Monday, June 9, 2008

"Me without my hijab"

"Me without my hijab." That's the title of a fascinating op-ed in yesterday's Los Angeles Times. In it Iraq-born author Zainab Mineeia tells of her decision to begin studies at the University of California, Davis, sans cover. Her parents supported her decision; indeed, Mineeia's father advised:

'My daughter, when you arrive at the Jordanian airport, take your hijab off and fold it in your bag. There is no need to wear it anymore.'

Yet the move came with consequences -- self-doubt, disapproval from another Iranian abroad.
Well worth a read as the issues of Islamic tradition remain controversial, as evident, to cite 2 examples, in Naomi Norberg's post yesterday and in news that Turkey's Constitutional Court's thwarted "a government move to lift a ban on Muslim headscarves in universities."


Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

In Aspects of Islam (2005), Ron Geaves has an excellent introduction to the "discourse of the veil" which includes a summary of two studies: Yvonne Haddad's article, "Islam, Women and Revolution in Twentieth Century Arab Thought," The Muslim World, Vol. 74, Nos. 3-4 (1984), and Sherifa Zuhur's book, Revealing Reveiling (1992). Writes Geaves,

"In an investigation of the veil undertaken in Cairo, Sherifa Zuhur (1992) noted various reasons for adopting the veil. Whereas some informants spoke of the safeguarding of honour and status and the attitudes of men to unveiled women in public places, others referred to their embracing of their religious practices. Although some older women did defer to parental or male pressure, the younger ones asserted that their families reacted badly to them adopting the veil. For women under thirty the process of taking on the veil was seen as a symbol of change resulting from introspection and involving a personal moral decision. Some, however, were keen to pount out the practicalities of wearing the veil in public and how it facilitated being in employment. Of interest to women's movements was the assertion by most of the young women that the veil gave them feelings of sisterhood and solidarity.

The complexity of reasons for veiling was analysed and categorised by Yvonne Haddad in 1984. After investigating reasons for wearing the veil amongst women in Egypt, Jordan, Oman, Kuwait, and the United States, she classified her informants as follows:

Religious--an act of obedience to the will of God that resulted from a religious experience that led to them 'reverting' to their faith.
Psychological--an affirmation of authenticity and a rejection of Western norms which created a sense of peace or well-being.
Political--a sign of dissatisfaction with the existing political regime.
Revolutionary--identification with Islamic revivalist movements who affirm that Islamicisation of Muslim society is essential.
Economic--a sign of affluence.
Cultural--an affirmation of allegiance to chastity and modesty, of not being a sex object.
Demographic--a sign of being urbanised.
Practical--a means of reducing the amount spent on clothing.
Domestic--a way of keeping the males of the family contented.

However, most of these categories apply to women who have returned to the veil, and therefore it is possible to add tradition and compulsion to the list. Such field studies demonstrate that simplistic conceptions of the veil by Western commentators on the condition of Muslim women should be avoided. On the contrary, the veil may be a symbol of freedom and emancipation to those that wear it."

Let me add of course that some of the above categories can and do overlap and of course the phenomenom of mixed or complex motivations should be kept in mind when interpreting such "field studies," indeed, even such a well-known phenomenon as "adaptive preference formation" is germane to discussion of such reports. At any rate, the "complexity of veiling" reminds us how this issue is not about "Islamic tradition" simpliciter, despite the fact that the women involved are self-identified as Muslims.

In Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (2005), Saba Mahmood notes the that in the cases of Egypt, Turkey and France we find the regulation of Islamic practices when they "depart from state-endorsed forms, [and thus] are met with the disciplinary force of the state apparatus." Her discussion is exemplary and worth quoting in full:

"Even though there are important differences between the political cultures of these three countries, it is striking that a mundane article of clothing has provoked similar reactions among otherwise dissimilar liberal and would-be liberal states. I would argue that the reason the veil elicits such strong responses is that it continues to assert a kind of religiosity that is incommensurable with, and inimical to, those forms of public sociability that a secular liberal polity seeks to make normative. Differently put, one can say that the forms of attire toward which secular-liberal morality claims indifference are indexical precisely of the kind of religiosity that makes such a secular-liberal morality possible in the first place. The indifference is put into question when nonliberal forms of religiosity claim the public space, and wittingly or unwittingly challenge the premise of this indifference. The fact that men's religious attire in the context of public schools--such as Jewish men's yarmulkes or Sikh men's turbans--do not elicit the same response further suggests that women's adoption of religious clothing is taken to be a sign of social coercion in a way that men's wearing of religiously symbolic clothing is not."

In addition, Mahmood's study reinforces several points made by Haddad and Zuhur above.

Patrick S. O'Donnell said...

Over at Opinio Juris today there's a symposium on an article relevant to this discussion by Peter Danchin, "Suspect Symbols: Value Pluralism as a Theory of Religious Freedom in International Law," The Yale Journal of International Law, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Winter 2008).