Monday, 25 April 2011

The Return Of the Veil

Young American Muslim women have come to view the hijab as a symbol of liberation rather than repression.

Published in the Wall Street Journal on April 25th 2011, Copyright, All Rights Reserved.

Newspapers are full of stories about European governments debating whether to ban women from wearing some version of the Islamic veil—on April 11, France outlawed the niqab, or full-face veil—but such efforts only confirm how prevalent the veil has become in the 21st century, not least in Western countries. Its resurgence over the past 30 years is the subject of Leila Ahmed's "A Quiet Revolution." Ms. Ahmed, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, focuses in particular on the veil's history in Egypt, the country in which she grew up, and on its contemporary appearance in the U.S.

The Islamic custom of a woman covering her head is an old one but became widespread—in North Africa, Central Asia and the broader Middle East—only when Islam burst out of the borders of the Arabian Peninsula in the eighth century. The religious logic was that headwear, for women, imposed modesty and helped to regulate the relations between the sexes in public settings.

The desire to "unveil" caught fire in Egypt more than a thousand years later, during the colonial era, when local women, for the first time, saw bareheaded Western women traveling up the Nile. Before long, Ms. Ahmed argues, the decision not to wear the veil became more than a matter of imitating a Western style of dress. It became a symbol of various longings within Egyptian culture—for a newly transparent social order, for a less oppressive traditionalist society, for a resurgence of Egypt's diverse national identity and for the liberation of Egypt from colonial rule.

Ms. Ahmed's narrative deftly captures the mood of the era, registering the range of ironies surrounding the status of the veil. Evelyn Baring, the British administrator who ran Egypt from 1883 to 1907, firmly opposed women's suffrage in London—he sneered at the idea of "the unsexed woman voting at the polling booth"—yet in North Africa he championed the cause of unveiling as a civilizing reform. Little could he have imagined that unveiling would later become an emblem for untethering Egypt from Britain itself. In 1919, Ms. Ahmed notes, a Cairo sculptor pushing for independence depicted "The Awakening of Egypt" as a young peasant woman throwing off her veil.

By Leila Ahmed
Yale, 352 pages, $30

Egyptian women went uncovered right up to the 1970s. The only veiled women Ms. Ahmed saw as a child in the 1940s were the wives of members of the Muslim Brotherhood. But it was around that radical organization that Egypt's opposition politics coalesced, centering on Islamic revivalism. The veil thus became, in the postwar years, a symbol of hostility to the perceived materialism of mainstream society. (The Nasser government's crackdown on the Brotherhood only added to the group's popularity.) The Brotherhood's rise was part of a religious fervor that swept through the Arab world in the 1970s, helped along by Saudi Arabia's longtime promotion of the fundamentalist Wahhabi doctrine.

Ms. Ahmed gives us a fascinating portrait of the Muslim Brotherhood, especially of its "unsung mother," Zainab al-Ghazali. Groomed by her father to become a Muslim leader, she founded Egypt's Muslim Women's Association at age 18. She helped re-organize the Brotherhood after the assassination of its founder, Hassan al-Banna, in 1949 and served six years in jail for her political activities. The same woman who looked with cold disapproval at the "pink, short-sleeved dress" of a Western interviewer divorced her husband only after she made sure that her marriage contract gave her the right to do so. Her contradictions—she described her childlessness as a "blessing" while insisting that a woman's main role in life was as a wife and mother—are part of her legacy, showing the complicated nature of female leadership in an environment of male-dominated Islamic activism.

As for the meaning of the veil in contemporary Western societies, Ms. Ahmed is very much a disciple of the French scholar Olivier Roy, who argues that Muslims living in the West—where religion is not imposed by a social authority—will anchor their identities less in nationality or even ethnicity than in solidarity with the "ummah," the universal community of Muslim believers. Mr. Roy doesn't say whether this feeling of affiliation is a good or bad thing, but Ms. Ahmed suggests that it is empowering. She sees educated, religiously committed Muslims taking the lead in making America a more open, pluralistic society.

Parts of "A Quiet Revolution" are taken up with stories from conferences organized by Muslim Americans in the post 9/11 world. The theme is always "America, Our Home," with speakers articulating, often with amused wonder, the realities of their immigrant experience. ("Just listen to the [American] accent of your kids," one panelist says, "then you'll know that you're not going anywhere.") What is most striking is how many young American Muslim women view the hijab—the traditional Muslim veil that covers the head but, unlike the niqab, leaves the face open to view—as a symbol of liberation rather than repression. Alert to the surrounding society's prejudice, they are choosing to go veiled, Ms. Ahmed says, precisely as a way of affirming their derided identity. The veil is, for them, a way of insisting on their equal place in American culture.

