a blog by Alishaba Zarmeen...
We know that individuals create society and that the society creates an individual. When Judith Butler talks about the “performative” nature of the gender, saying, “[G]ender proves to be performance— that is, constituting the identity it is purported to be. In this sense, gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to pre-exist the deed” her theory reflects the sociological approach. Taking these claims as basis to address the issue of veiling, I would like to suggest that veiling is a symbol of oppression, indoctrination, and patriarchy. It encourages gender apartheid, inhibits fair and equal participation of all humans in all walks of life and proves to be a hurdle towards the achievement of an ideal and just world by endorsing subjugation of women. The current disposition of women in the world is a result of patriarchal ideology actualized into practice by politicizing physiological grounds (such as the fragility, attractiveness and childbearing ability of women and the physical and biological strength of men to be able to protect and provide for). The construction of religion, states and societies primarily by men throughout the history for their own benefit has resulted in gender subversion. Where men too have faced the destructive consequences of this structure, women have been suppressed and objectified on a larger scale (as the societal norms are usually more relaxed for men) and veiling is just one of the examples of this.
Islam is the pre-dominant religion in the Middle-East. Islam, much like the other two Abrahamic faiths (Judaism and Christianity), has strict moral guidelines for both men and women. Leila Ahmed mentions the matrilineal nature of the pre-Islamic Arabia (Jahilia) which gave women more rights over their bodies and more sexual freedom. Upon the advent of Islam, and more importantly after the death of the prophet, there were principles and religious scholarships developed to ensure that people are devout Muslims and that Islam is also geographically spread. Religious politics and battles lead to women without caregivers and male protection which was the culture of the Arabic society. Such concerns lead to the establishment of a polygamous society and since women were financially and socially dependent on men and the religious guidelines were not entirely advocating for their liberation, women became automatically subjugated by the very patriarchal definition of the social contract that marriage is. Later on, as Fatima Mernissi points out, Islamic scholars like al-Ghazali articulated the notion of the active sexuality of females and that being a threat to the pious conduct of the men. The “fitna” or chaos that a woman is able to create just by her “irresistible” attractiveness that a man feels towards her is of a “Satanic” nature, according to al-Ghazali; therefore a woman must cover herself in order to avoid causing “fitna” so that the time and energy could be spent on “knowing God” and unearthing the mysteries of the universe. In short, as Mernissi puts it, “The entire Muslim social structure could be seen as an attack on, and a defense against, the disruptive power of female sexuality.”
Judith Butler talks about the politics of language and contextual feminisms by arguing that “an unwitting regulation and reification of gender relations” has been caused by the mistake of asserting “women” as a group with common interests and characteristics. By doing so, limiting the possibility of a dialectic exploration of identity by strictly defining the categories of “women” and “men.” In my opinion, this strict bifurcation is the reason for some women to ‘choose’ wearing the veil. Whereas it may seem their choice, it’s essentially not because the fact that some members of only one group (i.e. the women) feel the need to don the veil leads to the conclusion of gender conditioning. Qasim Amin presented a relevant argument that, “If what men fear is that women might succumb to their masculine attraction (here Amin is referring to the idea of active female sexuality in these societies), why did they not institute veils for themselves?” The liberal argument of ‘choice’ would true if members of both the groups had equal number of examples exhibiting the notion, but far from an equal number, there is not even a single case in history where a man decides to wear the veil thus negating even the possibility of the conception of this notion. In fact, it’s unacceptable at any point in the society to have a man wear a veil. Hence, the patriarchal guidelines of performance to safeguard ‘purity,’ ‘piety,’ and ‘righteousness’ when internalized, give rise to a social condition which may seem like “veiling by choice’ but is essentially conformity. This idea of ‘choice’ is also destructive on a macrocosmic level because by being veiled, they are subjecting the whole female gender to be perceived as objects of curiosity.
The women who fight against veiling and for their right to not wear the veil have come to the realization that it is not acceptable to be primarily defined as sex objects. They have learned to assert their right to be treated as an equal human being by participating wholly in the societies that they live and to contribute towards the economic, political and ideological progress of those societies. When a woman is emancipated from the ideological shackles of the patriarchal norms and refuses to be defined by or in relation to the opposite sex, she has already liberated herself as an individual. That individual will have a positive macrocosmic affect as it is a contribution towards normalizing the idea of a woman having an independent of men. Where a veiled woman always exists in relation to men (what I mean here is that a veiled woman does not feel the need to don the veil in presence of women but only in the presence of men), a woman who is not veiled is her authentic self at all times and does not feel the need to fulfill the performative requirements to claim her identity.
Now the question remains: Is it possible to be a feminist and choose to wear the veil? My answer would be no because until and unless women free themselves of the perception of men about women and stop giving men the authority to define the term women and regulate female sexuality, the feminist goal of an equal and ideal world will only exist in theory and will not become a reality.