Islamic Scarves

The Right to Choose (the Scarf):

Naomi Wolfe has an article in the Sydney Morning Herald (a fine Australian newspaper, that) on the subject of Islamic women who really like to wear their veils and scarves. The article has generated some controversy, but I'd like to explore the concepts she raises because I've heard women in Iraq say exactly the same thing that she has these Moroccan women saying.

Indeed, many Muslim women I spoke with did not feel at all subjugated by the chador or the headscarf. On the contrary, they felt liberated from what they experienced as the intrusive, commodifying, basely sexualising Western gaze. Many women said something like this: "When I wear Western clothes, men stare at me, objectify me, or I am always measuring myself against the standards of models in magazines, which are hard to live up to - and even harder as you get older, not to mention how tiring it can be to be on display all the time. When I wear my headscarf or chador, people relate to me as an individual, not an object; I feel respected." This may not be expressed in a traditional Western feminist set of images, but it is a recognisably Western feminist set of feelings.
This is a point that I have heard from Iraqi women, from American women who have had to travel in the Middle East, and from Israeli women who have operated within the Arab world. It harmonizes very nicely with the piece we were discussing lately on the subject of what it is like for foreign women to operate in the Muslim world, which is apparently highly aggressive towards foreign women particularly.

In addition, she's right to say that the feelings are 'recognizably... feminist.' I can think of several women who read this space who have, at times, expressed a sharp desire for a public space in which women are treated without reference to sexuality. Islamic society has achieved a success of a sort there: they do have a public space in which (local rather than foreign, veiled or otherwise scarved) women may operate without being "on display" or judged by their appearance.

One American woman I worked with found that the headscarf was a welcome refuge when working with Muslims. She spoke of the comfort she felt while wearing it, because it seemed to deactivate men's ability to think of her as a sexual creature. She had a freedom, then: when with those whom she wanted to consider her as a potential mate, she could be sexual if she chose; but when with others, she had a retreat.

Phyllis Chesler delivers an excoriation to Ms. Wolfe, however, pointing out that what is "a choice" for her (and for the American women I mention) is not a choice for many Muslim women.
Now that Wolf is no longer the doe-eyed ingenue of yesteryear, she sees the advantage of not being on view at all times. A Westerner, “playing” Muslim-dress up, Wolf claims that hiding in plain view gave her “a novel sense of calm and serenity. I felt, yes, in certain ways, free.” In addition, Wolf believes that the marital sex is hotter when women “cover” and reveal their faces and bodies only to their husbands.

Marabel Morgan lives! In the mid-1970s, Morgan advised wives to greet their husbands at the door wearing sexy clothing and/or transparent saran wrap with only themselves underneath. Her book, Total Woman, sold more than ten million copies. According to Morgan, a Christian, “It’s only when a woman surrenders her life to her husband, reveres and worships him and is willing to serve him, that she becomes really beautiful to him.”

Well, what can I say? Here’s a few things.

Most Muslim girls and women are not given a choice about wearing the chador, burqa, abaya, niqab, jilbab, or hijab (headscarf), and those who resist are beaten, threatened with death, arrested, caned or lashed, jailed, or honor murdered by their own families. Is Wolfe thoroughly unfamiliar with the news coming out of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan on these very subjects? Has she forgotten the tragic, fiery deaths of those schoolgirls in Saudi Arabia who, in trying to flee their burning schoolhouse, were improperly veiled and who were beaten back by the all-powerful Saudi Morality Police?
The point is well taken. Ms. Wolfe's approach discusses the issues of the veil as if they were about Westerners being unable to accept an "alien," "Other" approach to sexuality. She writes as if this is what Muslim women really desire, and that the fault is ours for not understanding them. In fact, in very many cases, the various forms of the veil are enforced rigorously: they are not a choice.

Ms. Wolfe is not wrong, however, when speaking of cultures where there is choice. She mentions France, and its war against the hijab, as an example. Here in America, too, women have the freedom to choose if they like.

Women have tended to choose against the veil, or other clothes designed to 'deactivate' their physical beauty, given the choice. USA Today was just describing how even some nuns now wear "street clothes," since Vatican II gave them the choice. Married women in the West once wore veils over their hair as a normal part of their attire, but increasingly rarely since the 1600s.

There is a choice available that makes that much-desired "public space" more readily attainable for women. However, that choice -- for whatever cause -- is unpopular (even with nuns!). You can see from Ms. Wolfe's writing that there is a certain value placed on it by those who still practice the custom. However, as Ms. Chesler points out, given the physical coercion involved, it's hard to say how much of womens' praise of the veil is rationalization of something they couldn't escape if they wanted. For women I've known in the Middle East, it was a choice that was valuable to them; yet only a few of them wanted to be veiled among other Americans.

Was that due to some similar social pressure: not beatings and stonings, but a fear of scorn or disdain? I'm not sure, myself, not being female; but I suspect that it has to do with a desire to be perceived as "normal." In the Muslim world, "normal" wears a veil; in the West, it doesn't. Insisting on wearing one here is a choice that would be accepted, but it would also be a signal that you demand to be treated differently than everyone else. While people would accept that, generally speaking, it would result in you being placed in a special category off to the side, rather than being part of the general society. Many people, and perhaps especially many women, value social interaction to a degree that makes them want to be accepted as widely as possible.

Still, the answer to that is only that there needs to be a movement to make it common enough that it ceases to be unusual. Not, mind you, that I'm advocating such a movement; no more than I'm advocating against such a movement. I'm merely interested in the issue because I've observed it in several places and through several lenses.

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