Feminism and the power to be (un)recognized

by zunguzungu

O prophet, tell your wives, your daughters, and the wives of the believers that they shall lengthen their garments. Thus, they will be recognized (as righteous women) and avoid being insulted.

The Quran, 33:59 (or, some other translations here)

In comments to the Hitchens post, JR pointed out this Amanda Hess response to Hitchens, a column in “The Sexist” which places Hitchens’ ridiculous “right to see your face” in the context of the generalized authority which (Western) men presume to have in demanding that women‘s bodies in public be sexualized and available to their gaze:

In an essay condemning a cultural institution that prevents men from looking at the faces of women, Hitchens instead argues that men have an inalienable right to stare. Of course, Hitchens phrases this in gender-neutral terms—”My right to see your face is the beginning of it, as is your right to see mine”—that assumes social equivalence between the gazes of women and men. In fact, the gender-neutral approach fails to acknowledge the sexist cultural institutions that allow men to exert ownership over women’s bodies through their gaze—like street harassment and sexual objectification. When a guy passes a woman on the street and tells her to “smile, baby,” he’s asserting authority over her face, her feelings, and how she chooses to express them—or not. Those who would declare their “right” to look at women should first note the social context in which women’s faces are often examined. Forcing a woman to wear the veil is one way to own women’s bodies; declaring that it is your “right” to force her to take it off is just another tactic in the same vein.

This is exactly the right thing to say; a solicitude for the right of women to be commodified as sexual objects of a male gaze is not feminism. Look, for example, at the picture used to illustrate the documentary (un)veiled: Muslim Women Talk About Hijab; even what looks like a reasonableand evenhanded documentary about the variety of ways Muslim women wear and regard different forms of head covering cannot help but advertise itself by selling a sexualized female body. But while people like Hitchens decry the misogyny of hiding a Muslim woman’s face from sight, they have nothing to say about the misogyny of images like this, which hide the woman’s face in our own, very special Western way, cropping the face off camera so that we can focus on her (near) naked body.

But as The Sexist’s next column illustrates, it isn’t just photographers that do this:

At Duke University, reports sociologist and gender studies scholar Michael Kimmel, “the frats have these big benches (as in gigantic and oversized), and they face the major walkways on campus, and so the guys gather and hold up numbers rating the women walking by, or loudly evaluate them.” My mother remembers experiencing something similar when she and a few hundred other women became the first women to attend Yale as undergraduates in 1970: As the women walked through the dining hall with their trays, the male students would hold up score cards to indicate how attractive they found them. Clearly, the harassment that I endure on the streets New York doesn’t just happen in rough neighborhoods or in foreign countries; it happens on the manicured green lawns and crisscrossing walkways of some of the nation’s most exclusive universities, too.

To turn back to veiling, the thing people have to understand is how utterly derivative everything a vacuous shell of an intellect like Hitchens says is from the century old Victorian racist and sexist playbook; if you put your ear to his column, all you hear is the echo of the Orientalist ocean. And just as those old-school anti-Islamists went on and on about how Islam degraded women as a way of arguing for European domination of the Muslim world (while denying European women the right to vote, by the way), the hypocrisy of an Iraq war cheerleader like Hitchens is nicely demonstrated by his overwhelming concern for the rights of Muslim women to show their bodies to him but not so much for the rights of, say, Iraqi women not to have bombs dropped on their bodies.

Instead of reading him, then, read Lila Abu-Lughod on the stupidity of equating any and all forms of Islamic facial covering with the Taliban’s particular mode of misogyny;

“The modern Islamic modest dress that many educated women across the Muslim world have started to wear since the late 1970s now both publicly marks piety and can be read as a sign of educated urban sophistication, a sort of modernity. What many people in the West don’t realize is that the women in Egypt who took up this new form of headcovering, and sometimes even covering their faces, were university students – especially women studying to become medical doctors and engineers.”

After all, as she goes on to point out, it’s only when we’re dealing with other cultures (and particularly Islam) that we presume a monocausal cultural origin for everything and anything pernicious:

“Even if we are critical of the treatment of women in our own societies in Europe or the United States, whether we talk about the glass ceiling that keeps women professionals from rising to the top, the system that keeps so many women-headed households below the poverty line, the high incidence of rape and sexual harassment, or even the exploitation of women in advertising, we do not see this as reflective of the oppressiveness of our culture or a reason to condemn Christianity – the dominant religious tradition. We know such things have complicated causes and we know that some of us, at least, are working to change things.”

Read her entire essay here, or her book Veiled Sentiments about veiling in Western Egypt Bedouin communities. Or read Saba Mahmood’s incredible Politics of Piety which suggests that the Islamic Revival can and does provide a language through which some women are able to control the ways they’re formed as feminine subjects, exerting an important measure of agency over how they’re constituted as female in public (a a measure of control that female students at Duke and elsewhere, for example, seem to quite flagrantly lack), but which, at the very least, prevents us from glibly dismissing something like veiling while excused from the burden of actually knowing anything about it.

Or read Leila Ahmed’s account (which I’ve reproduced below at length) of the historical context in which the discourse that Hitchens is mindlessly repeating comes from, the imperial employment of pseudo-feminism to legitimize imperial aggression:

The peculiar practices of Islam with respect to women had always formed part of the Western narrative of the quintessential otherness and inferiority of Islam. A detailed history of Western representations of women in Islam and of the sources of Western ideas on the subject has yet to be written, but broadly speaking it may be said that prior to the seventeenth century Western ideas about Islam derived from the tales of travelers and crusaders, augmented by the deductions of clerics from their readings of poorly understood Arabic texts. Gradually thereafter, through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, readings of Arabic texts became slightly less vague, and the travelers’ interpretations of what they observed approximated more closely the meanings that the male members of the visited societies attached to the observed customs and phenomena. (Male travelers in Muslim societies had extremely limited access to women, and the explanations and interpretations they brought back, insofar as they represented a native perspective at all, essentially, therefore, gave the male point of view on whatever subject was discussed.)

