On Monday this week on BBC Asian Network radio, there was a lively and informative discussion between Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Nihal Arthanayake. It was about Alibhai-Brown’s new book called ‘Refusing the Veil’, in which she argues that the veil, in all its forms (Hijab, Niqab, Burka, etc) should be cast aside by Muslim women as it’s incompatible with feminism and is a symbol of underlying patriarchal oppression. You can hear it here. (It starts at 1:10.30).
Firstly, a disclaimer: I am a white male. This is enough for some to think I should steer clear of this topic. I don’t agree. This is a logical fallacy (a genetic one), and I try to avoid these. If my summary, understanding or proposal are bad, that’s fair criticism. Discounting my view because of my genes is not.
Secondly, I really like Alibhai-Brown and have not found myself disagreeing with her before. A hat-tip is also due to Nihal (I use his first name as this is the name of his regular phone-in show); he really is a very good interviewer and plays Devil’s Advocate well when in a one-on-one discussion. This provides excellent balance to the dialogue and really brings out the nuance of arguments.
Thirdly, I haven’t yet read the book. I form my opinion on the basis of the linked interview. I think it was long and detailed enough to get a broad understanding of the premise of her argument.
This is an emotive subject. This was made clear straight after Nihal announced the topic on Twitter:
Our favourite Muslim commentator is first in to the fray. It’s clear he doesn’t hold the opinions of Alibhai-Brown in high regard. He accuses her of ‘non-practising’ (a point she covers in the linked interview, where she does consider herself to be a practising Muslim) and ‘drinking’ (again, Alibhai-Brown covers this and confirms she drinks wine).
User @M4L1H4 provides a strongly worded but civil rebuttal to Ansar which he ends up walking away from having considered the replies ‘rude’. Surprising given his initial attack on the very spiritual integrity of Alibhai-Brown.
Ansar should retract his accusation of ‘non-practising’, unless he considers drinking alcohol to be enough to automatically make someone non-practising. If this is true, what else would disqualify one as a practising Muslim?
Well, in this faux apology, Ansar makes it clear:
Not eating halal, drinking alcohol and not wearing the headscarf are equivalent. Therefore, Muslim women who don’t wear the headscarf are non-practising and their opinions on Islam will be treated by Ansar with similar disdain to Alibhai-Brown.
Back to the topic……
So, is Alibhai-Brown’s proposition correct or not? Can women who wear a veil be independent feminists and be free from male oppression? (This could be further extended to ‘Can a woman believer of an Abrahamic faith be a feminist?’ – but not for now!)
I think they can and there are many examples:
Myriam Francois-Cerrah (a convert to Islam (I won’t use the presumptuous ‘revert’ terminology))
It’s self-evident that a convert gets the choice, but the other women listed (and there are many, many more) seem strong, independent and fiercely pro-women’s rights.
What one wears on their head, can’t be a gauge of one’s view about anything. Enquiry and debate must establish that.
We must, however, acknowledge the 2 other sections of Muslim womanhood. We’ve looked at independently minded activists whom I’ve conceded wear the veil out of choice, but there are also those who don’t wear the veil, and those that wear it due to societal (patriarchal) pressure.
Those who don’t wear it shouldn’t be judged as ‘non-practising’ with irrelevant opinions (as seen above). Those who assert this need to be opposed. These include:
Baroness Warsi, etc.
Those who are ‘forced’ to wear the veil (numbers unknown) need to be recognised and supported by making the religious, cultural and societal reforms required to give them a true freedom of conscience & choice.
These changes will be slow, and in some cases, painful. What can be done in the meantime?
This may be cosmetic (and it may have been suggested before – original thought is so difficult these days!), but I’d suggest a show of support from those strong women (both Hijabis and not) for those not as fortunate in terms of cultural or religious oppression. This could be in the form of a global day of Muslim feminism where hijabi activists remove their hijabs for the day, and non-hijabi activists wear a hijab for the day. They could even partner up and wear an actual hijab of their partner activist.
This would show clear choice of an independent mind unfettered by patriarchal pressures and male-dominated orthodoxy. I’d like to think that those hijabis activists would believe that Allah would understand the greater good trying to be achieved and not mind one day out of the Hijab.
For us white males – all we can do is support true feminism in its push for true equality between the sexes.
PS – In pre-emptive defense – I’m not telling any woman what to wear, but simply making a suggestion. The fact that I have to state this is a problem in itself, unfortunately.