By Sanober Siddiq Umar
Images of veiled women in popular Western depictions have been produced within the context of varying power and domination. Most of these constructions do not speak to the diverse realities and experiences constituting the existences of Muslim women on a global scale. Yet these paradigms have had an essential effect on representing all Muslim women as being part of a single undifferentiated category marked by a common trope of oppression.
Consequently, Muslim women’s bodies have become sites of contestation, whereby self-proclaimed “secular” countries debate the garments that adorn their bodies such as the hijab (head-scarf) and naqab (veil covering the face).
In this essay, I shall use the term veil (often interchangeably with other terms such as the hijab/headscarf and niqab/face covering) not in terms of what it covers, but how it distinctly marks these women as Muslim women. Therefore the word veil deployed in this dissertation is used more as a symbol for garments that marks these women as outstanding by the public profession of their faith on their bodies.
I feel that one of the most significant and perhaps disconcerting aspects of the veil is that while it allows these women to see without being seen, it simultaneously disrupts the order and spectacle expected by Westerners. Body politics of the gaze become complicated here. This may partially explain why the veil has generated heated debates on such a phenomenal scale, when other issues pertaining to women’s “body” such as domestic violence or the polemic topic on illegal trafficking still loom in the shadows yet fail to garner such widespread media attention on the “woman’s question.”
Against this background, Islamic Feminists often claim to be providing “counter_-narratives of the veil, and the cosmologies that accompany Muslim women’s body perceptions. Islamic Feminism has emerged as a major critique of the patriarchal monopolization of authority, in both the public and private sphere. It is different from Western feminism given its context (colonialism, nationalism, revivalism, secularism, imperialism) and similar in many respects (questions of divorce, abortion, political participation, etc). For these feminists, hermeneutics, or the art of self-interpreting, has defined and regulated the development of Islam, both as a theological doctrine and as a historical and cultural force. Consequently, they are engaging in “self-authoratative” projects, defining their own agency and subjectivity of their body.
Through the image above, I seek to highlight the interstices between visual culture and the processes by which
cultural boundaries of inclusion and exclusion are created. These critical works have sought to disrupt conventional narratives regarding cultural signs and symbols. Many Islamic Feminists (or sometimes ordinary Muslim women
who may not use the label “feminist”) are engaging in such projects to explore the ways in which visual forms operate in their representation of cultural difference. The veil contributes to this larger narrative by examining the cultural politics at work in representations of one of the most well worn signs of “difference.” Like other paradigmatic symbols essential the “other,” images of the veil and veiling reproducing imbricated histories of intercultural encounter, negotiation, representation and domination. In the process, Islamic Feminist are inviting, challenging and perhaps some may claim, even re-imagining the representation of Muslim women’s bodies.
As we can see, many Islamic feminists have endeavoured to go beyond stereotypical ideas of the veil. The image above represents an important counter narrative on the idea of the veil and aesthetics for Muslim women. It must be pertinently noted however that the discourse adopted by Islamic Feminists is as varied as the plurality of the Muslim community itself across the world. While majority of Muslim women claim to adorn the veil as a symbol of their piety and devotion to God, others like activist Mona Kawtharani view the veil as a political statement that asserts their difference from “Western” notions of body-hood. She asserts that wearing the veil in present times, especially in Western countries, is complicated by the challenge it presents to neoliberal consumption markets and the post-colonial histories of the countries of origin of these women. Still others like Asma Barlas, although against the veil in terms of her interpretation of Islam, uphold the veil to question how Western Feminism seeks to define itself in relation to its devalued “Other” and what assumptions of liberation and the body do they make when they try to rip off veils from Muslim women’s body who chose to wear them.
Barlas’s opinion definitely holds resonance in contemporary political climate. Recently, when FEMEN activists took
it upon themselves to “liberate” Muslim women by organizing a “Topless Jihad Day” on 4th April 2013, they evoked sharp responses from many Arab women activists and Islamic Feminists. Many of these local activists feel that the condescending intervention of FEMEN white Western feminists may cause more obstacles in their struggles to assert their rights in the Middle-East because of their failure to acknowledge the unique trajectories and cosmologies of Muslim women within which frame they seek to assert their rights. Says Jasmin Zine regarding reductive representations of all Muslim women as oppressed, “Manipulating the Muslim woman’s met-narrative in this (prototype) fashion employs political control through discursive representation.” In the process, it is hardly questioned to what extent do such representations essentialize and limit the agency of Muslim women.
Sanober Umar is a graduate of the University of Oxford, UK. She has worked for many transnational as well as grass-root organizations in positions of responsibility, and conducted research analysis on several issues. These topics ranged from gender, migration, human rights, public policy, films to international relations. She enjoys engagement with current issues as well as insights from History. She values ethical consistency, together with wit and humour in any stance.