An Observation at the NWSA: the Controversial Discussion on Veiling Practices

As part of the NWSA Conference I have attended a panel on “Islamic Feminist Identities and Activism.” The title had immediately sparked my interest. Among other presentations for this panel, the one that was described as dealing with contemporary crisis of Muslim women and the historical context of Orientalism was of especial interest for me. Working on the Postcolonial Feminism issues for the Stockton Postcolonial Studies Project, I assumed that the presentation might be a good addition to my knowledge of the subject.

The panelist (the institution was undefined) presented a paper titled “Yesterday’s Orientalism and Today’s French Muslim Women.” The presenter was talking about the recent French law forbidding wearing veil as a measure of security in the wake of modern world terrorism. In the first part of her presentation she made useful connections to Said’s concept of Orientalism and the process of “Othering” the exotic unknown who fails to comply with the dominant culture. She stressed that the measures undertaken by the French government are the violation of basic human rights for freedom of religion and cultural identity. Muslim women living in France, the panelist assurted, “face discrimination in their education, housing, and societal norms within the secular construct of French society.”  She also stated that passing of the French law against the veil causes detrimental effects to Muslim women’s lives by forcing them to alienate from the religious aspects of their lives and to comply with the power structure of the heavily patriarchal system of their culture.

The presentation critiqued the law and its impact on the well-being of the Muslim women living in France. But then the panelist suggested to “switch gears” and went onto discussing the cultural implications of veiling in Islamic culture. She spoke about the cultural and religious meaning of veil and veiling practices and the necessity for a Muslim woman to be covered, in order to eliminate the possibility of provoking sexual desired among men.

Essentially, the presenter’s conceptualization of Islam relied on conservative interpretations of  radical Islamic thinkers, such as Sayyid Qutb, who perceive Islamic women’s sexuality as dangerous and reinforcing the vision of Islamic woman as her husband’s sexual object. In other words the presenter gave the impression that she was reinforcing the same old way of perceiving a Muslim woman as an unknown exotic sexual “Other” criticized by Edward Said in Orientalism.

This interpretation of veiling practice sparked controversy among the audience. One of the attendees who identified herself as a Muslim woman resorted to her personal life experience to challenge the presenter’s position.  The woman from the audience shared that it was her personal choice not to veil. Being culturally more knowledgeable about the issue she took liberty to challenge the idea expressed in the presented paper. She stressed an important fact that cultural and religious aspect of veiling is ubiquitous not only in Islamic culture but equally expressed in the Western cultures, in particular in Catholic tradition of covering body parts by nuns. Veils also were known in pre-Islamic times. Veiling is not solely an indicator of religious constrains. To assert otherwise is indicative of ascribing to culturally enforced stereotypes, if not ignorance.

The woman from the audience argued that she travelled and lived in France and Arab countries for extended periods of time, yet she allegedly was never reproached by men for her decision to stay unveiled,  nor was she accused of exposing her sexuality. She commented very emotionally that by misinterpreting the cultural meaning of the veil, the presenter was actually repeating the same stereotypes she seemingly attempted to decipher. Through her rather passionate response, the woman suggested that the presenter refers to more academically valuable sources, such as works of the prominent Islamic scholar Leila Ahmed and the like.

The presenter handled the critique fairly well. She admitted that she felt that there was “some parts missing,” as if she was getting only one side of the story. She seemed very appreciative of  the comment and the possibly slightly forceful but necessary critique from a knowledgeable member of the audience.

The discussion has proven to be a very valuable experience. Being a student of women’s studies and postcolonial feminism, it allowed me to not fall prey of the dangerous misinterpretation of Islamic cultural realities expressed by the panelist. It felt great to get a possibility to apply the theoretical knowledge received in the classroom to a real life situation. What was disturbing, is that this distorted information was coming from a person whose knowledge is expected to be reliable. It was an example of how everything in our world should be questioned and be taken with a grain of salt.

I wonder would the experience of the presentation be different if there was not a mediator to intervene.  The woman from the audience was able to challenge the assumption that often might go unnoticed. The incident is reflective of the controversy that exists in the academic world. Only this is the real world. There are opinions and disagreements, there are right interpretations and wrong accusations, and simply lack of knowledge. And there are stereotypes that easy to be taken for truth. As Sarah Megan Weirich (another presenter from the same panel) pointed, stereotypes are often not reflective of reality. It is a good lesson to remember and use it as a filter for any kind of information one might receive.

To learn more about my NWSA Conference experience, please click here. To receive information about my presentation at the NWSA Conference on digitizing feminism click here.


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