As amusing as it may be to watch two non-Muslim women duke it out over the veil…

… I have to say that this argument between Naomi Wolf & Phyllis Chesler mostly depresses me.

When it comes to Wolf, I think she had her heart in the right place, but did make a few claims that rather romanticize the idea of hijab. For example, when she says:

It is not that Islam suppresses sexuality, but that it embodies a strongly developed sense of its appropriate channelling – toward marriage, the bonds that sustain family life, and the attachment that secures a home.

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, 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.

Also, this:

…the Taliban were demonised for denying cosmetics and hair colour to women

No, just no. The problem with the Taliban is that they argue, via a barrel of a gun, that women are not human beings. I don’t believe it’s actually possible for an outsider to “demonize” the Taliban either, as they do a pretty good job of that themselves.

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.

Chesler’s attacks on Wolf framed the issue of “Burqa as ultimate feminist choice,” which was a smear tactic if I’ve ever seen one (could it be because I’ve experienced something very similar once upon a time?). Wolf may be a lot of things, but an idiot she is not.

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.

Do you actively “choose” something when you are being bullied? Do you “choose” it when you are afraid, or even just annoyed?

I think it would be fair to say that we all make our compromises. I “chose” to step into a pair of high heels today to go shopping, I didn’t really want to wear them on this particular occasion, though. I had mean blisters on my feet, and knew they’d open up in those particular shoes. But I wanted to wear a short skirt and look taller, and I went for it anyway, and I paid for it too.

The little situation above might lack the drama and gravity of, say, veiling in order to not be beaten, but, regardless of what we wear or how we wear it, we make compromises and deal with consequences. And for women, both compromises and consequences tend to be just a little more severe than for men.

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.

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8 thoughts on “As amusing as it may be to watch two non-Muslim women duke it out over the veil…

  1. ‘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’.

    You know what? If you sat down several people representing various minority groups I bet they would ALL know that feeling (I certainly do!).

    Supposed ‘experts’ and ‘intellectuals’ can talk about issues affecting certain groups in society til they’re blue in the face but it really means squat until they actually shut up and ask the people who have to live on the sharp end if they actually have it right or not.

  2. sorry I should have said ‘shut up and *listen* to those people to know if they’re getting it right’.

    Please excuse my brain farts :D.

  3. Pingback: links for 2009-09-09 « Embololalia

  4. Pingback: Naomi Wolf finds support in Debate About Women’s Rights in the Muslim World « NewsReal Blog

  5. 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’.

    Damn right. I’m supposed to care what two privileged non-Muslim white ladies think about the veil because…?

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