By the eighteenth century the Western narrative of women in Islam, which was drawn from such sources, incorporated elements that certainly bore a resemblance to the bold external features of the Islamic patterns of male dominance, but at the same time it (1) often garbled and misconstrued the specific content and meaning of the customs described and (2) assumed and represented the Islam practiced in Muslim societies in the periods in which the Europeans encountered and then in some degree or other dominated those societies to be the only possible interpretation of the religion. Previous chapters have already indicated the dissent within Islam as to the different interpretations to which it was susceptible. And some sense of the kinds of distortions and garbling to which Muslim beliefs were subject as a result of Western misapprehension is suggested by the ideas that a few more perceptive Western travelers felt themselves called upon to correct in their own accounts of Muslims. The eighteenth-century writer and traveler Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, for example, attacked the widespread belief among her English contemporaries that Muslims believed that women had no souls, an idea that she explained was untrue. (Montagu believed that many of the misapprehensions of her contemporaries about Islam arose from faulty translations of the Quran made by “Greek Priests, who would not fail to falsity it with the extremity of Malice.”) She also said that having herself not only observed veiled women but also used the veil, she was able to assert that it was not the oppressive custom her compatriots believed it to be and in fact it gave women a kind of liberty, for it enabled them not to be recognized.

(ZZ: compare her interest in being unrecognizable in public to Hitchens’ statement that “all citizens and residents, whatever their confessional allegiance, must be able to recognize one another in the clearest sense of that universal term.”)

But such rebuttals left little mark on the prevailing views of Islam in the West. However, even though Islam’s peculiar practices with respect to women and its “oppression” of women formed some element of the European narrative of Islam from early on, the issue of women only emerged as the centerpiece of the Western narrative of Islam in the nineteenth century, and in particular the later nineteenth century, as Europeans established themselves as colonial powers in Muslim countries.

The new prominence, indeed centrality, that the issue of women came to occupy in the Western and colonial narrative of Islam by the late nineteenth century appears to have been the result of a fusion between a number of strands of thought all developing within the Western world in the latter half of that century. Thus the reorganized narrative, with its new focus on women, appears to have been a compound created out of a coalescence between the old narrative of Islam just referred to (and which Edward Said’s Orientalism details) and the broad, all-purpose narrative of colonial domination regarding the inferiority, in relation to the European culture, of all Other cultures and societies, a narrative that saw vigorous development over the course of the nineteenth century. And finally and somewhat ironically, combining with these to create the new centrality of the position of women in the colonial discourse of Islam was the language of feminism, which also developed with particular vigor during this period.

In the colonial era the colonial powers, especially Britain (on which I will focus my discussion), developed their theories of races and cultures and of a social evolutionary sequence according to which middle-class Victorian England, and its beliefs and practices, stood at the culminating point of the evolutionary process and represented the model of ultimate civilization. In this scheme Victorian womanhood and mores with respect to women, along with other aspects of society at the colonial center, were regarded as the ideal and measure of civilization. Such theories of the superiority of Europe, legitimizing its domination of other societies, were shortly corroborated by “evidence” gathered in those societies by missionaries and others, whose observations came to form the emergent study of anthropology. This same emergent anthropology—and other sciences of man—simultaneously served the dominant British colonial and androcentric order in another and internal project of domination. They provided evidence corroborating Victorian theories of the biological inferiority of women and the naturalness of the Victorian ideal of the female role of domesticity. Such theories were politically useful to the Victorian establishment as it confronted, internally, an increasingly vocal feminism.

Even as the Victorian male establishment devised theories to contest the claims of feminism, and derided and rejected the ideas of feminism and the notion of men’s oppressing women with respect to itself, it captured the language of feminism and redirected it, in the service of colonialism, toward Other men and the cultures of Other men. It was here and in the combining of the languages of colonialism and feminism that the fusion between the issues of women and culture was created. More exactly, what was created was the fusion between the issues of women, their oppression, and the cultures of Other men. The idea that Other men, men in colonized societies or societies beyond the borders of the civilized West, oppressed women was to be used, in the rhetoric of colonialism, to render morally justifiable its project of undermining or eradicating the cultures of colonized peoples.

Colonized societies, in the colonial thesis, were alike in that they were inferior but differed as to their specific inferiority. Colonial feminism, or feminism as used against other cultures in the service of colonialism, was shaped into a variety of similar constructs, each tailored to fit the particular culture that was the immediate target of domination—India, the Islamic world, sub-Saharan Africa. With respect to the Islamic world, regarded as an enemy (and indeed as the enemy) since the Crusades, colonialism—as I have already suggested—had a rich vein of bigotry and misinformation to draw on.

Broadly speaking, the thesis of the discourse on Islam blending a colonialism committed to male dominance with feminism—the thesis of the new colonial discourse of Islam centered on women—was that Islam was innately and immutably oppressive to women, that the veil and segregation epitomized that oppression, and that these customs were the fundamental reasons for the general and comprehensive backwardness of Islamic societies. Only if these practices “intrinsic” to Islam (and therefore Islam itself) were cast off could Muslim societies begin to move forward on the path of civilization. Veiling—to Western eyes, the most visible marker of the differentness and inferiority of Islamic societies—became the symbol now of both the oppression of women (or, in the language of the day, Islam’s degradation of women) and the backwardness of Islam, and it became the open target of colonial attack and the spearhead of the assault on Muslim societies…