Tue, Oct 24, 2006 - Page 9 News List

A veil onto matters more important

The world needs a honest debate about women and Islam, but politics are making that task much more difficult to achieve

By Maleiha Malik  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Muslim women welcome a debate about the status of women in Islam. Intelligent, honest critique is an invaluable source of ideas for Muslims as we begin the process of reclaiming our religious and intellectual tradition.

Muslim women also welcome feminist alliances with other women in the task of challenging the misuse of power by Muslim men -- just as we can offer our own perspective on both women's advances and setbacks in the West.

But such public debate and alliances obviously don't take place in a vacuum, but in a social, racial and political context. It would be naive to imagine that the domestic debate about Islam -- and Muslim women in particular -- can be hermetically sealed off from the politics of the "war on terror," as the last couple of weeks have demonstrated. In the UK, the columnist Polly Toynbee was right to say that "women's bodies have been the battle flag of religions."

But the significance of religious and cultural symbols such as the veil is not immutable and static -- they have a mixed and changing social meaning.

Muslim women who adopt the veil in Europe may simultaneously be seeking to affirm their religious identity while being determined to enter the public sphere as full and equal citizens.

They are often also trying to change the cultural and political meaning of the veil in a contemporary context. For some, it may be linked to patriarchal pressure; for others a symbol of identity and emancipation in a commodified and patriarchal society -- and for many, a response to a religious vocation.

Feminist politics needs to be flexible and respond to these complexities. And for Muslim women their religion and even their gender are not the only, or the most grievous, focus of their oppression -- their bodies have also been, and continue to be, a battleground for European and US imperialism.

Lord Cromer, British consul general in Egypt in the late 19th century, famously justified British colonial rule by arguing that it could liberate Egyptian women from their oppressive veils.

Commenting on French colonialism in Algeria in the 1950s, the writer Frantz Fanon noted: "There is also in the European the crystallization of an aggressiveness, the strain of a kind of violence before the Algerian woman.

Unveiling this woman is revealing her beauty; it is baring her secret, breaking her resistance [to colonial rule]. There is in it the will to bring this woman within his reach, to make her a possible object of possession," Fanon wrote.

When the US launched its so-called war on terror in Afghanistan in 2001, US President George W. Bush glorified his aims by stating: "Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes ... The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women."

The US social anthropologists Saba Mahmood and Charles Hirschkind have noted that the relationship between the Bush administration and some US feminists was reciprocal and intimate.

"By the time the war started, feminists like [Eleanor] Smeal could be found cozily chatting with the general about their shared enthusiasm for Operation Enduring Freedom and the possibility of women pilots commandeering F-16s," they said.

By December 2001, 3,767 Afghans, including women and children, were reported to have been killed by US bombs.

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