Is There Feminist Discourse Beyond The Veil?

Illustration for article titled Is There Feminist Discourse Beyond The Veil?

Whenever I talk with Fatemeh about feminist issues, one of her most common laments is how the obsession with the veil obscures conversations about the issues Muslim women face. Today, I read two articles that illustrate why.

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The first article, from the new Economist, is actually a book review titled "Out from under." It covers Mania Lazregs' Questioning the Veil: Open Letters to Muslim Women.

The summary really says it all:

Marnia Lazreg, an Algerian-born professor of sociology at the City University of New York, feels passionately that Muslim women should not wear the veil, as both her mother and grandmother obediently did. She is particularly bothered by the trend of "reveiling" in the West and Islamic countries, whereby the daughters of women who went unveiled decide to cover up. But she also thinks that democratic governments should not impose dress codes by law. So she has written this collection of letters to Muslim women to try to coax them out from under the veil.

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I toyed with rehashing things already written, with asking Fatemeh or Sobia to come and discuss why Muslim women may find themselves feeling the need to cover, either out of piety or political solidarity, why the fear of the headscarf is rooted in ideas of a frightening other, or how there are many Muslimahs who don't feel the need to cover (like Fatemeh) who still resent the imposition and policing of her beliefs by anyone.

But you know what? That gets enough air time and I'm sure there will be more segments on the news shortly. So let's talk a new film out of Egypt called Scheherazade: Tell Me a Story. From the Yahoo! article:

"Scheherazade: Tell Me a Story," screened at the Venice film festival outside the main competition, tells the story of Hebba, a successful talk-show host whose husband urges her to steer clear of politics in order to forward his own career.

As the deputy editor of a state-run newspaper in Cairo, Karim has been told by officials he is in line for the top job as long as his wife tones down the provocative content of her popular television slot.

But by inviting women to tell their personal, tragic stories, she unwittingly exposes fundamental flaws in Egyptian society where, the film argues, women are treated as sexual trophies and used and abused as men see fit.

When a man who tricks one of the women in order to extort money turns out to be a senior party figure, Hebba's comfortable life and seemingly perfect marriage begin to fall apart.

So here's the story of a woman, who asks other women to speak their truth and becomes an accidental whistleblower. Hebba, the heroine of the story, isn't trying to do anything but explain what is going on in the lives of the people she puts on her show. Yet, in one of the best illustrations of how the personal is political, her quest for the truth leads her to run afoul of powerful interests, and cause strife between Hebba and her ambitious husband. Check out the trailer (and a translation would be appreciated, if anyone speaks Arabic):

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Domestic violence, marginalization, abortion - this film is tackling the standard fare of women's issues head on. In addition to this feat, the filmmaker had even loftier goals:

In production notes for the movie, Nasrallah said that as well as addressing "the misogyny prevailing in Egyptian society," his aim was to put women back at the center of Egyptian cinema which marginalized them for more than 20 years.

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In the film, women are show both veiled and unveiled, but still struggling under the crushing weight of society. And this is why I feel like epics written about the act of veiling fall short. Is it good to examine the motivations for why women veil? Sure, why wouldn't we? It's kind of like why we examine black women's hair choices. These are personal things that are also very politicized and our choices send a message, whether we agree with the transmission or not. But it is important to remember that just like the issue with black hair isn't about what's growing out of our heads, but racism and dominant beauty standards, questions about the lives of Muslim women shouldn't be ascribed solely to the headscarf when we're really talking about misogyny.

(Oh, and the pic illustrating this post? They are school girls in Belgium protesting a headscarf ban.)

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Official Site [Muslimah Media Watch]
Out From Under [The Economist]
Muslim Lookout [Official Site]
Scheherazade, Tell Me A Story [Screen Daily]
Egyptian Film On Women's Role Draws Ire And Praise [Reuters]

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DISCUSSION

I'm going to write directly and without censoring myself, but will make this caveat first: I'm not a racist, and I'm not religious, at all. I'm a humanist, I guess, an atheist myself, but tolerant toward religious life.

Here's what bothers me about the veil: When I see women wearing the veil, I get the distinct impression from them that they consider me unclean and horrible for not wearing one. As if their facial expressions convey "you are dirty and beneath me. I am a pious woman of G-d and you are an unkempt heathen"

I also get this impression from women in Conservative Christian or Christian Orthodox garb, and from some Orthodox Jewish women in their extremely modest clothing and wigs.

As if my running around with my wild, thick, exposed and untamed hair is a personal affront to them. I dress rather conservatively, but my hair has a life of it's own. Some veiled and/or wigged women just make me feel uncomfortable being myself around them.

Granted, I could be misinterpreting their facial expressions. It could be they are just expecting me to hate them and put on the "bitch" face at me in order to defend themselves.

I could give specific examples, but there's just too many to note.

I live in Seattle, and take public transportation everywhere. Most of the nasty looks I've received in this context are from other bus riders.