When I was required to wear a hijab on a visit to a mosque as part of an assignment for a college class on Islam, I was furious. I felt that covering up -- even for an hour -- would be a betrayal of my feminist beliefs, as compromising as performing in a "Girls Gone Wild" video under the pretext of an academic study. I'd read plenty of essays by female Muslim scholars arguing for the veil's capacity beyond subjugation, but I didn't buy it -- until I walked down a seedy stretch of peep-show row in San Francisco en route to the mosque. Running the gantlet of catcallers and so-called massage parlors primed me for covering up -- and, ultimately, wearing the hijab turned out to be one of those college-appropriate culturally eye-opening experiences.
That surprising experience is why I'm receptive, though limitedly, to Yvonne Ridley's Washington Post Op-Ed about her complete 180 on the veil. The opening line of her essay declares: "I used to look at veiled women as quiet, oppressed creatures -- until I was captured by the Taliban." It's a dramatic entry into her experience of being detained while reporting in Afghanistan; she was arrested and held for 10 days until she promised her captors that she would study Islam.
Ridley kept her word and read the Quran. She expected to find misogynistic pronouncements, but instead found "passages promoting the liberation of women"; she wound up converting to Islam two and a half years after her ordeal in Afghanistan. Now, she views the escalating veil fracas in the U.K., and now stateside, with "disgust and dismay." Ridley isn't necessarily defending the veil, but she argues 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."
But when it comes to hiding women behind yards of cloth, what value could Westerners be missing? Well, Ridley sees the veil -- as well as "child brides, female circumcision, honor killings and forced marriages" -- as cultural issues that "have nothing to do with Islam." Unfortunately, what seems at first like a common-sense distinction between the sacred text and its modern interpretation eventually digresses; completely exonerating Islam of its extreme adherents' cultural practices seems as dubious as denying Christianity's relationship to Bible-based homophobia or opposition to abortion. But Ridley does make an important point: The niqab -- the full-face veil at the focus of this debate -- is not required by Islam. Modest dress is what is required, and Muslim women take that decree to different ends.
The tricky thing about this debate is that it's not just about the role of women in Muslim society. Women who opt for the veil, especially in Western cities, often do so in reaction to political and cultural attitudes toward Islam. As Paul Cruickshank argued in the New York Times this weekend, "Frustrated by unemployment rates more than double those of members of other religious groups, put off by stereotyping in the news media and estranged from British foreign policy, many alienated Muslims have turned to more overt forms of religiosity to express a contrarian identity ... Calls by British politicians for Muslim women to stop wearing the niqab will only enhance the political symbolism of this act and make its practice more widespread." Cruickshank proposes that, "instead, what is needed is an ambitious program to address the core grievances of Britain's young Muslims."
Ridley's Washington Post essay also frames the veil as a symbolic rejection of "Western excesses such as binge drinking, casual sex and drug use." She asks facetiously, "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?" She also highlights the obvious ways that women are oppressed in Western society: Men receive better pay for the same work and women are often "treated as sexualized commodities." She skewers the idea that the 2003 Miss Earth competition effected a "victory of women's rights" when the pageant's Miss Afghanistan participated in the bikini event.
This, I think, is where the valid calls for cultural tolerance become absurdly relativistic. Women choose to wear a niqab or hijab for complex personal, political and religious reasons, but just because those reasons are valid doesn't mean that veiling is automatically preferable to Western-style sexism. And gaining the freedom to strip off in a pageant competition is a dubious advance at best, but the fact that an Afghan woman whose sexuality and physical form had previously been repressed and demonized was able to appear in a bikini in public may nevertheless have been an advance -- if an incremental one -- for women. But as long as we have this debate in terms of West vs. East, or repression vs. objectification, we will keep missing the point of how to most effectively enfranchise women of all cultures.
Critics of the niqab raise the valid point that it can be hard to communicate with the veils' wearers. But this justification seems like an overlay for a campaign to stamp out a culturally dissonant practice. Those who object to the veil undoubtedly have good intentions, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the recent niqab debates are alienating and silencing more Muslim women in the U.K. than they are empowering.