"Yes, I have a body, a physical manifestation upon this earth. But it is the vessel of an intelligent mind and a strong spirit. It is not for the beholder to leer at or to use in advertisements to sell everything from beer to cars. Because of the superficiality of the world in which we live, external appearances are so stressed that the value of the individual counts for almost nothing.”
So states Sultana Yusuf Ali, a seventeen-year-old high school student, in an article for the Toronto Star. The piece, titled “Why Do I Wear a Hijab,” defends a practice that many Westerners view as a medieval throwback. How does Sultana Yusuf Ali rebut this charge? She couches her decision to don the hijab in terms of “female empowerment” and anti-capitalist individualism. She evokes the image of the sexual harasser when she states that no one will “leer” at her. She rejects the capitalist marketing of sex peddled by corporations. She denies the cult of beauty enforced by a patriarchal society. Finally, she exults in her own individual worth.
Whenever I hear Muslim women in America speak of wearing the hijab, they justify the practice by asserting the right to dress and present themselves however they desire. In other words, in a way that mollifies the sexually egalitarian impulses of most Americans. And yet, note this passage from the Koran:
“And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands' fathers, their sons, their husbands' sons, their brothers, or their brothers' sons or their sisters' sons….” (Quran 24:31).”
This is closer to the spirit of how wearing hijab has been justified by Muslims in my experience. Raised within the Islamic community, I have been privy to many opinions and statements not manufactured for mainstream consumption, and American Muslims do not generally express views informed by the rights of women. Rather, rationalizations of their customs are rooted in non-Western premises. American Muslim women may assert in public that the hijab liberates them, but the practice comes from societies where women are viewed as property by male relatives.
Familial honor is marred by the perception of the lack of chastity. In crasser terms, promiscuity diminishes property value. The hijab is a marker for chastity, ergo, it assures greater social standing. I do not doubt that many of the girls who trumpet Islamo-feminist positions believe their mantras. I have a friend who has gone through the ordeal of wearing the hijab while simultaneously identifying herself as a feminist. She spent two years justifying the juxtaposition between her retrograde appearance and her progressive rhetoric before giving up. No matter how these young women present themselves to American society, they are shaped by a religion which in practice is radically at variance with the values of the liberal democratic West.
It is ironic that Sultana Yusuf Ali asserts her individuality by expressing solidarity with one of the most communitarian cultural traditions in the world. Muslims regularly argue against the license that individualism has spawned in the West. Apologists for Islam like journalist Geneive Abdo argue for sensitivity to the feelings of the majority on issues such as blasphemy in nations where Muslims are dominant. Even if it may conflict with Western notions of freedom of conscience. Abdo states in The Washington Post in 2000, that Muslims “…would seek an accommodation between Islam and modernity, not a return to the Medieval Islamic period. They would, however, insist that books and films that do not conform to Islamic principles be banned. But this is in line with the wishes of a majority of Egyptians.”
Muslim culture does not espouse the socially conservative but fiscally libertarian fusionism of Frank Meyer. In fact, Islamic countries normally are found near the bottom of the rankings in the Index of Economic Freedom. Where it is a force in society, Islamism, politicized Islam, is an oppressive ideology. It aims to restrain the individual and tame the social organism within the bounds of shariah rather than liberate one to make their own choices. It is only in the West that Islamism must don the cloak of individualism to make a place for itself. Liberated Muslim women must know that they are engaging in sophistry when they stop to observe that societies where the hijab is commonplace tend to exhibit a less than ideal level of legal gender equity.
This sophistry is not limited to discussions of the hijab. The following is from the web-site of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). It is an abstract of their 2002 “Status of Muslim Civil Rights in the United States”:
“The report, the only national study of its kind, details incidents and experiences of anti-Muslim violence, stereotyping, discrimination, and harassment during the past year. It also outlines the Islamophobic backlash that occurred following the September 11 terrorist attacks and examines the impact anti-terrorism policies prompted by the attacks have had on American Muslim civil liberties.”
Note the keywords, “stereotyping,” “discrimination,” “harassment,” and “civil liberties.” Who could favor the former and reject the latter? Feminist Audre Lorde once wrote an essay titled “The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House,” but it seems that Muslims in America are in fact chipping away at the foundations of the house with the tools that built it. Liberalism is being flipped around and used as a wedge into Western culture. Giving breathing room to a religious ideology that is shaped by the norms of 18th century Arabia rather than 21st century America can only eviscerate a liberal democratic society.
There are some facts about the American Muslim community which make this congruence of peculiarities, liberal rhetoric in the service of medievalism, more understandable. American Muslims are predominantly immigrants, not black converts, and disproportionately educated professionals. One survey by CAIR found that 70% of American Muslims have at least a college education. They are engineers, doctors and professors, and you will not find them burning the books of the unbelievers like the mill workers in Bradford. Fleeing lack of economic opportunity in their own nations, Muslim immigrants come to America seeking a better life, as my own father did.
And yet with them they bring their own folkways and traditions that clash with a culture which has two basic premises that are paradoxically alien to them: individual pursuit of liberty and happiness. Though economically successful because of the freedoms of Western society, they fear the destabilizing effect of American culture on their children. Unlike the immigrant generation, American-born Muslims have not been given the boon of a childhood in the constrictive and socially asphyxiating norms of Islam. These children often synthesize both cultures, Muslim and Western. They use the slogans of American political discourse, liberty, freedom and personal fulfillment, to justify practices like the hijab whose origins are rooted in the opposite principle: submission.
The hijab is a symbolic expression of this synthesis between assertion and submission. Though Muslims complain that Westerners focus too much on the hijab and its more severe sister, the burqua, symbols have power. Wearing a hijab is not just a personal statement, it is a group statement, setting oneself off from others and identifying with a community that adheres to a certain standard of dress and is visibly marked off from the rest of the citizenry. It veils not only the body but also part of the soul, obscuring mannerisms behind a shapeless shift and removing some of the character from a face that should naturally be framed by hair. While young women like Sultana Yusuf Ali interpret the hijab as an individualistic statement, general Western society can not help but feel that those who don it become amorphous and undefined, losing some of the very traits that allow us to discern the individual from a group.
Western feminists have traditionally attempted to change society to accommodate their conception of female autonomy, Muslim feminists seem prone to taking the opposite tack, redefining female autonomy to conform to Islamic notions of a good society. Like a canary in a coal-mine we must not view the hijab alone outside the context of the culture from which in emerges, it is an indicator of the values that Muslim culture holds dear. It cordons off elements of a woman from the public and diminishes the involuntary give and take, the open trust, that characterizes the more free-form mixed-gender relationships that are the norm in the West.
Taken by itself, the hijab is not an issue that should concern us, but as a symptom of a greater social ailment, it should must be examined in a more critical light. We humans are prone to believing that how we present ourselves is a reflection of who we are within, but far too often the process can be reversed. Can one generation of young college educated Muslims transform 1,400 years of tradition, injecting a Lockean sense of individual worth and self-determination into the faith? If they remain willfully blind to the medieval origins and intentions of practices they justify with Enlightenment platitudes I am skeptical that they will truly change Islam.
Rather, Islam may eventually change them.
Visit Razib Khan's blog at gnxp.com