Yes, I’m a feminist. Have always been, though today I’m not entirely proud of my formerly knee-jerk liberal feminist responses to male chauvinism, pop culture, and religion. I remember 10th grade, berating a Muslim girlfriend for refusing to wear a swimsuit in my backyard pool even though there were only teenage girls present. “Is God really going to be offended by your bare legs?” I demanded. We argued about her sister’s headscarf, about her decision to wear the veil once she reached college.
“Why?” I demanded brusquely. “How can you allow your religion to dictate your clothes? How can you allow male patriarchy and sexism to force you to cover your face from the world? Why don’t the men cover their faces? Did you see those women in Saudi Arabia who can’t even drive? How can you perpetuate that type of system? I thought you were an independent woman!”
My friend would bite her lip, frown, and return with an assertion of modesty and respect for oneself. I was never moved by her answers, and I continued to mercilessly hound her throughout high school. Today, in a world fraught with anti-Islamic sentiment and Western ideological megalomania, my perception of the veil is changing. Though I still seek answers to the above questions, I approach the issue from a far more nuanced perspective.
Though the veil worn by Muslim women varies depending on country, religious sect, and personal preference, it has come to characterize Islam. The veil, hijab, burqa, or headscarf in question may cover the head, include an eye-slit but cover the face, or conceal the entire body, but its connotative value remains the same. To the Western world—historically, but abetted in the 21st century by post-9/11 missionary zeal—the veil signifies a repressed sex waiting to be saved by liberal feminism and European democracy. To the Muslim world, the veil represents the assertion of a distinct religious and national identity. Unfortunately, neither male-dominated “world” is concerned with the perspective, desires, motivations, or identifications of the wearer of the veil.
In Algeria Unveiled, theorist Frantz Fanon discussed the veil as integral to the French colonization of Algeria in the first half of the 20th century. The French conceptualized the veil as a signifier of the established, competing patriarchy, which they as colonizers had to overthrow in order to assume full control over the nation. The veil was a mechanism through which the French might win over the women, thus facilitating the process of controlling their husbands, brothers, and fathers. In order to rationalize their project, the French created the Muslim woman as an object of sympathy whom they were in position to “liberate.” The French colonizers were, to borrow Gayatri Spivak’s words, white men seeking to rescue brown women from brown men. It became a matter of pride to the Muslim patriarchy—and remains so today; think Taliban—that it keep its women veiled; to do otherwise would be to symbolically support Western penetration into the native society. (We must thus rethink our strategies of intervention on the purported behalf of the Afghan women.)
What does it mean to unveil? Even if we were to grant the French the benefit of the doubt (as we might conditionally forgive my high school self for having undertaken a similar project), the process of unveiling is so heavily marred by conflicting agendas and conceptions of liberation that it is no simpler to discuss than the process of forcing a woman into the veil. Is a woman veiled so that she might be protected from stares, or to prevent her from seeing the world? Is a woman unveiled so that she might be emancipated or defiled? Stripped of her modesty, culture, and dignity? Protectionist discourse is no less problematic than patriarchal discourse; both wrongfully appropriate women’s agency.
It is beyond offensive and sexist, I realize, to speak of a monolithic group of Muslim women who are either sequestered or saved by men. But, as Fanon writes, even when women unveil themselves, engaging in radical self-transformation and re-invention, they are rendered choiceless. To remain veiled is to take a stand in the name of culture, religion, and national identity; to unveil is to embrace the new, Western oppressor. No matter her intentions, a woman’s decision to veil or unveil is always read in relation to her supposed attitude toward foreign occupation and native oppression.
Muslim women in the post-9/11 context are free to unveil, to run from “tradition” and toward “freedom” in their red dresses, but the freedom attained is illusory. Consider the affaire des foulards and French preoccupation with secularism. As has made numerous headlines in the past decade, Muslim girls in France who come to school wearing veils are frequently asked to remove their flashy religious garb and conform instead to the dictates of the Republic. They are informed that they are being freed from their oppressive cultures. Why are the French so concerned about the veil? While on the surface it seems laughable that the French government would be concerned with the headscarves of young girls, the shock of seeing “Westernized” Muslim women embrace a seemingly archaic dress restriction is a blow to the Colonizer’s ego and ideology.
We are the Colonizers. The veil threatens us “liberated” women and men by undermining the extensive influence of the dominant society that has been established and naturalized with great difficulty. When faced with the threat presented by the veiled schoolgirl, both government officials and feminists attempt to re-establish their influence and superior Western values by arguing that the headscarf perpetuates the oppression of women. In doing so, we ignore our privileged status and fail to recall the complexities of postcolonial relations.
Do French schoolgirls in headscarves represent an insidious, Islamic agenda designed to destabilize a secular Republic? Are the girls in fact making a brave statement about their identity as Muslim women in a racist society? Very few veiled or formerly veiled women have been asked their opinions regarding the affaire des foulards. The result is that the war between sexist and racist dominance—between patriarchy and colonialism—is waged without consideration of women’s differences and desires. Their voices have yet to be heard, voices without which women will remain powerless. Their only option is no option. Their only choice: the choice between groups of men with whom to ally.
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a sophomore and Angier B. Duke Scholar at Duke University.