Let Muslim Women Speak for Themselves

  • Published: September 8th, 2009
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Over the weekend, a piece I wrote some months ago for my global syndicate, Project Syndicate — a terrific organization that makes sure that op-eds from all points of view get disseminated to outlets in the developing world, in order to reinforce habits of democracy and debate — got picked up and twisted in what I can only call Fanaticland and distorted beyond recognition.

The piece, as you see here, makes the case that when you travel throughout the Muslim world, listening to women there, you often hear FROM WOMEN THEMSELVES more nuanced views of the headscarf, and of modest clothing, than you hear in the West; and — a point I cannot make often enough — when you actually listen to Muslim feminist or women’s leaders, many of them wish the West, with all its resources and potential for positive dialogue with the Muslim world, would focus its attention more on the life-and-death or survival-level challenges women and girls often face in Muslim countries –  and in the developing world generally — from bride killings to legal subjugaton to lack of access to clean water and safety for their kids – than on what women are wearing, as if that is the only possible measure of their wellbeing. I don’t support women being forced to wear anything they do not wish to, of course — in any society, in the Muslim world or in ours. Duh.

The point I made is that many women I have heard from who actually have a choice, chose to wear a headscarf and modest clothing and that instead of assuming we know what this means to them, we should be willing to actually listen; these women are not zombies — they include such articulate and well-educated young women as the (relatively privileged) current head of the debating society at Oxford — a very prestigious, demanding position — and the (much less privileged) support staffer, courageous single mom, social critic and outspoken feminist I met in Amman in June  — who chooses with great insistence to wear a headscarf, as many bright young women do, in a relatively casual, loose, Westernized capital city, and who works for in the office of Mary Nazzal, the prominent human rights attorney, who does not wear a headscarf — who actually looks like she stepped out of a fashion shoot for Marie Claire. These women are colleagues and their clothing differences are less than secondary to them.

To the former young woman, at Oxford, the headscarf symbolized an assertion of her commitment to her ethnic identity in a fairly hegemonic Britain. To the latter, it symbolized her pride in her Jordanian heritage, her commitment to her faith and a strong rejection of Western values that she identifies with the suffering of, among others, Palestinians. I am not endorsing these views by listening to them and reporting on them as if these women were worthy of respect. I am standing by my own longterm commitment as a feminist  to a core principle that has always ultimately served me well: WHEN IN DOUBT LISTEN TO WOMEN. Do I want to emulate these women’s choices? No. Do I want to understand them, to seek insight? Yes.
When I travelled in Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria, I met women in headscarfs and wearing modest clothing who were running aid organizations; getting supplies to war-ravaged communities; fighting for legal rights for women; and so on. I also met any number of flat-out Muslim feminists who wore Western clothing — but when I asked about issues like the hijab, knowing my editors would want me to focus on that, they looked at me with fatigue and sometimes simply snapped something along the lines of, why is the West so obsessed with what we wear instead of what our real problems are? Why don’t you focus on the amazing things Muslim women are doing – and let them speak for themselves? Pretty much universally, they let me know that bride burnings, illiteracy, domestic violence, and legal oppression were at the top of their lists of priorities, and that they saw the West’s preoccupation with the hijab as somewhat tiresome and beside the point given these life-and-death concerns.

Sadly for the wellbeing of real American discourse and debate, this piece is being twisted by those who know better — “Wolf wants to institutionalize the Burka.”  There is nothing further to be said in response this sort of nonsense — I am just sorry that much of it is being spewed by organizations underwritten by the Israel lobby, who should abide by the core Jewish values of telling the truth, and promoting peace and mutual understanding, and instead are stooping to telling falsehoods and demonizing the “other” instead of seeking real dialogue.

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