Friday, June 29, 2018

Žižek & Veiling

I try to read Slavoj Žižek as much as is humanly possible (that is, in light of the fact that there are others ‘out there’ that deserve to be read as well), if only because he writes about virtually everything, including most matters about which I care about or at least have enough interest to generate an opinion or two. That he writes with verve and panache (no doubt that description does not do his prose justice) both attracts and repels, in my case, the former motion predominates. Finally, anyone who is at once an “Hegelian philosopher, Lacanian psychoanalyst, and political activist,” is bound to stir up things in a way so as to warrant our undivided attention (a rare thing these days), although I confess never having warmed up to either Hegel or Lacan (I have read most of that written by the former, even if it was quite a few years ago; as for Lacan, I still prefer the Master himself, or Melanie Klein, or a philosopher writing on Freud, like Ilham Dilman, to most things Lacanian, which may simply reflect a matter of taste in such things, although I suspect my reasons run deeper than that).

All the same, being of sound Leftist mind, it so happens I often agree with Žižek, and when I don’t the differences are at least provocative and debatable. Fortunately, for those of us hounded with anxiety about how to spend our precious time (an anxiety that quickens with age), Žižek occasionally writes short and accessible works without sacrificing the familiar verve, panache and provocation. In one such volume, Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbors: Against the Double Blackmail (Melville House and Allen Lane: 2016), in particular, the essay “Breaking the Taboos of the Left,” Žižek writes in a note:

“Incidentally, the same PC Leftist liberals who practice a superhermeneutics of suspicion apropos Western societies, discerning traces of sexism or racism in the barely perceptible details of our speech and behaviour, display breathtaking tolerance when confronted with women wearing a burka, seeing in it playful forms of resistance, an act of anti-commodification (a protest against the reduction of women to sexual objects), etc.—there is, of course, a moment of truth in all this, but it doesn’t change the fact that the burka’s basic meaning is to enact women’s subordination.”

Entire books have been written on this topic but I’ll be comparatively brief. I’ll grant Žižek that in earlier times and more geographically circumscribed places it was probably in fact the case that “the burka’s basic meaning [was] to enact women’s subordination.” And it is certainly true that there remain places around the world where that “basic meaning” stubbornly persists. Yet in our world it’s far more accurate to see the practice of veiling as replete with various meanings, many if not most of which have nothing to do with patriarchal domination. First, let’s establish a few basic facts:

The tradition of veiling and modest dress pre-dates Islam, “acting as a marker of class, faith, ethnicity and age in many cultures.” Veiling is often Quranic in inspiration insofar as modest dress is recommended and veiling is thought to exemplify such modesty for women (the relevant Quranic verses, 24: 30-31, ‘direct both Muslim men and women to dress and interact modestly, and also instruct women not to display their beauty except to their husbands and close relatives’).

Wearing the burqa or hijab is thus not a (Quranic-based) religious obligation (nor an injunction derived from hadith), in fact, it’s safe to say that veiling in general has been transformed by mass media in North America and Europe into a trope for and symbol of “most-things-Muslim” in ideologically motivated discourse. Hence, and for example, veiling becomes a thinly veiled discourse, say, between Islamists of various sorts and secularists of various stripes (as in both Iran and Turkey in the Islamic world and in France and elsewhere in Europe), one in which the concrete choice of Muslim women from around the world is submerged if not trivialized, and the variegated reasons (not all of which are simply and solely ‘religious,’ in fact, some we might rightly characterize as ‘Liberal’ or emancipatory) for veiling are ill-understood or ignored (Žižek’s ‘moment of truth’). As one author writes, “Among countless other meanings, it [veiling] might make specific statements about a women’s piety, her values regarding sexual modesty, her resistance to Western notions of sexuality, he desire for privacy or mobility in male-dominated environments, or her membership in a political or national movement.”

When one examines the ostensible reasons for banning “the veil,” for example, one finds them chock full of false assumptions, vulgar stereotypes and inflated insecurities. Success on the legal front to ban burqas or political polemics and cultural diatribes against veiling can only serve to prolong and exacerbate the more dangerous and reactionary forms of religious, cultural and political conflict, at the very least it will do nothing by way of addressing “national security” concerns with terrorism or contribute in any more than a symbolic way to eliminating the subordination of women.

Back in 2011, my colleague at Religious Left Law, Clark West, wrote the following upon France’s enactment of a law against veiling (sans the embedded links):

“This week the long anticipated French law making illegal any public wearing of the veil (niqab) went into effect. It will be fascinating to watch in the weeks and months ahead to see how the French legal system deals with this draconian bill. Anyone who has read Fanon’s justly famous essay, ‘Algeria Unveiled’ from the midst of that most brutal, torture and terror filled war waged by France during the 50’s and 60’s, or who has studied the multivalent symbolic reach of veiling and unveiling of women in Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers, will both marvel at the uncanny repetition of irrational, orientalist fear shown by the French in this instance, and be frustrated by the way many westerners fail to recognize how resistant the veil is too simplistic reductions to either abject feminine submission or religious fundamentalism.

