Hijab

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

The hijab is the veil typically worn by women belonging to the Islamic culture. There are many ways of understanding it: for some people it is just an item of clothing, for others it has a deep religious meaning. For certain women it is an obnoxious imposition, for others it represents the free vindication of Islamic identity in islamophobic contexts.

In this letter I would like to address the feminist interpretation of hijab. The position I am going to defend is that the hijab can’t be considered a feminist symbol with respect to the western conception of feminism. This doesn’t mean that feminism and hijab-culture are incompatible. I think indeed that quite the contrary is the case. Still, I believe that people interpreting the role of hijab as quintessentially feminist are mistaken, and I’ll try to show why.

Attending a course on cultural anthropology some years ago, I learned about the following phenomenon: certain women belonging to the Islamic culture intentionally wear hijab as a symbol of emancipation. The reason why they do so, is that they don’t want to be seen by men as sexual objects, but rather want to be valued for their intelligence, personality and willpower. In this sense, hijab assumes the meaning of “protection” against the lustful gazes of men.

Although I strongly appreciate the efforts of these women to tackle their chauvinist societies, and I believe that individual choices are best seen by individuals in their practical contexts rather than by outside observers, I think that this meaning, theoretically understood, can’t be straightforwardly called feminist.

The reason is that feminism attempts to become a general theory of society and not a code of advices about how women should best behave. Feminism tries to talk to and about everyone: from children to adults, from women to men. This means that, even if hijab can work as a practical help in certain circumstances, and a symbol of female emancipation, it is far from being straightforwardly feminist. Feminism would require men to stop objectifying women in the first place, so that women are free to wear hijab at their will, and not because otherwise they would be objectified. To put it differently, feminist theory can’t come to terms with chauvinist blackmailing.

Another reason not to accept this meaning of hijab as feminist is the central role of the human body in western feminism. Women have fought under the motto “my body, my choice”, which is a vindication of the woman to be the ultimate judge about how she administers her body. In the above mentioned case, women are covering their bodies not because of a positive conception of it, but as a response to the objectification of men. They strive to be considered as thinkers, but in this struggle they set aside that they are also sensitive beings, sexual beings and material beings. Again: their efforts might be even necessary, given their conditions, but their sensible practical decisions can’t be theoretically understood as straightforwardly feminist.

Another example of the attempt to link hijab to feminism is less demanding. Certain women defend the claim that wearing hijab symbolizes the feminist freedom of women to wear what they want – especially in western societies. But from this claim they usually go as far as concluding that hijab (and their conception of Islam) is feminist. In my opinion, this is a confusion about a priority of meanings: the fact that feminism allows you to wear what you want, doesn’t yet entail that what you want to wear has a feminist meaning. A hijab remains often related to the Islamic culture, and all that feminism does is letting women intentionally adhere to it. From a feminist perspective, feminism must be prior to the meanings of hijab, otherwise we risk to say that, for instance, religious codes of behavior are feminist, which would be utterly ridiculous.

Western, modern feminism is compatible with Islamic culture insofar as it stands for the emancipation and empowerment of women of every culture. On the other hand, it clashes with Islamic and other cultures, whenever they oppress women and force on them their symbols of oppression. These symbols can be reinterpreted and can even be helpful in constituting one’s personal identity at different levels and with different meanings. But to forget that feminism is the condition for this to happen rather than religion or something else, is to step away from feminism and to take a step closer to connivance with the status quo of a world still extensively ruled by men.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha

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Islamization

Dear Princess ‘Ishka,

Talking about Islamic culture in western societies is an extremely hard task, which needs multidisciplinary knowledge and can’t be settled by simplistic political standings. Still, Islam has grown in recent years as a major worry for many political parties, which catalyze fears and insecurities of the masses against what seems to be a clear and well defined enemy. The major worry of such parties is not Islam within traditionally Islamic countries. It is rather the process sometimes called “Islamization”, taking place, according to such politicians, in western societies.

