Well, one thing at least about the controversy that followed Jack Straws remarks about women wearing veils can be disposed of pretty quickly: the argument that veils impede communication is entirely spurious. Of course covering ones face removes some of the cues that are used in understanding, but so what? Human communication is massively redundant, precisely so that we can continue to communicate even when elements are screened out for whatever reason. Accents and dialects, tongue studs, brightly colored clothes, terrible haircuts – all these things impede communication, and all of them are accepted as a matter of course.
The other superficially reasonable point that gets brought up is to say that, after all, why shouldn’t Jack Straw express his personal preference regarding the veil, as long as he doesn’t try and force it on anyone? But there’s an obvious difference between his making a private request, and making a public statement. You don’t have to be Grice or Lacan to worry, not just about what someone says, but why they’re saying it, and why they’re saying it now. Aside from the inevitable consequence that this is going to make some of his constituents reluctant to visit him, Jack Straw can hardly be unaware that publicizing his personal views on the veil sets up the context for liberal White Knights to ride in and “defend” Muslim women with a combination of racism and misogyny:
I live in an area where there is quite a large population of traditional Muslims and I should admit I dislike the social detachment that is achieved by the increasing use of the full veil. I would even go so far to say that I object to this one group of people holding itself apart, not from an intolerant white majority, but from a remarkably diverse and easy-going ethnic mix.…
Wearing a veil in a largely secular society says something about the woman’s position in her marriage and probably prevents her from engaging with that society properly and so enjoying the rights of other women. It is fundamentally different from wearing, say, a sari or any of the traditional clothes of the Hassidim because it erects a barrier between her and the people around her.…
Maybe there isn’t a choice because liberal democracies are already under attack from sections of their Muslim populations. Maybe one unacknowledged truth in this debate is that radical elements have been empowered by al-Qaeda’s terrorist campaign and feel able to insist on the watering down of liberal democratic values in Europe with the hope that Sharia law will eventually be established.
And it’s worth emphasizing that much liberal discussion of the veil is both racist and misogynist. The tortured liberal position is to cast this as a trade-off; do we risk appearing racist in order to promote women’s rights? But in fact, there’s no trade-off at all: the criticism of the veil that comes from a well-meaning liberal perspective is sexist precisely because it is racist, and vice versa. To claim, as opponents of the veil do, that because its origins lie in part in a misogynist view of female sexuality, it must always and only represent the oppression of women, is to deny agency to the women of color who in fact wear the veil. They do so for a variety of reasons, some of which specifically increase their autonomy and agency. For Western liberals to efface this by insisting that the actions of these women must be interpreted in terms of a theory built on the experience of white women is to ideologically erase these Muslim women; this can’t be anything other than sexist. It’s too much to hope, I guess, that commentators will attempt to correct their ignorance before they weigh in, but they ought to read Saba Mahmood’s work on women’s agency in Islamist movements:
In this essay, I will probe some of the conceptual challenges that women’s participation in the Islamic movement poses to feminist theorists and gender analysts through an ethnographic account of an urban women’s mosque movement that is part of the larger Islamic revival in Cairo, Egypt. In this movement women from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds provide lessons to each other that focus on the teaching and studying of Islamic scriptures, social practices, and forms of bodily comportment considered germane to the cultivation of the ideal virtuous self. Even though Egyptian Muslim women have always had some measure of informal training in piety, the mosque movement represents an unprecedented engagement with scholarly materials and theological reasoning that had to date been the purview of learned men. Movements such as this one, if they do not provoke a yawning boredom among secular intellectuals, certainly conjure up a whole host of uneasy associations such as fundamentalism, the subjugation of women, social conservatism, reactionary atavism, cultural backwardness, and the rest. My aim in this essay is not to analyze the reductionism these associations entail of an enormously complex phenomenon; nor am I interested in recovering a redeemable element within the Islamist movement by recuperating its latent liberatory potentials. Instead, I want to focus quite squarely on the conceptions of self, moral agency, and discipline that undergird the practices of this nonliberal movement so as to come to an understanding of the desires that animate it.
My goal, however, is more than to provide an “anthropological account” of the Islamic revival; it is also to make this material speak back to normative liberal assumptions about freedom and agency against which such a movement is held accountable. Thus my ethnographic tracings will sustain a running argument with and against key analytical concepts in feminist studies through which movements such as the one I am interested in are often analyzed. In doing so, I hope to continue a conversation initiated by feminist critics that explores the tensions attending the dual character of feminism both as an analytical and a political project.