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Sunday, September 22, 2013

Women & the Veil

WHEN Saima, my late mother’s maid, first joined our staff, she used to wear the full burqa. But after a bit, when she saw that neither my mother, nor her relatives and friends who visited the house covered themselves, she felt relaxed enough to take her black, all-encompassing garb off when she was indoors.

When I got to know her better, I teased her about this: “Saima, why don’t you cover yourself in the house when men often visit? And other members of the staff are male, so how come you cover yourself outside the house, but not inside?”

Her reply was entirely sensible: “I don’t wear the burqa for religious reasons; but if I don’t wear it outside, men say lewd things and stare at me.” This says less about her faith than it does about our society, with all its difficulties and dangers for women.

Just how dangerous was made clear in the recent Human Rights Commission report that highlighted the violence, rapes and honour killings rampant in Pakistan. Instead of improving, things are getting worse, largely because perpetrators of crimes against women almost invariably get away unpunished.

I was reminded of Saima by two recent cases involving the full niqab in the UK.

In the first, a college in Birmingham first banned the full, face-covering veil, and then backed down in the face of protests. In another, a judge barred a young woman from covering her face in court, but then relented with the proviso that she must allow the jury to see her face while she was giving evidence.

While the full burqa has been banned in public places in France and Belgium, Britain has resisted calls to follow suit. Even the Conservative-led coalition government is against the state getting involved in this debate.

Teresa May, the home secretary, declared that women should be free to decide what they want to wear. This statement followed a call for a national debate on the subject by a junior minister in her department.

The entire discussion has put liberals and feminists on the spot: on the one hand, they defend the right of women to dress as they please. But they also deplore Muslim women being forced to cover themselves up by family and social pressure.

However, the reality is that in most cases, many young Muslim women born and raised in the UK choose to wear the hijab or headscarf, and more rarely, the niqab or the full burqa.

In most cases, this attire is worn more as a badge of identity than a religious duty.

In fact, Islamic texts call upon women to dress modestly, but not to envelop themselves from head to toe, leaving only the eyes visible. This is why burqas and niqabs are relatively rare across the Muslim world. Working women, especially in the fields, simply could not function in them.

When writing about the subject at the time the French debate on the full veil was going on, I thought I should try this garb myself. Accordingly, I donned a black burqa that had a mesh over the eyes, and covered my entire body.

My whole world shrank to a small rectangle; my movements were restricted; and I felt hot and claustrophobic. As I wrote at the time, any man who makes his wife, daughter or sister wear this attire should put it on himself first.

But wearing the full veil in male-dominated, violent countries like Pakistan is very different from putting it on in liberal societies like the UK.

In the former case, the garment is for self-protection, while in the latter, it is mostly about identity. And even though the number of women wearing the full burqa in the UK is tiny, the outfit does arouse irrational anger. As Maleiha Malik, a professor of law, wrote recently in the Guardian:

“Today’s debates about, and treatment of, veiled Muslim women are akin to the way heretics, lepers and Jews were treated in mediaeval Europe… [In the post 9/11 era] Political elites have exaggerated, rather than alleviated, understandable popular anxieties about Muslim religious differences in ways that often make reasonable debates impossible…”

While political correctness makes it difficult for my British friends to be openly critical about veils when discussing the issue with me, they do express one reasonable concern. Why should many young Muslim girls at school be deprived of pursuits like games, swimming and dramatics due to their constraining outfits?

Apart from depriving them of healthy activities, their parents also prevent them from sharing these experiences with non-Muslim friends, and thus diminishing the benefits of a liberal education. So while young women from other migrant groups are represented on the stage and the sports fields across Britain, few Muslims are.

Does this matter? Yes, if you are born and brought up in a country that you now call your own, and where you would like to be gainfully employed.

Maleiha Malik proposes an internal debate on the veil within Muslim communities. However, given the divisions that exist among Britain’s three million or so Muslims, it is hard to see how a consensus can be developed on this, or any other, subject.

I often wonder why this is not a political issue in the United States which also has a substantial Muslim population. I suspect one reason could be that the unemployed there do not enjoy the same benefits they do in much of Europe.

Here, if you can’t get a job because you insist on wearing the full veil or an unkempt beard, you can go on the dole.

For a liberal like me, this is a lose-lose debate: on the one hand, all my instincts say women should be free to dress as they choose; on the other, I don’t want to see young Muslim women being marginalised and stigmatised because they insist on antagonising the mainstream by their extreme attire.

From "Behind the veil" By Irfan Hussain: http://www.dawn.com/news/1044320/behind-the-veil
Redefining Muslim women in history
OXFORD University Press, Lahore, invited Farida Shaheed, the coauthor of Great Ancestors: Women Claiming Rights in Muslim Contexts, to talk about her book. The audience comprised students as well as seasoned scholars. Ateeb Gul, an editor at Oxford, did a good job moderating the session. Shaheed started by explaining how the initial idea was to prepare a training module for women working for their rights in Muslim societies and to mobilise new activists. The project was supported by the organisation, Women Living Under Muslim Laws.

Shaheed highlighted that there is a `misconception in Muslim societies that the struggle for women`s rights is confined, historically and geographically, to European and North American locations.` She explained how, as an academic and an activist, she was offended by this `myth` every time she came across it. Yet, it enjoys credibility that women`s rights in Muslim societies are an alien idea and whoever works for them is promoting some `foreign` agenda. The misconception is not only confined to Muslim societies but also to some people in non-Muslim cultures that see Muslim women as passive and silent victims. So prevalent is this misconception that any example of brave Muslim women resisting patriarchal values, whether in the past or present, is brushed aside as an exception. Shaheed emphasised that this `myth` has been repeated so often, in public as well as in our private lives, that we consider it reality.

Calling it a `dangerous myth,` Shaheed stressed for it to be `challenged, debunked, and laid to rest.` It is promoted by the opponents of gender equality in Muslim societies, she said. Without completely shattering it, the majority of women will keep fearing to speak out for their rights, afraid of being treated as the `other`, as someone who has imported these `problematic` and `negative` ideas from foreign cultures.

The main thesis of Great Ancestors, Shaheed said, is that the women living in Muslim societies have struggled for a more just society in every era and every region.

The book provides around some 500 examples from the eighth to the mid-20th century where women living in Muslim contexts strived either for their individual rights or struggled for better conditions for women as a whole.

Shaheed`s aim was to bring forth an alternate reality, a reality that has been completely erased from our history textbooks. She has tried to rediscover the narratives of expanding the rights and personal spaces of women from numerous historical moments. The lives of our great ancestors narrated in the book can be a catalyst for rethinking `Muslim womanhood` as a socially and historically constructed identity. It is essential for women living in Muslim societies to read their history for themselves. As Fatima Mernissi points out in her book The Forgotten Queens of Islam,women cannot count on anyone to read their history for them. In the book Mernissi gave several examples of female queens in Arab history, to the surprise of many.

However, unlike The Forgotten Queens of Islam, Great Ancestors brings forth the stories of not only queens and powerful women but of women from all walks of life including poets, scholars, sufis, rulers, artists, and rights activists.

The question-answer session brought further vibrancy to the debate when a member of the audience questioned the utility of historical examples when Islamic texts are used by most religious scholars to undermine the project of gender equality. In response, Shaheed qualified that her book `is not about theology or the religion of Islam or even women`s lives in relation to Islam.` The purpose of the book, she said, is `to elucidate examples of women who defied culturally defined gender norms to assert their right to be different and to change their society.

This further engaged the audience in a discussion on what is more important for bringing about social change: presenting facts, countering the established norms or challenging the prevalent theories through abstract arguments. To this, Shaheed underlined the importance of historical narratives by stating that history is not merely a collection of stories: `By telling us who we have been, history defines for a people a sense of self that funnels into and guides a sense of potential tomorrows.`
By Umair Khan- http://epaper.dawn.com/~epaper/DetailImage.php?StoryImage=22_09_2013_462_002

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