Thursday, 23 April 2009

Caught between liberators and saviors

By Mona Eltahawy
The Jerusalem Report
April 27, 2009

I love public speaking. I used to want to be an actress when I was younger so it obviously satisfies the performer in me. I like to think that I’m pretty fast on my feet during the Q&A sessions, too, but occasionally someone asks me something that leaves me aghast.

“In London, I see these women covered from head to toe and it’s the summer and I want to ask them ‘Aren’t you hot?’” asked a woman at the end of a talk I gave in March at Sarah Lawrence College, in New York state, on gender and power in the Muslim world.

I used to wear a headscarf but the questioner wasn’t talking about the hijab. She meant the face veil, or the niqab. Full disclosure: the niqab terrifies me. It says very little about religion but a whole lot about the erasure of a woman's identity and her very existence as a human being in any society.

I fully confess my views on the niqab are thoroughly grounded as much in my own very personal struggles with the hijab, which I wore for nine years, as they are more generally with the obsessive focus of both Muslims and non-Muslims on how Muslim women dress.

And to this day I unequivocally refuse to defend the niqab, regardless of who is making the argument for or against it. But the woman in the audience who claimed to feel sorry for the women in the niqab during the height of summer displayed a disdain and condescension that annoys me as much as those arguments.

Another woman in the audience, who identified herself as Jewish, told her that when she sees ultra-Orthodox Jewish women on the New York subway in the height of summer she too wants to ask them “Aren’t you hot?” because of the way they dress. But for some reason, it's mostly Muslim women who seem to be the focus of the “Clash of Civilizations”.

Iranian photographer and writer Haleh Anvari put it beautifully during a performance in New York a couple of years ago when she said she was fed up of being fought over by Iran’s mullahs on the one side who want to protect her soul with the chador and the western media on the other which wants to rescue her from it.

When an American woman in the audience asked if she should wear a chador out of solidarity with Iranian women, the farce and beauty of being a Muslim woman today was too much bear. Like my interlocutor at Sarah Lawrence, this was a classic killer combo of condescension marinated in a deep-seated desire to liberate and rescue Muslim women and seasoned with good old ignorance.

Some might call me unkind for ripping into a well-intentioned inquiry about ways to help, but nine years of wearing a headscarf made me an expert in figuring out the saviors from the liberators. The liberators, to be fair, weren’t always from the “West.” Sometimes they were fellow Egyptian Muslims who just didn’t like the hijab.

Just as importantly, the headscarf honed my skills at figuring out the honest from the patronizing and there’s nothing like being spoken to IN A SLOW AND VERY LOUD VOICE AS IF ONE WERE DEAF to make you want to yell I MIGHT COVER MY HAIR BUT I’M NOT STUPID.

When I decided to stop wearing the hijab, my biggest fight was with myself. But the saviors and liberators were still going at it. One Muslim friend chided me for giving non-Muslims a shaky image of Islam. “I’m not the Quran in motion” I would reply. The liberators assured me I looked so much better with the headscarf off - which just added to my guilt.

The saviors and liberators don’t really care about me or my soul. The conversation for them begins and ends with how a Muslim woman looks. What she thinks, feels or wants is quite irrelevant.

So imagine my horror when I first came across the misguided desire to cover up in support of Muslim women shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks. Again, the path from well-intentioned to clueless was not that long or winding. As news spread that Muslims or anyone who seemed to be Muslim were being targeted, I began to read about “Wear Hijab Days,” as groups in various North American cities handed out headscarves for their members to wear in solidarity with Muslim women.

While the dangers to Muslim women wearing headscarves were real, my instinct was to tell those groups what I told the woman at Anvari’s performance and my interlocutor at Sarah Lawrence – stay out of it!

I was more captivated by the religious edicts allowing Muslim women in the West to remove their headscarves if they felt they were in danger. By that point, I no longer believed the headscarf was obligatory for Muslim women and to hear those pronouncements added a whole new layer to the cake.

But to those “Wear Hijab Days” groups, complexity, nuance and anything beyond the surface be damned! Other people’s causes are so much cuddlier, of course. What did it matter that they were offending some of us Muslims who didn’t believe hijab was a religious requirement?

Ironically, Muslim women in the United States have more freedom to wear the headscarf than they do in, say, Turkey, where the scarf is banned in government buildings and public schools. And for the polar opposite, there’s Saudi Arabia and Iran where women must cover up in public.

How absurd that some groups want to cover up to support us while others want to support us to uncover! How about leaving us alone to decide? Now that’s support.

Copyright 2009 Mona Eltahawy

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