Friday, April 09, 2010

More on veils

Man, it's been a crazy week. Anyway . . .

The issue of veils really stirs up a debate in the West. I recall this from one Internet thread discussing it:

"The reality of the veil is cultural apartheid. The reality of the veil is it is a symbol of oppression of women in many cultures."

I do not think it can be viewed solely on those terms, even now. The veil has practical reasons for its use (dust storms come to mind). We in the West may view it as symbolic oppression but it cannot be seen that way in absolute terms as it was also a practical dress code, which was further galvanized under religious ideology.
Note that plenty of Islamic nations are not in deserts, and veils are not commonly used there (now that I think about it there may even be a correlation between how common veils are in a society and how dry & dusty it is, but I digress), yet women in countries without veils still face significant challenges in terms of discrimination and rights.

Rather than us in the West pontificating about what veils do and don't mean let's see what some Arab feminists think. I found one recap of a recent feminist conference [I have paraphrased key points from one speech]

Arab Feminisms: A Critical Perspective | International Conference | October 4 – 7, 2009
Mervat F. Hatem, Ph.D., a Professor of Political Science at Howard University in Washington D.C., chose 3 main points to highlight:

-- There is a critical need to re-evaluate the voices of women in our Arab history, which is entirely biased towards men even when it comes to advances in women’s rights.

-- It is our mission to criticize the views of Arab “modernity” that were born out of colonial histories and to also criticize governmentalities that used motherhood in the service of nation-building, boxing women into that familial role.

-- We must also critically take on the feminist debates and political divisions of secular vs. religious feminists and women, of the middle class in particular.
Women’s rights activists continue to face great oppression in our countries, such as the targeted attacks of women in public demonstrations in Egypt, the tarnishing of reputations of activists in Tunisia, and the direct violence against women during the civil war in Algeria.

The topic of Muslim Feminism is a crucial one for us to address during this conference, Hatem asserted. The dominance of the secularist discourse of Arab feminism has led many to believe that secularism is the only solution to women’s problems. We should challenge such views and allow room for different feminisms, particularly Islamic Feminism, to emerge. Muslim feminists would still be able to deny the projects of Islamic nation-building while, at the same time, promoting Islamic Feminism. It is always dangerous when any feminist discourse claims to be the only correct discourse. Hatem affirmed that she refused discourses around the veil for example, which, in the name of feminism, deny Muslim women the right to their own choices.

It would appear that Prof. Hatem feels there are far bigger issues than wearing veils.

What about in Qatar (again I have paraphrased a recent article, and btw she does not wear a veil):

Secretary general of the Supreme Council for Family Affairs Noor al-Malki talking at the 5th Arab-European dialogue on women’s rights, organised by the National Human Rights Committee (NHRC) called yesterday for:

-- (temporaily) enacting a special legislation that regulates the rights of Qatari women married to foreigners and their children, to guarantee those children the same rights to education and health as that of the citizens.

-- quash all articles that discriminate against Qatari woman (married to foreigners) and recognising her children’s rights to automatic citizenship

-- an amendment to some of the articles of the country’s criminal code is needed to secure better protection to the victims of violence in the family.

-- abolishing the ban on appointing women in certain positions, that they were entitled to equal privileges like men.

-- protect housemaids by issuing a special legislation to protect them from all types of violations.

Plenty of big issues that need dealing with, including some that were dealt with in the West up to 100 years ago. Ms al-Malki is clearly outspoken and critical about ertain aspects of how women are treated in Qatar. No mention about veils though. And Qatar is a predominately Wahhabist nation, as is Saudi Arabia.

I am not sure that Arab feminists see the veil in the same way that we do in the West, and thus do not really understand why the West fixates on it. I suspect that most Arab feminists would prefer the West spend its time and resources pressuring Arab governments to address the real problems women face in these countries instead of the debates on whether to ban what the West subjectively interprets as symbols of oppression or lack of freedom.

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