Is the Veil a sign of Oppression?

Isn’t it true that people often overlook the hegemony omnipresent in feminist discourse?

Feminism which originated and pioneered in the West tends to enforce its ideals of what a ‘liberated’ woman is in the 21st century, without adjusting itself vis-à-vis the context. After the post-structuralism breakthrough in discourse creation, some people have become so fanatic about opposing stereotypes that the idea of retaliation to stereotypes has itself become fundamentalist. It is seen that any kind of campaign which intends to ‘liberate’ people can never make people conform to the polar opposite of the stereotype which the campaign intends to help liberate them from.

Feminists in the US and UK have perceived Muslim women to be victims in all senses, regardless of their living conditions or their dynamics with the family and society. It is with regard to the tendency to look at a woman wearing a hijab and pity her for conforming to a patriarchal system. These feminists constantly feel that these women might have been forced to wear an abaya (robe) and niqab (veil) due to pressures by the husband and the family. Especially during summers, they are certain that the last thing these women want to do is to wear a veil in the scorching heat. This is an extremely sympathetic approach towards the Muslim women. However, what one needs to adopt is an empathetic stance. Western feminists want to help Muslim women break free from the shackles. However, what they need to realize is that all they should do is aid them to emancipate themselves the way they want to. Not all emancipation looks alike. It is rather hegemonic to assume that all women in Asian countries want to discard their culture and adopt values of the west. This is a sweeping generalization.

A Muslim feminist, Lila Abu Lagodh, discusses an important question, “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?” She speaks for all those Muslim women who claim that they don’t look up to the ideals of Western feminists or their way of dressing, speech and conduct because the historical and cultural context is entirely different. Rather, these women look up to the Iranian Feminists to find a paradigm of emancipation in coherence with their cultural context. In Abu Lagodh’s opinion, Muslim women consider veil a kind of room for protection which makes them feel safe from objectification by the male gaze. She feels their culture has eventually made them like privacy, wherein they just don’t like to put themselves out in public, especially as far as body exposure is concerned. Muslim feminists are adopting different ways to customize the veil. With global influences, they have invented ‘burkinis’ as they have their own beauty pageants, wherein the dress code functions in alignment with their culture. The idea is that these women just don’t want to discard their religion and culture and wear skimpy clothes in public, as it is not what they are comfortable in.

Saba Mehmood, a feminist agrees with this point of view, stating the fact that she feels rather uncomfortable when American universities invite her asking her to give lectures on the oppression of women in Islam as she feels this paints her religion in a completely negative and wrong light.

However, one cannot also generalize that all women wearing the veil are happy or that all women wearing the veil are oppressed. The idea is that the analysis of oppression should be done from the individual’s perspective. Making sweeping generalizations that all Muslim women who wear the veil are victims of oppression appears too ignorant and irrelevant.

Rather, one should focus on ensuring equality in other areas such as, in political representation, in the job market, in the media, etc. Feminism shouldn’t offer a prescriptive propaganda when it comes to personal laws which could be culture specific. However, one can also argue that cultural relativism isn’t the only thing. Respecting context does not mean that Western women shouldn’t speak for the predicaments of Asian women, or that Hindus cannot speak for Muslims or vice versa, or that men cannot speak for women because they haven’t lived the experiences of a woman. People shouldn’t necessarily live each other’s experiences to be empathetic.

Feminism really is the most important thread of thought for the 21st century. All one needs to do is find a way to make it much more accessible and acceptable to everybody in a way that one can personalize it and understand it in one’s own manner. Feminists need not be clones, upholding similar ideas and beliefs. Shouldn’t feminism be all about women and men being equal and therefore at least allowing both men and women to take their own decisions, in the way they want to? Well, that’s what gives power.

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