The Muslim practice of veiling is a rich and complicated one, as the remarkable recent scholarship of a number of Islamic scholars have shown. Two of the more interesting readings of the veil that I am aware of are those of Leila Ahmed, professor at Harvard Divinity School, and Saba Mahmood from UC Berkeley. Both are feminist scholars of Islam who reveal in arresting detail that the history and present practice of veil-wearing is a very complex one, and needs to be very carefully contextualized in its local adaptation to be properly understood. The veil in Saudi Arabia, for example, will mean quite different things than it does in Egypt, for example. Mahmood will even resist reducing it to a symbol at all, insistent that its religious significance should not be minimized in favor of sociological, political and personal interpretations. It may speak of an intensely intimate relationship with God, and not be primarily for public scrutiny or ‘reading,’ in other words.

Ahmed, an Egyptian by birth, has just published a new book, A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence from the Middle East to America, in which she shares her own slow transformation from having a deep dislike and suspicion of the veil and its meaning for women and Islamic life more broadly, to an appreciation for its role in progressive political and religious movements by women. How especially disappointing it is, then, that the French have moved to ban it in the name of making France safe from reactionary Islamic forces. It would seem that Fanon’s critique, launched in the very midst of a war because of which it had precious few ears to hear it in the metropole, has not yet found its mark so many years later. One hopes that American political leaders are not too quick to smugly dismiss the French law as something ‘unthinkable’ on American soil, and will take the time to listen to these prescient Muslim women’s voices. We have much to learn from them, not only about politics and inclusivity, but about the richness of the Islamic spiritual tradition, of which the veil is a significant and potent part.”

As a result of a brief but spirited debate with an interlocutor at the international law and politics blog, Opinio Juris (on a post by Julian Ku: ‘Do the Face-Veil Bans Violate International Law?’), some years ago, I appended the following clarification (slightly edited here) to my comments:

“ … I am not in favor of the State enforcing a putative religious requirement for women to ‘veil,’ believing (as a good Liberal should) this to be a matter of private, free choice on the part of women. And this is in keeping with the Qur’ān (2: 256), which states ‘There is no compulsion in religion.’ Thus, for instance, what occurs in Saudi Arabia, Iran’s imposition of the chador (čādor) after the 1979 revolution, the Taliban’s imposition of the burqaʻ after their accession to power in 1997, as well as the violent coercion in the name of Islam by non-State actors and groups to ‘enforce’ veiling of one kind or another is contrary to both Liberal principles and the Qur’ān.” Enough said?

Recommended Reading:

  • Abu-Lughod, Lila. Do Muslim Women Need Saving? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.
  • Abu-Lughod, Lila, ed. Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.
  • Afkhami, Mahnaz, ed. Faith and Freedom: Women’s Human Rights in the Muslim World. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1995.
  • Afzal-Khan, Fawzia, ed. Shattering the Stereotypes: Muslim Women Speak Out. New York: Olive Branch Press/Interlink, 2005.
  • Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.
  • Ahmed, Leila. A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.
  • Amer, Sahar. What Is Veiling? Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
  • Avi, Sajida Sultani and Homa Hoodfar, eds. The Muslim Veil in North America: Issues and Debates. Toronto: Women’s Press, 2003.
  • Bowen, John R. Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.
  • Deeb, Lara. An Enchanted Modern: Gender and Public Piety in Shi‘i Lebanon. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.
  • El Guindi, Fadwa. Veil: Modesty, Privacy, and Resistance. New York: Berg, 1999.
  • Esposito, John L. and François Burgat, eds. Modernizing Islam: Religion in the Public Sphere in Europe and the Middle East. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003.
  • Fernea, Elizabeth Warnock and Basima Qattan Bezirgan, eds. Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1978.
  • Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck and John L. Esposito, eds. Islam, Gender, and Social Change. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
  • Keaton, Trica Danielle. Muslim Girls and the Other France: Race, Identity Politics & Social Exclusion. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006.
  • Khan, Shahnaz. Muslim Women: Crafting a North American Identity. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2000.
  • Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.
  • McGoldrick, Dominic. Human Rights and Religion: The Islamic Headscarf Debate in Europe. Oxford, UK: Hart Publishing, 2006.
  • Mernissi, Fatima. Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, revised ed., 1987.
  • Mernissi, Fatima. The Veil and the Male Elite: A Feminist Interpretation of Women’s Rights in Islam. New York: Perseus Books, 1992.
  • Mernissi, Fatima. Women’s Rebellion & Islamic Memory. London: Zed Books, 1996.
  • Nouraie-Simone, Feresteh, ed. On Shifting Ground: Muslim Women in the Global Era. New York: The Feminist Press, 2005.
  • Ozdalga, Elisabeth. The Veiling Issue: Official Secularism and Popular Islam in Modern Turkey. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1998.
  • Scott, Joan Wallach. The Politics of the Veil. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.
  • Sedghi, Hamideh. Women and Politics in Iran: Veiling, Unveiling and Reveiling. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Shirazi, Fagheh. The Veil Unveiled: The Hijab in Modern Culture. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2001.
  • Stillman, Yedida K. Arab Dress: From the Dawn of Islam to Modern Times. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2000.


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