In a footnote to an earlier blog entry, "In Praise of Shoplifting", reference was made to the practice of Muslim women wearing the veil. Since then that footnote has made me somewhat uneasy since the debate around the veil is so politically charged that a throw away remark can easily be misconstrued. So I thought I would clarify my position a little by reflecting on the current debate...
Firstly I want to express my reluctance to engage with this debate at the current time. For the debate itself has been an attack on heterogeneous Britain. The media affects to be carefully and responsibly discussing serious difficulties around the health of Britain as a multicultural society; yet, throughout the debate, all of these difficulties are firmly located in the domain of the "ethnic minorities". Why is veil-wearing more of a threat to multicultural society than binge-drinking? Simply because the latter is never seen as a "cultural issue" because it is a problem (primarily) occurring in the locus of the white majority...
A white majority which is endlessly reassured by a smug and pious newspaper press. The newspapers devote column inches to the subject of the veil, they pontificate and fulminate, but most of all they self-congratulate: "Look at us!" the headlines scream, "We are evidence of a healthy pluralism in action! We are the free press!" And yet the opinion which they promote is frequently in favour of homogeneity and small-minded little Britain. (And all this is not to mention that the originator of the debate was the foreign secretary as this nation bombed Muslims in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Hardly a voice with a moral authority...(1) )
Nonetheless, and despite this departure point, I have no intention of opposing the reactionary mores of the West to the extent that I am seen to support conservative Islam. Religious and cultural fundamentalism should be opposed wherever they are found. And it is undeniable that some of the voices defending the right of a woman to wear the veil are chauvinists who do not defend the right of a woman to choose either way.
Such voices have been rightly criticised. There have been words of wisdom in amongst the jingoism, the most legitimate criticism generally coming from the corner of Western feminists. (See, for instance, this interesting article by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.)
However some in that Western feminist corner may not have bargained with the assertions of some Muslim women who assert their right to wear the veil as an act of resistance against a culture (the West) which is forever vilifying them as Muslims. They are taking ownership of a symbol which in Western feminist discourse typically characterises as a symbol of patriarchy. Islamic feminist discourse is redefining the symbol as one of resistance: The primary differentiation in the act of wearing the veil is changed and the consequent value of the action is transformed.
The transformation that is claimed is very significant. The process is described in post-structuralism, a system of thought which I don't pretend to understand at all. However a simple point of reference is that of one's primary enemy. In feminism that primary enemy is patriarchy and the battle lines are drawn in such a way that patriarchy is always on the other side; within the feminist discourse actions are interpreted in terms of the relationship with patriarchy. In today's world however many Muslim women define primarily as Muslims and, for them, the first enemy is the Islam-demonising West. Thus in wearing the veil they are defying that enemy and acting assertively. (2)
I'll be honest: I still feel uncomfortable with this; although I can well imagine that this is due to my exposure to a relentless Western media. Still I would much rather Muslim women used some other symbol to oppose the West - it would make me feel much more able to be in solidarity with them (not that this is a good enough reason for them to change their habits).
My primary concern relates to the comment from my earlier blog that stimulated this piece. It is simplistic to argue that if a Muslim woman says she has chosen to wear the veil then she should be allowed to make that choice. As stated in “In Praise of Shoplifting”, people suffering oppression or tyranny often make statements of support for the system which keeps them down. They have “internalised the oppressor” to the extent that they self-oppress; they follow the narrow, oppressive path which has been mapped out for them without any overt whips being cracked to keep them in line.
Thus when I hear Muslim women asserting that they have chosen the veil I do not know whether this is the assertion of an internal patriarch or a remodeled feminist. I won’t presume to draw a conclusion either way – this debate was started by a middle-class white man making pronouncements regarding Muslim women and the last thing we need is more of the same. What is clear is that this is for Muslim women to work out. And more power to them...
(1) I heard a man on the radio describe Jack Straw’s initiation of this debate as “one of the most courageous acts of the year”! Words fail me.
(2) Look what the West has achieved with its War on Terror! We have usurped patriarchy as the primary oppressor in a Muslim woman’s life.