women as a liberating clothing device that grants them some agency as an individual and a moveable safe space that protects them from the male gaze and ensures some anonymity.