But what is this so-called Islamization? To my understanding, the term is often understood as referring to a group of phenomena regarding the growing presence of people of Islamic faith and habits in western societies. I try now to sparsely list what I think certain people find most worrying about this presence:

  1. There is a neat incompatibility between “western values” and “Islamic values”;
  2. Islam, as a religion, has a higher potential to lead people to violence than other religions, especially the Christian one;
  3. Islam is intrinsically oppressive of women and lgbt people;
  4. Western populations have a lower birth-rate on an average than people of Islamic culture that, together with immigration, would result in the uncontrolled growth of Islamic population and a consequent negative influence of Islamic values on western institutions;

I know few or nothing about Islamic culture, but knowledge of Islamic culture is not necessary to analyze the four points I consider constitutive of the worry of Islamization.

Let’s start with point 1. How can we understand this incompatibility between western values and Islamic values? Is Ramadan incompatible with Christmas? Or the religious prohibition to drink alcohol incompatible with wine and beer culture? Such things are not incompatible, they can perfectly coexist in a multicultural society. So what does this incompatibility consist of? I see no answer other than connecting point 1 to points 2 and 3. Islamic values are incompatible with western values because they would have a higher potential of spreading violence and they would be oppressive of women and lgbt people.

The question is now: are western values innocuous and not oppressive of women and lgbt people? What do we understand as western values in the first place? If we think of western values in terms of Christian values we have a history of compatibility of Christianity with spreading of catastrophic violence and oppression of women and lgbt people, which goes on nowadays. If we think of western values as the evolution of the ideas of Enlightenment, feminism and progressive social phenomena, we must understand western values as liberal and secular values. But then, the contrast with Islamic values would be void, for liberal and secular values are overarching religious and cultural values, not exclusive of them. What gets excluded are archaic cultural and religious understandings of moral and scientific matters, but not cultures and religions themselves. If such incompatibilities were intrinsic to religions, there wouldn’t be place for Christians in secular societies.

We can think of the incompatibility of point 1 as the one existing between Christian and Islamic cultures, but then again, do we think western values are exclusively Christian? If this were the case, we would be blind to centuries of social, moral and scientific progress, which has absolutely nothing to do with Christianity, and was often condemned by religion. Instead, if western values are supposed to be those of culturally-inclusive secularism, then there is nothing intrinsic to Islam that would imply “neat incompatibility”. Of course, this doesn’t mean that integration is an easy process or that western societies are as secular as they should be. But the hardness of reality isn’t a good reason to draw false conclusions about Islam.

Finally, point 4 addresses the concrete issue of the growing number of people of Islamic faith in western societies. This has of course to do with very complicated migration policies as well as with the birth rate of different populations. Still, if we think about the true causes of migration and uncontrolled birth rates, we see that religion is just a contextual factor. Migration crisis are caused by wars, famines, but mostly by lack of opportunities and poverty. Uncontrolled child birth by lack of education and (guess what) poverty.

“Ok with that” might say the defender of the I-word, “Islamization is contextual, not necessarily depending on religion and not necessarily incompatible with western societies. But still it coincidentally takes place and we have to deal with that”. The problem now is one of definition: do we really think it is fair to label all the phenomena related to people who by chance happen to be of Islamic faith and/or customs “Islamization”? Isn’t this term putting too much weight on religion, when the big problems are actually to be found in the global history of economic and political inequality? Religion certainly doesn’t help simplify such issues, but does it give enough reasons to talk about Islamization?

I don’t think so and I’ve explained why. Not only is Islamization a simplistic myth about a much more complicated reality, it is also dangerous for it might easily hide xenophobia. Let’s hear the words of experts on the topic rather than those of politicians talking about apocalyptic “clashes of civilizations”, for we might start believing that we owe all our modernity to Christianity, and witches certainly wouldn’t cherish.

Forever yours,

‘Miasha