But Ms. Ahmed is too optimistic. Even if the veil in America is being disentangled from many of its traditional meanings, it remains a theological symbol, tainted by a long history of religious traditions that fall harder on women than on men. The good news is that American Muslims—unlike their counterparts in France—have the freedom to decide what the veil means and whether they would like to use it or set it aside. This is a freedom that Ms. Ahmed exercises: A secular Muslim feminist, she herself does not wear the veil.

Ms. Sethi is the Journal's assistant books editor.

Pakistan transgenders pin hopes on new rights (BBC)

There has been little opposition to the decision by Pakistan's Supreme Court to allow a third gender category, apart from male or female, on the national identity card. The BBC's Aleem Maqbool meets transgendered people in Karachi buoyed by the ruling, but sceptical about whether it can really end the isolation they face.

In the back streets, in a squalid neighbourhood of Pakistan's largest city, is a tiny, shabby apartment. It is where we find "Shehzadi" getting ready for work.

Wearing a bright yellow dress, and scrabbling around her make-up box, she is doing her best to cover up her decidedly masculine features. Shehzadi is transgendered: physically male, but psychologically female.

"When I was about six or seven, I realised I wasn't either a boy or a girl," Shehzadi says. "I was miserable because I didn't understand why I was different. It was only when I met another 'she-male' that I felt peace in my heart and my mind."

Like so many other of the estimated 50,000 transgenders in Pakistan, Shehzadi left home as a teenager, to live with others from the same community.

"I'm happy being with other transgenders, but there are many problems," Shehzadi says. "People don't understand, and they abuse us. It's hard to get somewhere to live, or even to move about normally. I get teased when I stand and wait for a bus."
Separate identity

Shehzadi also shows us her ID card. She is unhappy that it says "male." But this is something that should soon change. Remarkably for a conservative country like this, Pakistan is about to introduce a third gender category on its national identity cards.
Continue reading the main story

Ehsan ul Haq
"Transgenders wanted recognition for their community. Why not reflect them as having a separate identity”
Brigadier Ehsan ul Haq

"Previously, we were having two categories, male and female, for registration," says Brigadier Ehsan ul-Haq, who is in charge of the national database and registration authority in Karachi.

"But this community agitated for a separate identity of their own. They went to the Supreme Court, the court agreed and we will implement it."

Brigadier Ehsan says that to his knowledge there has been no opposition to the ruling, either within the registration authority or outside it.

"I personally feel it is a good decision by our highest court," he says. "Transgenders wanted recognition for their community. Why not reflect them as having a separate identity if it is biologically so?"

The reasons for a relative lack of opposition are complex. Despite the discrimination they face, transgenders have long been accepted as part of the fabric of Pakistani society.

Throughout the Indian sub-continent they have occupied a unique position since the era of the Mughal empire in the 16th Century, when they were given special roles in the royal court.

Pakistan is a Muslim nation and many will note that in Saudi Arabia, transgendered people were given the special role of guarding the Prophet Muhammad's tomb, as they were seen as exemplary devotees with no family ties. Although recognising the community as having its own gender will not solve all of the transgenders' problems, Pakistan's Supreme Court has made further recommendations.

Commonly in Pakistan, transgenders have either been entertainers, or sex workers, or beggars. Transgenders in government jobs The court ruling says transgenders should be allocated a certain number of government jobs

The only contact most Pakistanis have with members of the community is at traffic lights across the country, where they tap on car windows, begging for money.

But Pakistan's Supreme Court now says that transgenders should also be allocated a certain number of government jobs. It specifically recommended they be appointed as tax collectors to utilise their "special skills".

Those special skills are already on display in Clifton one of Karachi's most affluent neighbourhoods. There Shehzadi joins a group of theatrically dressed, heavily made-up transgenders can be seen sometimes strutting down the wide, quiet, tree-lined streets.

"We knock on the doors of people who haven't paid their taxes," she says.

"We tell them to pay up, but there are some who don't, so we stand on their doorstep and give them trouble and make a spectacle. Then to stop us attracting attention, they pay. I love the job, life's going well!"

The experiment has been judged something of a success by the local authority, too, with Shehzadi's team collecting large amounts of unpaid dues.

Just a handful of transgenders have government jobs at the moment. For the vast majority, finding work is still tough. It could just be that in Pakistan the lot of this isolated and often ridiculed community might just be getting a little bit better.

But in a moment of reflection, Shehzadi tells us of the things which can never be resolved through any kind of legislation. "However much we say we are a close community, and call each other 'sister' and 'mother' it is still a lonely existence."

"Most don't have contact with their families, and, of course, they don't have children," Shehzadi says.

"Getting jobs and ID cards is great, but when I die, I know the community will have a party, spend all my money, and then it will be as if Shehzadi never walked on this earth." "That will always be the reality of our life."