A section of western feminists or rather ‘white’ feminists have routinely asserted that the veil is largely forced on women and thus is a symbol of patriarchy and misogyny in Islamic countries and communities. This is one of the many essentialist arguments offered to validate the mistreatment of hapless Muslim women at the hands of brutish men taking away their rights and violating them. Thus, all Muslim women become victims and who lack the agency to make conscious decisions.
Such views within the mainstream feminist movement are dangerous and tend to overlook the diversity of women’s experiences within Islamic societies that are as varied and multi-layered as those of women in the West. While the veil is often a result of subjugation and coercion it is also a symbol of empowerment, liberation and a conscious choice for many Muslim women globally. Many Muslim women have veiled as a fashion statement, fought against their families for their right to wear the abaya, covered themselves to show solidarity towards the Palestinian cause and even donned the hijab as a reaction to and opposition towards Western cultural values.
In this sense, the debates on veiling as oppressive, highlight three key failures of the mainstream Western feminist movement. First, through neglecting the concept of intersectionality, the hybridity of feminist movements worldwide is largely ignored. Intersectional feminism accounts for concurrent identities beyond gender, including religion, race, class and ethnicity and their interplay with the struggle for equality. A lack of intersectionality neglects the struggles and experiences of women of color, trans women and even women from arguably ‘barbaric’ cultures. In this sense, mainstream feminism currently falls into the trap of cultural relativism, where the feminist identity is overwhelmingly limited to higher-class white women, otherising Muslim women.
Second, mainstream feminism has been unable to bridge the gap between religion or Islam and feminism, which has often led to it being labeled as ‘pro-West’ and ‘anti-Islam’. This creates an inherent incompatibility between following Islam and at the same time, advocating gender equality. On the contrary, there is a rich tradition of Islamic feminists, fighting for women’s rights, under the premise that inequality within Muslim communities stems from the way in which men subscribing to patriarchy have analyzed religious texts. This includes scholars such as Amina Wadud, Fatima Mernissi and Asma Barlas, who focus on a feminist reinterpretation of the Quran.
Subsequently, the lack of inclusion meant that many feminist struggles within the Muslim world have consistently gone unnoticed. Some of the critical efforts for women’s rights included the 2012 protests in Jordan where women opposed controversial rape laws, the protests in Tunisia where women pushed for more gender equality the country’s new Constitution and the more recent 2018 Aurat March (a variation of the Women’s March) protests in Pakistan where women took to the streets to reclaim public spaces, demanding justice and equality for women.
Lastly, a lack of intersectionality also leads mainstream feminism (or imperialist feminism) to serve the very interests of imperialists and the hawks, who seek legitimacy for foreign occupation in Muslim countries. Lila Abu-Lughod, who wrote ‘Do Muslim Women Need Saving?’ argued that a form of colonial feminism was evident in Laura Bush’s speech in the run up to the 2001 United States’ (US) intervention in Afghanistan where one of the key goals was to ‘free Muslim women who are imprisoned in their homes’. For the longest time, this led to the perpetuation of the stereotypical victimized Afghan woman, who needs to be saved from the Taliban and Afghan men. The same logic then extends to the false link between veiling and oppression, where all Muslim women need to be liberated by denouncing the veil and protecting them from the men who enforce it. Gayatri Spivak in her essay, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ perfectly sums up this ‘Orientalist’ rhetoric as, ‘white men saving brown women from brown men’.
Mainstream feminism with its strong links to secularism and western values, has a tendency to perceive Islam as inherently misogynist. This then decreases support for the movement from men and women in the Muslim world, who see it as an extension of a western agenda to demonise their culture and beliefs. Mainstream feminism has the potential to become a form of ‘universal sisterhood’ and unite women, even men, against gender-based violence and discrimination. As such, mainstream feminists fighting for gender equality need to understand that all feminists regardless of their race, religion or ethnicity are fighting for the same goal: to make the world a better, safer and more equal place for every woman.
The writer is a senior analyst with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and is interested in gender and security issues.