Much debate has taken place in the West about women wearing a veil and equating that with a sign of being oppressed. If some feminists, as argued by Groeneveld,have claimed that garments such as bras and high-heeled shoes “are both symbolically and literally constraining, restrictive impositions”, one can easily imagine their views on the veil or the burka.
Interestingly, I found the wearing of the veil to be the answer to several issues raised by Iris Marion Young (even though I doubt that she would encourage us to start walking around with our face covered). But perhaps by wearing a burka or a veil we can escape from the institutions of patriarchy that pushes women to find their pleasure only in the satisfaction of men (p.68). And perhaps behind a veil, women will no longer serve as mirrors for masculine subjectivity and desire (p.68).
The judgment that the veil is oppressive for women, and women choosing to wear it are oppressed, has been at the heart of Western feminists’ interaction with Muslim women. The veil is seen as restricting the access, of those who wear it, to public space and as denying them of free choice. Groeneveld offers a counter argument to the depriving of free choice argument when she quotes Wilson’s criticism of the implicit assumption about free choice. Indeed claiming that women should be free to wear whatever they want fails to “acknowledge the way in which choice occurs within contexts that are socially constructed and are thus always already constrained and limited through that context.” Thus the bikini wearing women perched on her 5 inch heels enjoys as much, or in this case as little, free choice as her burka wearing counterpart.
Furthermore, even as autonomy and freedom of choice are acentral theme of feminist theory, it is also imperative to keep in mind that choices are practiced based on the context. Wouldn’t removing individual choice no matter what it is, go against everything that feminism stands for? I have heard many of my colleagues’ rhetorical answer to my argument and they usually go like this: “ I don’t think that if they REALLY had the choice, they would chose to wear a veil.” I warn against attributing oppression to women who make choices that are foreign to our context, as it makes us explicit accomplices to patronizing stereotypes of voiceless traditional women who must be illuminated. Besides, we should be careful about infantilizing women who chose to wear the veil by diagnosing them with lack of free choice syndrome, since feminists have long denounced the infantilization of women by men in many other areas.
So for a moment, I would like us to think of women behind the veil, not as children or as lacking freedoms, but as women who are subverting patriarchy. “As women who speak their desire, not as it has been formed in the interests of men but from and for themselves.” (Young, 68)
As a result of what many have regarded as a Western feminism fixation, Muslim women are increasingly showing their resistance to what they view as Western’s sovereignty disguised in feminism clothing (pardon the pun). As illustrated recently in France, a push back is occurring, as more and more Muslim women and girls wear the veil with pride as a symbol of their identity, freeing them, in the symbolic sense, from what is perceived as Western cultural domination.
I often wondered why the West was so obsessed with the veil and the burka. This is not suggesting in any way that western feminism has ill intentions towards Muslim women.There is no doubt that some women are coerced into wearing the veil. In addition, the pressure they receive from their environment and the consequences from going against it, does not live much room for free choice. And there is no doubt that the veil is used by some societies as a means to control and dominate women. It is used to disempower them of their sexuality and make them feel inferior, scared and voiceless. But my point is that the veil, a mere textile, does not have the power to marginalize. Only societies and the world we live in have that power. Time to reprioritize our focus.