The French Veil Debate: Wherefore Art Thou, Feminism?

By | April 20th, 2011 | 0 comments

Recently, France banned the wearing of the Islamic full veil in public places. While a woman’s right to wear the veil versus whether she is oppressed by wearing one may seem like an issue that invites discussion from all feminists, I was surprised to discover recently that the discussion is not that clear cut.

A few days before the French ban, I had the privilege of welcoming a panel of scholars on the Middle East to my high school, as a part of a class I’m taking this term on the modern Middle East. Each student in our class got to choose a scholar to work with; we read his or her work, examined other sources focusing on similar topics, and formulated questions for our individual scholars. I chose to focus on women’s rights in the Middle East (shocker, I know), and was surprised by what I found.

I’ve always understood that issues of gender equality in the Middle East are far from black and white, and “Western” opinions on the subject tend to range from “veil = bad,” to “stoning women for infidelity is just a cultural difference.” However, I was surprised to find that most of the articles I read on the subject tended toward the latter.

A lot of the essays I read did not condemn practices we often consider sexist or inhumane, such as arranged marriages, segregation of sexes, or even ritualistic violence against women, because the authors asserted that these practices are in the realm of another culture and thus should not be taken on or criticized by foreigners.

I asked my teacher why most of the recent academic articles on women in the Middle East tended to veer more toward this point of view, stating that Westerners should not become involved in gender equality in the Middle East, and that anyone who hollers “misogyny!” about the Middle East is actually caught up in a cultural misunderstanding. She told me that most academics we read have spent enough time studying the subject that they will never write an “extreme” essay, because they’ve thought the issue out enough to take a more “moderate” point of view.

While I think this is probably true, I don’t think we can rule out the influence of trends within academia. I’m no expert on what makes professors and scholars decide to write essays, but I’ve realized through my study of history and current affairs that there are trends within academic research, and history is constantly being rewritten. Sometimes many people are rewriting the same story, in the same way, at the same time.

I wonder if academics are reacting to what is often called the “neo-colonialism” of the Iraq war and the concept of “spreading democracy.” In reaction to these policies, scholars appear to be embracing cultural relativism, the school of thought that tells us to stand back when it comes to criticizing other countries because those countries are different from us. I believe it’s important to have balance, but I hope we don’t allow ourselves to ignore classic notions of feminism, just because they seem unpopular.

A lot of the articles I read, such as Lila Abu-Lughod’s Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? discussed the notion of colonial feminism, illustrating Western feminism as a medium through which wealthy white ladies of the 19th and 20th century could exercise their racist colonial urges. While this depiction is definitely rooted in some truth, I hope we aren’t too quick to define all feminist movements that have developed in the U.S. and Europe as “colonial.”

It’s important to question previous narratives and constantly present the public with new truths, but I feel that, unfortunately, with every pendulum swing, feminism takes a tough blow. Whether we’re screaming that we don’t need feminism anymore within our own country or blaming feminism for the women’s rights problems of other societies, we rarely praise the movement, which does, after all, deserve a lot of credit for what it has accomplished.

I guess I’m undecided on where I stand on the issue of women’s rights in the Middle East (probably somewhere in between the extremists condemning the veil and the extremists enforcing it), but I am realizing that academia, just like the rest of society, is easily influenced by cultural and political cues, and I hope sometime soon those cues will let us celebrate feminism, instead of stepping all over it.

Fiona Lowenstein is a high school junior, weekly guest blogger and Girls Leadership Institute alumna. Read more of her work here.

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