western feminism and Islamic values

Kudos to Jill at Feministe for raising the issue of how oppressive head-scarf bans are - just as oppressive in their own way as mandatory burqas. She quotes extensively from an article in the NYT written by a Turkish woman detailing her experiences with the ban at Turkish universities. I found this particularly cogent:

Ms. Benli was the first person in her family to get a college education. She earned her law degree before the state began to enforce the ban in the late 1990s. But her two years of additional graduate work was stopped by the restriction, an interpretation of an earlier court ruling. A 300-page master’s thesis at Istanbul University law school had to be orally defended on campus. Her mother, also covered, pressed her to remove her scarf, to no avail.

“I just couldn’t do it,” Ms. Benli said in an interview in her small law office this week. “I left the room crying. They marked me absent.”

She says the reasons, deeply personal and hard to put into words, are a combination of her relationship to God and her aversion to accepting what she sees as misplaced authority.

“This is related to my private life,” she said. “It’s my personality. My wholeness.”

In one particularly traumatic example, as told to Ms. Benli by several of her clients, a university rector forced several women to uncover their heads in front of him, in order to obtain his signature to allow them to transfer out of the college he was taking over and no longer allowing them to attend.

The state, she said, was saying, “No matter what you think, I can make you do what I want,” an attitude which, if obeyed, made one feel “degraded.”

An analogy might be if the Dean of a college required women to strip to their underwear before receiving their diploma. It might be more cloth than the woman wears the next day at the beach, but whether the cloth is imposed upon or forbidden from, it is the woman's sense of self-modesty that is violated.

Unfortunately, many feminists argue that "less is more" with respect to clothing and that taking clothing off equals empowerment. My classic essay on the Burka and the Bikini drew much criticism from feminists because they could not accept that a bikini could also be oppressive. This mindset manifests immediately in comments to the post at Feministe:

I don’t agree with headscarves/burqas, in that they’re clearly tools designed to supress female freedom/identity. Yet at the same time I obviously hope everyone has the freedom to wear what they damned please, and some women clearly want to cover themselves in this (to my, western eyes) demeaning fashion- and they should have the freedom to do so, and go where they please when they do. Yet some women are clearly forced to wear these things against thier will (or, worse still, have lost sight of even the concept of having a choice in the matter at all).

Note how the commentor is compelled to raise the issue of forced-veiling and is much more comfortable with denouncing that aspect of control, whereas the right to veil is treated with dripping condescension, "clearly" demeaning. It's essentially impossible to communicate with people of this mindset, the best you can do is register your dissent and hope that a reader coming across it will understand our point of view.

The danger in allying western muslim political identity to the Left should be clear. Muslims must remain an independent entity from the greater Left, because the secular divide is simply impossible to cross. At best we can be allied against external threats but we must be wary - a headscarf ban is not outside the realm of the possible here in the United States, should Progressivism grow ascendant. The greatest bulwark against it woudl be to articulate our own liberal, Islamic sense of feminism in which we fully embrace the right of a woman to choose her expression of faith and reject any a-priori assumptions about how much cloth - too much, or too little - is intrinsically oppressive.

UPDATE: I cross-posted this at DailyKos and the resulting debate was quite vigorous. I think the comment by Jerome a Paris, one of DK's better-known voices, is instructive of the secular divide to which I refer.

No comments: