Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Non-muslim feminists face off over the veil

Natalia Antonova writes astutely about the recent "debate" over the hijab in Salon.

I put "debate" in quotes, since it isn't recent and isn't a debate, more of an ongoing, convoluted ideological brawl.

Okay, so two well-known Jewish feminists dueling over the hijab have been given ample coverage in a well-trafficked lefty space... during Ramadan? Oh dear God. (Pardon expression.) I was cringing already, before I clicked on Natalia's link.

Who decides on these things? Where is the Muslim feminist? (I actually met one on my JOB here in conservative South Carolina, so I do know they exist.) Were they afraid a Muslim feminist would not be able to comment intelligently on her own culture and religion? Or were they going for the famous feminist "names"? In this corner, Naomi Wolf, and in this corner, Phyllis Chesler!

Predictably, this is cast as a cool, multicultural Third-Waver vs old-fogie Second-Waver, although plenty of Second-Wavers (including me) have harshly criticized Chesler's unending anti-Islamic jihad. (And her comments quoted in Salon must be read in that context. Below, I have linked her own blog, so that you can judge for yourself.)

Natalia, who has lived in Islamic countries, comments:

On one hand, I think Islam (at least classically speaking) is more more tolerant of the human body than, say, Christianity (being at least a nominal Christian myself, I do often think about this divide). Yet you can’t deny that not all aspects of veiling or purdah are all about celebrating family [as Wolf claimed], some of them are there to celebrate prudishness, sexual anxiety, dehumanization of women, gender apartheid, and The Grand Tournament of Punishing Sluts. Who are sluts? Well, any women who don’t fit into whatever arbitrary standard of what is “appropriate” out on the street today. Something tells me that Wolf has never overheard, say, a clutch of women loudly discussing another for looking like a “slut” because her hijab does not cover her eyebrows. Maybe she will one day, and a dash of actual complexity will be introduced to her further writings on the subject.
Salon writer Tracy Clark-Flory correctly reports that Chesler tends to freak out about the idea that the veil could be anything but oppressive:
Chesler is horrified by Wolf's argument and doesn't pull any punches in a blog response titled "The Burqa: Ultimate Feminist Choice?" It bears the taunting subhead: "Naomi Wolf Discovers That Shrouds Are Sexy." Chesler hyperbolizes Wolf's argument, suggesting that she sees women in chadors as "feminist ninja warriors" and "believes that the marital sex is hotter when women 'cover' and reveal their faces and bodies only to their husbands."

She goes on to contend that "most Muslim girls and women are not given a choice about wearing the chador, burqa, abaya, niqab, jilbab, or hijab (headscarf), and those who resist are beaten, threatened with death, arrested, caned or lashed, jailed, or honor murdered by their own families" and asks whether Wolf is so "thoroughly unfamiliar with the news coming out of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan on these very subjects." (Never mind that Wolf is talking specifically about the experiences of women she encountered in Morocco, Jordan and Egypt, as well as those of women in France and Britain, where there is great political resistance to Muslim dress.) This caused Wolf to e-mail Chesler to ask that she correct "terrible inaccuracies" in the post. Chesler hit back, posting Wolf's e-mail along with a hostile response; yesterday, she posted a related item with the subhead, "The Hundred Year War Begins."
It's always a very nasty, immoral act to publish someone's email. To me, a pretty LOW thing to do. Chesler takes the LOW ROAD, then. Automatically. And she brought her crew, too! That famous radical feminist David Horowitz has jumped into the fray. (Caution, extremely unpleasant and noxious link.) And Chesler responds to the Salon piece, angry, of course. (And we wonder why Second-Wavers have such bad reputations?)

[EDIT ADDED 9/10/09: Reader Histfan upbraids me and maintains that Wolf gave Chesler permission to publish the email, although on my first reading, this was not evident. Wolf's words on page 2 of the Chesler post: "You are welcome to reprint this letter on your website, actually please do, I don’t know how to do so." I have issues with this, since of course she knows how to do so, it's called leaving a comment on a blog, and even I have managed to learn how to do that... so I dunno the reason for Wolf's sudden net-ignorance? But I have added this for clarification and correction.]

Sometimes, you just can't think of anything to say. Natalia does, thankfully:
Of course, I agree with Wolf about the aspect of choice. I don’t care what Phyllis Chesler, or anyone else, feels about the veil, the burkini, the hot-pink catsuit I saw a woman wear on the bus today… You don’t get to tell anyone how to farking dress. I don’t care what you may think their reasons for dressing this or that way are.
Amen! I am so tired of women policing each other!

And it comes back to that. I am often "offended" by the clothes I see both women and men wear every day. So? They didn't ask me before they put them on, and it is none of my business. Conversely, they can keep their mouths shut if they don't like what I am wearing.

But Natalia also describes the experience of women "on the ground"--so to speak. She doesn't quite accuse Wolf of "slumming"--but comes very close:
Chesler does, however, have a point when she says that the Muslim world can be just as “debauched” as anything you’d ever see in the West; people just hide that sort of thing better, they don’t flaunt it, it’s all very surreptitious, but it happens. Closed societies deal with repression in all sorts of colourful ways. Considering the amount of so-called Muslim men that regularly tried to solicit sex from me while I was in Jordan, I just don’t buy Wolf’s insistence that society is somehow purer and human interaction is less explotative when most of the women are veiled. I found Wolf’s own wearing of shalwar kameez and headscarf in Morocco to be touching. Personally, I’ve worn the veil to escape sexual harassment, and no, it was not a “calming” or “serene” experience, it was an “oh crap, now I get to pretend to be someone else just for a scrap of respect around here” kind of experience.

I don’t like Chesler’s blanket, baiting statements about Islam, especially as Islam does often get confused with culture, but I’m not going to sit here and say that trying to pass as a Muslim for fear of something genuinely bad happening to me was a bit of wonderful cultural exchange I’d gush to my friends about. It would be as silly as expecting a woman who is, say, forced to take off her headscarf for fear of Islamophobic attacks to gush about it as well. I don’t mean to say that Wolf has no right to frame her experience as she sees fit – hey, I’m glad she enjoyed, I wish I could have felt the same, if only for a moment or two – but I do hope she at least realizes that when she says “choice is everything” she has to apply that to her own situation as well, and perhaps realize that choice can have a bit of a gray, fuzzy area around it
Indeed. Within patriarchy, we only have limited choices, and make our lives within the boundaries we know. We all do. And that awareness is a global radical feminist awareness, not demonizing the evillll Muslims as the "worst of the worst," but as a particular manifestation of patriarchy.

But we are groping for these truths. Because we are not Muslim and in a very real sense, we have to admit that on a religious level, we don't know what we are talking about.

I'll end with Natalia's incisive wind-up, because I can't improve on it:
The publicity must be pretty good for both Wolf and Chesler right about now (and awww, look, isn’t it sweet? They both agree that porn is ba-yud), but if I was a Muslim woman watching all of this, I’d probably feel as though I was in a room full of people who were telling me to be quiet when the adults are talking.
And with that, I wish a prayerful Ramadan to my Muslim readers.