Interestingly, the Washington Post is carrying three op-ed pieces today touching on women and Islam, Clothes Aren’t the Issue, by Asra Q. Nomani, How I Came to Love the Veil by Yvonne Ridley and Coverings Uncovered by Farzaneh Milani.
In Nomani’s piece, the veil is incidental to the rest of the article, which focuses on the problem of domestic violence within Islamic houses, and how that “permitted” violence can be extrapolated as permissable violence within the world:
Western leaders, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, have recently focused on Muslim women’s veils as an obstacle to integration in the West. But to me, it is 4:34 that poses the much deeper challenge of integration. How the Muslim world interprets this passage will reveal whether Islam can be compatible with life in the 21st century. As Hadayai Majeed, an African American Muslim who had opened a shelter in Atlanta to serve Muslim women, put it, “If it’s okay for me to be a savage in my home, it’s okay for me to be a savage in the world.”
Not long after… Mahmoud Shalash, an imam from Lexington, Ky., stood at the pulpit of my mosque and offered marital advice to the 100 or so men sitting before him. He repeated the three-step plan, with “beat them” as his final suggestion. Upstairs, in the women’s balcony, sat a Muslim friend who had recently left her husband, who she said had abused her; her spouse sat among the men in the main hall.
At the sermon’s end, I approached Shalash. “This is America,” I protested. “How can you tell men to beat their wives?”
“They should beat them lightly,” he explained. “It’s in the Koran.”
Nomani also writes: As long as the beating of women is acceptable in Islam, the problem of suicide bombers, jihadists and others who espouse violence will not go away; to me, they form part of a continuum.
Interestingly, she ends her piece with some anecdotal evidence: should a woman make it clear to her husband that she would tolerate nothing so much as “a crack with a rolled-up newspaper,” this whole question of wife-beating would disappear.
Which suggests that if target countries and civilizations were to make it clear that they will not tolerate terrorism…ah, well. You can finish that sentence.
Milani’s piece looks at the ancient and recent history of the veil and points out that there have always been Islamic women who loved the veil, and who hated it.
The most interesting, passionate and defensive of these three pieces is Yvonne Ridley’s How I Came to Love the Veil. Ridley’s conversion to Islam came after briefly being held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan, during which time she promised her captives she would “study” Islam when set free:
Back home in London, I kept my word about studying Islam — and was amazed by what I discovered. I’d been expecting Koran chapters on how to beat your wife and oppress your daughters; instead, I found passages promoting the liberation of women. Two-and-a-half years after my capture, I converted to Islam…
Having been on both sides of the veil, I can tell you that most Western male politicians and journalists who lament the oppression of women in the Islamic world have no idea what they are talking about.
Riley makes a heady defense for the veil and – in fine Western feminist fashion – she lashes out at the Western men who dare to critique the mandatory wearing of it She conveniently forgets to mention that Western men have been trained over decades – by women like herself – to find this Muslim garb objectionable. She also seems not to realize that one of the first Western voices raised against enforced coverage was a woman’s voice, as Mavis Leno, wife of Jay Leno, worked for years to bring attention to the subjegation of Muslim women.
Her piece is a fascinating hodgepodge of past and present prejudices all jumbling about as Riley works to justify her conversion from a feminist standpoint. Whether intending to or not, she demonstrates the mystery of voluntary surrender and the Pauline paradox, “when I am weak, then I am strong.” In this case, the paradox is the often true one that with (voluntary, I reiterate) subjugation comes freedom:
A careful reading of the Koran shows that just about everything that Western feminists fought for in the 1970s was available to Muslim women 1,400 years ago. Women in Islam are considered equal to men in spirituality, education and worth, and a woman’s gift for childbirth and child-rearing is regarded as a positive attribute.
Hmph. I think I could say precisely the same thing about Catholicism – in fact I have – but I somehow doubt a woman like Riley would concur with my assertions. I doubt very much that she would look at, for instance, a Catholic nun in a traditional habit and see a woman who has been freed from social conformities (no fretting over hair, clothing, boob size) and is thus able to be reckoned with simply as and for herself, as a woman in full, and yet this is what she now declares she finds under the veil:
I was a Western feminist for many years, but I’ve discovered that Muslim feminists are more radical than their secular counterparts. We hate those ghastly beauty pageants, and tried to stop laughing in 2003 when judges of the Miss Earth competition hailed the emergence of a bikini-clad Miss Afghanistan, Vida Samadzai, as a giant leap for women’s liberation…
Some young Muslim feminists consider the hijab and the nikab political symbols, too, a way of rejecting Western excesses such as binge drinking, casual sex and drug use. What is more liberating: being judged on the length of your skirt and the size of your surgically enhanced breasts, or being judged on your character and intelligence? In Islam, superiority is achieved through piety — not beauty, wealth, power, position or sex.
Under Islam, I am respected. It tells me that I have a right to an education and that it is my duty to seek out knowledge, regardless of whether I am single or married. Nowhere in the framework of Islam are we told that women must wash, clean or cook for men. As for how Muslim men are allowed to beat their wives — it’s simply not true. Critics of Islam will quote random Koranic verses or hadith, but usually out of context. If a man does raise a finger against his wife, he is not allowed to leave a mark on her body, which is the Koran’s way of saying, “Don’t beat your wife, stupid.”
Clearly, as demonstrated in the other two featured op-eds, Riley’s interpretation of that Koranic verse is not everyone’s. Further, I would argue that under any religious system, not merely Islam, all of the things she is claiming for herself would be equally available to her. Riley probably doesn’t realize this because very likely her previous religion was the religion of PC secularism, which is all about rhetoric and illusion. Having fully embraced its illusions, she can never again claim for herself a “Western” religion without losing her feminist face. Hence she has turned Eastward, and covered it.
In some ways, Riley certainly does make it sound attractive. I have spoken with nuns who wear traditional or near-traditional habits and they tell me they appreciate the freedom of the garb, that it unshackles them from concerns of hair-dressing and wardrobe fussing, leaving them free to do what they think of as their “proper” work, so I can appreciate Riley’s sense of liberation under the veil. But some of what she has written here sounds like protesting too much.
It would not surprise me, though, to see other feminist women decide to take the veil of Islam in order to declare themselves liberated, partly because so many feminists, particularly radical feminists, are all about rejection of Western norms, extreme action and, yes, trendy thought. I’ve wondered for a year or more whether we might see a number of Western women go “undercover” because it seems glamorous, rebellious and edgy, and I wonder if this Sunday Hajib Edition of the Washington Post is not going to be the catalyst for such a trend. Perhaps.
And perhaps the feminist embrasure of head coverings and veils might be a boon and a saving adjustment to Islam…depending, I suppose, on just how tightly rolled is the newspaper.
UPDATE: Beth gives us some interesting background on Yvonne Riley.
Crossposted at The Anchoress Online