Greetings from the Land of Enchantment: October 2009

Thursday, October 08, 2009

The Veil

Apologies for the long absence....lots of work...and lots of new developments. But first an item from the news. Today the esteemed Islamic University in Cairo, Al-Azhar, declared that the veil that covers the face would be prohibited in women only classes and dormitories. There's a great article about it by Asra Nomani on The Daily Beast. Here's my letter to her in response to a portion of the article:

Greetings Ms. Nomani,
I appreciated your article about the veil at the Islamic University in Cairo. I found most interesting your argument as quoted here:

“Interpretations requiring women to cover their hair in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have been part of a wider ethos that sexualizes women and puts the moral order of the world upon our shoulders, quite literally. It’s a disturbing pattern that leads to women carrying the burden of the honor of a community. At its most tolerant, it leads to gossip and condemnation; at its worst, to honor killings.”

As an American Sikh, and hence someone who wears a ‘uniform’ of sorts, which includes a head-covering, I found your comment regarding the ‘moral order’ of society upon the ‘shoulders’ of women very interesting, especially in light of the rationale that follows it. I would argue that the most elevated (or tolerant) outcome of a woman presenting herself in a particular way is not gossip and condemnation, but rather a grace and a radiance that uplifts everyone around her—especially men. And that the worst outcome would be a hate crime like honor killings is terrifying to me. But fanaticism and corruption often have terrifying ends.

Perhaps because our cultural backgrounds are so different, and hence our experience of a particular kind of dress as alternately oppressive or strange or uplifting, my choice to wear a head covering will never make sense to you. But as an American woman, whose entire life has been surrounded by the sexual exploitation of women, women as property, women as tools for commerce, and worse, women as actual sexual slaves, the idea of wearing something that took me outside of that model, removed me, so to speak, from the mainstream interpretations of my body and my purpose as a women –to sell things—was a refreshing alternative.

I agree that it often feels extraordinarily unfair that women bear the ‘moral order’ of a society; but head covering or not, the task still falls to us. Not that men don’t bear responsibility; but they are the products of women, the husbands, brothers, and sons of women. We do, in large part, create the world we live in.

I can see that from a culture where the misogyny is so outwardly expressed—and even canonized to an extent—that the freedom of not wearing a head covering would be experienced as liberating. But from a culture where the misogyny of women is much more internalized, and expressed in exploitation and commodification of women, then perhaps you can understand the freedom that I find in wearing a head covering.

I can also wear the head covering, without the usual cultural conditions placed upon it, because I’m Western—and because the men in our communities fall under the same guidelines. They, too, wear a head covering.

Anyway, I just wanted to express how much I appreciated your article and to dialogue a bit with your conclusions regarding the ‘veil’ and how it plays out culturally, because I had never thought about the outcomes in that way. I can only speak to my own experience. I have lived fully both dimensions—and I appreciate the gifts that wearing a head covering has brought to me. But I can appreciate them as gifts simply because it’s my choice—it’s not forced upon me.

Sat Purkh Kaur Khalsa

Who knows if it's a step in the right direction for Islam? I'm sure we'll find out. But with calls from feminists to to not abandon Afghanistan and the increase of awareness around women's rights being human rights all around the world, it will be interesting to witness the affect this prestigious university's decision has on the world of Muslim women.