Monday, July 5, 2010

Smokers’ Corner: Manly manoeuvres By Nadeem F. Paracha


It is rather startling to note how the powerful ‘Women’s Lib’ movement in the 1970s was manhandled by certain sections of society in the West. They scrapped the intellectual aspects of the concept and used the fruits of the movement by simply exhibiting it as a way to justify nudity.

The above was what most frontline women activists of the movement bemoaned, alluding that their movement’s many positive social outcomes had been misused. In fact, such is also the view of a majority of conservative Muslim thinkers — especially those who have been at the forefront of encouraging the usage of veil among Muslim women.

Interestingly, a lot of young Muslim women who adorn the hijab/burqa suggest that veiling demonstrates their liberation from becoming an object of the pitfalls of the Women’s Lib movement. But just as one is correct to point out that these pitfalls involve emancipated women who shroud their obvious objectification by describing it as liberation, one isn’t too far off the mark to also question the other side of the divide.

For example, can a woman who adorns a hijab and explains it as a liberating act, may as well be submitting to the historical male-driven tradition of claiming control over women? The immediate history of the misinterpreted aspects of the Women’s Lib movement suggests that its negative pitfalls, such as the commercial objectification of the female body was/is largely the handiwork of men. On the other end, various Muslim women authors and thinkers believe that the practice of adorning the veil by Muslim women remains a diktat of men.

They say that the practice of observing purdah or wearing the hijab is an outcome of laws and social mores constructed over the last many centuries by judges, ulema and lawmakers who were all male. The holy book addresses the faithful women, who are told to shield their private parts and not to display their adornment ‘except what is apparent of it’. Scholarly disputes in the Muslim world revolve around what this last phrase means.

To modern Muslim thinkers like Professor Ziauddin Sardar, Iranian woman activist and art historian, Dr Faegheh Shirazi, and renowned Algerian scholar Muhammad Arkoun, much of the holy book must be understood allegorically. This means its message is largely in the abstract domain that when comprehended and related in a literal manner creates confusion and misinterpretation.

Such scholars believe that Muslim women enjoyed great autonomy in public and private life during the time of the Prophet (PBUH) — an autonomy that later Muslim kings and ulema took away. According to Prof Omid Safi and Muslim women activists such as Assra Q. Nomani and Amina Wadud, the issue of hijab is often used by conservative Muslims as a weapon against the struggle of Muslim women who want to understand the autonomy enjoyed by women during the Holy Prophet’s time. These struggling women want to undo what came afterwards in the shape of various gender-biased laws and social practices aimed at subduing and controlling women.

Reacting to the forced veiling practised in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and in some parts of Pakistan, Prof Ziauddin Sardar says that modesty should not be reduced to a piece of cloth, rather it should be a total package of behaviour and a distinctive moral outlook. Most progressive Muslim scholars have accused traditional and literalist interpretations of Islamic customs that deal with the issue. They believe these interpretations propagate that unveiled women alone are responsible for a lack of moral modesty, not to say sexual obsession of men.

They say that Islam clearly talks about how men too should behave in front of women, so how come, over the centuries, it is only women who were asked to dress properly? There have been cases in various Muslim countries where men, after assaulting or raping a woman, said that they did so because ‘she was asking for it’; meaning that not adorning the veil amounted to an invitation to assault.

Such thinking unfortunately is not all that uncommon amongst many men. While we busy ourselves in discussing the ubiquitous veil issue in countries like France and in secular Muslim republics like Turkey, bemoaning the discrimination faced by Muslim women who use the veil, we conveniently forget that in most Muslim countries women who believe that modest dressing prescribed by the faith can also be demonstrated without the use of a veil come under pressure. Much of this pressure is from men — most of whom blame an unveiled woman for all the sinful thoughts that emerge in them. But these women are also facing a telling pressure from the ever-increasing number of veiled women.

This begs the question: is it really liberation that a woman feels behind a veil, or is this liberation only about freeing oneself from the thought of ever daring to challenge male-dominated interpretations of exactly how a Muslim woman should dress and behave?