A few days ago I was stuck in the airport and luckily caught Mona Eltahawy debating blogger Hebah Ahmed on Elliot Spitzer’s show on CNN “In the Arena” about the ban on face veils in France, piety, feminism and xenophobia. It is worth a watch because they both make really good points and also because it is rare that you see two actual real life Muslim women debating about the lives of, well, Muslim women, on television.
Eltahawy makes the point that the law in France is obviously part of the conservative xenophobia of the Sarkozy administration, however feels adamantly that a face covering is oppressive to women. It assumes piety means that women shouldn’t exist and is predicated on their invisibility.
Ahmed responds that veiling by choice is an act of defiance to larger forces that sexualize the body and provide an opportunity for women to engage without being sexualized. She also makes the case that of the women she has met worldwide she has not met someone who was forced to veil.
Sadly, Ahmed is wrong about her last point. There are countless examples of nation-states that demand women veil and if they do not they are subject to fines, punishment, arrest, public humiliation, beatings and other forms of coercive tactics to keep women covered. How much these laws are enforced varies from state to state and the extent to which women must veil varies as well, but there are many examples of places where women are forced, either by the state or their family, to cover their bodies.
But that doesn’t make the ban a solution. Only approximately 2,000 women in France actually cover their faces, making the law not only symbolic, but a deliberate attempt at controlling a community that is already victim of extensive police harassment and xenophobia. Women have already started to be arrested for covering their faces by police. The context may be different, but state mandates and coercion on what should be on or off women’s bodies is unjust. Demanding women’s bodies should be covered or uncovered, makes their bodies the ground on which battles of culture are fought. She is reduced to only her sex, objectified either in her being covered or in her being exposed. She becomes the stand-in symbol for either the past or the future, for religious anxiety and for nationalism.
Eltahawy’s point about veiling being a sign of female subjugation isn’t totally “right” either. As Jos, pointed out, almost all of the criticisms from Western feminists have been prefaced with “I think veiling is oppressive, but…” Katha Pollitt similarly wrote a rather measured piece but prefaces her own understanding of the ban with, “I don’t like face-veiling either. It negates the individual; it reduces women to sex objects who must be shrouded to avoid tempting men; it sends the message that men’s “honor” resides in the bodies of “their” women.” Pollitt concludes, rightfully, that this law won’t actually make Muslim women’s lives better and we should shift our focus elsewhere, but still makes the point that veiling is fundamentally wrong.
Ahmed, Eltahawy and Pollitt all have legitimate points, but I am struck by how difficult it is to have a conversation about veiling without falling onto standby defenses of veiling as a practice of “choice” or full on rejection of veiling as a practice of resistance.
If feminism is about choice and some women “choose” to veil, we have to extend the criticisms of “choice feminism” itself. The notion of choice, and therefore, choice feminism, is predicated on what choices you have historically had access to, the cultural reality you are functioning within, what is considered normal to you and if it is connected to a larger system of patriarchal power. Is something ultimately a choice, when the other choices are replete with social stigma, chastising, harassment and abuse?
On the other hand, is it possible to make a blanket statement about veiling being inherently oppressive? After all, in Algeria women hid bombs under their burqas as they crossed into French territory to fight colonial power. They fought hand in hand with the men in their country to push the French out. Veiling has in many instances been used as a sign of not just religious solidarity but also national solidarity against Western power.
Sarkozy’s ban is a direct reaction to the symbolic use of veiling as a form of a political anti-imperialist stance. It is not about gender equity, it is about using women as symbolic pawns in a fight between religions and continuing a legacy of colonialism.
What these debates reveal for me is two things: the limits of a women of color feminist stance within the context of global racism and the lack of historical memory of colonization, anti-imperial activism and stories about women of color. Yeah, just that.
As women of color we are often forced to debate criticism of practices that are unjust, inhumane or misogynistic because criticism of these practices come from people that have no sense of what life is like within that particular cultural context. This has been on my mind in light of the debate around Ashley Judd’s comments about sexism and hip hop. That’s a whole other can of worms and could be a separate blog post, but the point about outsiders criticizing “our cultures” still stands. Judd has the right to criticize the misogyny in hip hop but if she is going to do it she has to do it with recognition of the cultural history of hip hop, the role of corporate control in the production of misogynistic lyrics and the criticisms of sexism and hip hop from women of color.
What happens in pushing back against criticism of misogyny in our own cultures is as women of color we often end up inadvertently reconsolidating the patriarchal power of those very practices, left without the space to criticize sexism in our own spheres because we are forced to be on the defensive to larger powers of racism. And often the only time the mainstream media is interested in women of colors’ criticisms are when they feed into larger ideas about racism or Islamaphobia (Ayaan Hirsi Ali comes to mind).
Critiquing cultural practices that we are not part of is difficult. Criticism of veiling (and for that matter rap) is folded into the argument that the West is better, more progressive, more modern and better suited for the lives of women (even though women’s lives are being negatively impacted every day by patriarchy everywhere). Or it is often used to justify military or police aggression (as was the case in Afghanistan, predicated on the rhetoric that we must free women using the burqa as a symbol for invasion). And it ends up feeding the rhetoric that men of color are somehow more sexist, patriarchal, violent and misogynistic then the good willed white men of Europe and the United States.
But these debates shift the focus from the real issues at hand. “Women’s rights” become a stand-in go to phrase to continue a legacy of pushing nationalist rhetoric and racist policy on communities that are already marginalized. In an effort to “free” women of color, they ultimately reconsolidate the very sexist and oppressive conditions they want to overturn, leaving most of us without the cultural space or actual rights to fight back on our own terms.