Feminists face off over the veil

Naomi Wolf and Phyllis Chesler go head-to-head and conservatives rush into the ring

Topics: Feminism, Broadsheet,

Pull up a chair and grab some popcorn, because there’s another battle royal raging over the veil. In one corner, we have Naomi Wolf, third-wave feminist heavyweight and author of “The Beauty Myth,” defending Muslim garb. In the other, we have Phyllis Chesler, second-waver and author of “The Death of Feminism,” attacking both the veil and Wolf for daring to defend it.

The first shot was fired with the Sydney Morning Herald’s publication of an article by Wolf headlined “Behind the veil lives a thriving Muslim sexuality.” She recounts her travels in Morocco, Jordan and Egypt, and the time she spent with women in “typical Muslim households.” She observes, “It is not that Islam suppresses sexuality, but that it embodies a strongly developed sense of its appropriate channelling — toward marriage, the bonds that sustain family life, and the attachment that secures a home.” There was “demureness and propriety” outside of the home, “but inside, women were as interested in allure, seduction and pleasure as women anywhere in the world.”

Then, Wolf turns to the inevitable comparison with Western styles of dress. Many of the Muslim women she spoke with said that revealing get-ups cause men to stare at and objectify them. Wearing a headscarf or chador, however, leads people to “relate to me as an individual, not an object,” they told her. When Wolf went to the local bazaar wearing a shalwar kameez and a headscarf, which hid her womanly curves and wild hair, she “felt a novel sense of calm and serenity” and even, “in certain ways, free.”

She ends the essay, however, with a colossal caveat:

I do not mean to dismiss the many women leaders in the Muslim world who regard veiling as a means of controlling women. Choice is everything. But Westerners should recognise that when a woman in France or Britain chooses a veil, it is not necessarily a sign of her repression. And, more importantly, when you choose your own miniskirt and halter top — in a Western culture in which women are not so free to age, to be respected as mothers, workers or spiritual beings, and to disregard Madison Avenue — it’s worth thinking in a more nuanced way about what female freedom really means.

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Wolf isn’t defending forced veiling or even the veil itself. She’s arguing in defense of women’s individual experiences of veiling. Much like any decent anthropology 101 professor, Wolf is trying to force a shift in the perspective of her Western readers so that we might seriously consider the possibility that some Muslim women truly and legitimately see dressing scantily in public as repressive and experience covering up outside of their home as freeing. Let’s not forget whom we’re talking about here: Wolf penned “The Beauty Myth,” a book that indicts all of the culturally specific ways that women’s bodies are controlled and manipulated in the West.

Chesler is horrified by Wolf’s argument and doesn’t pull any punches in a blog response titled “The Burqa: Ultimate Feminist Choice?” It bears the taunting subhead: “Naomi Wolf Discovers That Shrouds Are Sexy.” Chesler hyperbolizes Wolf’s argument, suggesting that she sees women in chadors as “feminist ninja warriors” and “believes that the marital sex is hotter when women ‘cover’ and reveal their faces and bodies only to their husbands.”

She goes on to contend that “most Muslim girls and women are not given a choice about wearing the chador, burqa, abaya, niqab, jilbab, or hijab (headscarf), and those who resist are beaten, threatened with death, arrested, caned or lashed, jailed, or honor murdered by their own families” and asks whether Wolf is so “thoroughly unfamiliar with the news coming out of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan on these very subjects.” (Never mind that Wolf is talking specifically about the experiences of women she encountered in Morocco, Jordan and Egypt, as well as those of women in France and Britain, where there is great political resistance to Muslim dress.) This caused Wolf to e-mail Chesler to ask that she correct “terrible inaccuracies” in the post. Chesler hit back, posting Wolf’s e-mail along with a hostile response; yesterday, she posted a related item with the subhead, “The Hundred Year War Begins.”

It’s hardly the beginning, though. This feminist debate is long under way. The cultural relativists are firmly rooted on one side; the absolutists are on the other. We can agree on some common ground: It’s appropriate, as Chesler suggests, to talk about, and fight against, the ways that the veil is used to control women. But fighting for the acknowledgment of the nuances of Muslim women’s individual experiences of covering up is still something of a suicide mission. Now, David Horowitz is absurdly proclaiming on NewsReal that “if Naomi Wolf and her radical friends had their way, America would be disarmed and radical Islam would be triumphant and women would be back in the Middle Ages, and the rest of us along with them.” On the same site, Jamie Glazov declares that Wolf “loves the burqa,” despite the fact that the burqa isn’t mentioned once in her article. (He might want to brush up on the different types of veiling before entering such a debate.) Even Ann Coulter has linked to the one-sided online debate.

You might notice that as this conflagration spreads, more and more conservatives — many of whom do not identify as feminists — are rushing in to stoke the fire. As they do, the discussion becomes less about defending women’s rights and more about supporting their ongoing culture war. That reminds me of a line from Wolf’s essay: “Ideological battles are often waged with women’s bodies as their emblems, and Western Islamophobia is no exception.”

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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