SPT v2n1 - A Dialogical Model of Persistent Patriarchalism

Number 1
Fall 1996
Volume 2


Ana Sanchez, University of Valencia

As women and men of the north shore of the Mediterranean Sea, what do we know about women on the south shore? From my Western feminist perspective, I would say we know nothing . Those women are invisible. This is a double metaphor pointing to double invisibility an invisibility involving women on both shores. This invisibility is a texture, a piece of cloth woven into different kinds of veils. But if we pursue the matter at a deeper level, we can discover that the two different sorts of veils involve a common, and foundational, gender inequity though the sort of inequity characteristic of each shore is different.

As a means to explore this deeper level, we can begin with the Western mass media. Which roles do the "developed" women of the West play? Which places do they occupy? Are there attractive male legs or beautiful bodies on television? Are there women in positions of power, at international summit meetings, leading the armies at war?

With respect to the southern shore, what Western mass media continually show are stereotyped images of Arab women, and these images are icons of colonialist, male-centered views and interests as if that were the only reality. As one example, in magazines and journals and books at least in Spain Arab women never appear as politically active subjects. They are briefly mentioned in articles about motherhood and sexual issues, but where they proliferate, where they appear in almost every photograph, is in the iconography of the texts and then almost nothing about them is revealed because they are always veiled. And the same pattern shows up in magazines and books published in France or Germany or Italy.

Fatima Mernissi (1992) has this to say: "Look, for example, at the covers of my books, even at the title pages. French and German publishers insist on including the word harem in the titles, or they put on the book jacket a photograph of a veiled woman. And when I protest, they answer that that is what sells (even when the content of the work is intended to counter that image)."

And when we focus directly on the images, as a direct source of communication, as less mediated, what do we see? Or, more precisely, what do we not see? What we do in fact always see is veiled women, women who are covered up. And that is the message: in Arab countries, women are going back to wearing the veil which, in this simplistic analysis, means that women are taking a step backward (from their perspective). Fundamentalism strikes again. The one point of view, the colonialist point of view, turns the question of wearing the veil or not into a highly political issue, and bleeds that issue for profit.

What I claim here is that the image of veiled women joined together with other images of Islamic fundamentalism is both comforting and useful for the West. "Us? We are okay, thank you; no problem." Veiled women are turned into an image that reinforces Western modernity an image that adds ever more veils to a complex issue. At the same time, I maintain that an unveiled look has the potential to open a fruitful (though never to be completed) path that might move us from one shore to the other, leading us to recognize ourselves within the images of one another.

If we pay close attention to differences among Arab countries, we will discover that the issue of readopting the veil has many nuances. To provide appropriate complexity for our analysis, we must take into account the interaction among features which are very different from one country to another; we must examine different histories, different colonial pasts (and post-colonial presents), different relationships with Iran, on one hand, and with Western countries on the other hand. Furthermore, related to all these factors, we must also come to know that the reasons for readopting the veil are different in each country.

The texts on which Islam is based are the Koran and the Hadith, with the latter being stories about what the Prophet said or did at different times. The Koran cannot be contested, but the Hadith can; they are subject to interpretation. One may offer a fundamentalist interpretation or one of a different kind for example, one may say that the revelations of the Koran, as interpreted in the Hadith, were never intended to affirm patriarchy indeed, that they were a denunciation of it. Is the return to the veil or to other kinds of modest clothing a step backward or forward? Is this a religious duty? Must the emergent "discourse on the veil" reinforce a fundamentalist interpretation of texts of the Koran, or are other readings allowed?


The Moroccan journalist, Hinde Taarji , in her book, Les voilees de l'Islam (1991) , provides a source of genuine information: namely, the voice of women (something difficult to discover in this tangle of veils). Situated somewhere between journalism and ethnomethodology, her book shows the variety of views women hold about the return to the veil. She reports great differences between Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, and other Islamic countries. And there would be still more differences if Taarji's interviews had focused on working women or the rural poor rather than on students or middle and higher class women. Certainly, the return to the veil affects those women more directly, since poor and rural women have never worn Western clothes. On the other hand, if one identifies the veil as a religious obligation, this raises a series of questions about the role that the Koran ascribes to women: praise for motherhood, seclusion, the segregation of women from men, the suitability of women's participation in politics, in the labor market, and so on.

All of these are issues that appear in the interviews carried out by Taarji in Arab emirates, in Algeria, Egypt, and Lebanon. I have selected from her book very different sorts of views on the veil question, on differing understandings of the Koran, and on the roles assigned to women. As will be seen, there is no clear agreement on the religious obligation of the hijab .

But we should return to the actual voices of the women. For Nadia Kilani, who is an editor of the Egyptian magazine, Awa [Eve], "The hijab is a sign par excellence of women's evolution outside the home." To the contrary, another Egyptian, Amina Said, is horrified. She is a leftist journalist who works for El Mousawar [The Independent], and she claims: "In the texts of the Koran, you will find no descriptions of clothing for Islamic females." Maha, a professor of French Literature in Ain Chems University in Cairo, says she has adopted a more modest kind of clothing because of pressure from males staring at her on the streets; at home, she says, she wears jeans and miniskirts. Madiha, who teaches sociology at the American University in Cairo, sums up a number of reasons to explain the return to the veil: (a) religion "Most people believe it is the genuine Islamic style of clothing"; (b) family pressure (from not only fathers and brothers but also from sons); (c) the economy ("They do not have enough money to be fashionable"); and (d) society "The hijab is more a national than an Islamic style; women wear it to be like everyone else."

In Lebanon, Taarji found a strong connection between the return to the veil and the Lebanese fight against invading Israeles. That link is one psychological effect of the war, and the power of the Hezbollah party developed at the same time. One respondent, Fatima, gives expression to the combination of the fear of death and national identity: "When I put on the hijab , the fear of death disappeared in spite of bombs and bullets." Another respondent, Nayfe, combines several of the arguments defended in Lebanon: the return to the veil as a way of escaping sexual attack and as a sign of opposition to the Israeli invader: "I started working at a newspaper, so I was able to mingle at every level of society...; [then] I became aware of how women are looked at...; I was able to observe how men perceive women...only in terms of their beauty, where only external appearance counts."

We can link these reflections with others in the book voicing complaints against Western materialism. The view is overwhelming. Malkiya, an Algerian, began to pray at the urging of her son. She bought a copy of the Koran and went to Mecca. But she took her final step in Paris: "My recent readings had made me aware that the hijab is an obligation for Muslim women...; [in France] I was shocked by the materialism, the external appearances that guide human relationships. I set out dressing European but came back dressing Muslim." Wearing the hijab , she says, she feels at peace; but she can also run because she wears trousers underneath.

Asma Ben Kadar, an Algerian theologian and mathematician, also returned to the veil, this time as a way to deal with the accepted asymmetry between attitudes toward men's and women's bodies: "In 1982, I started to raise questions about the relationship between men and women. I came to the conclusion that the hijab was the best way to gain my freedom. Given that men were unable to see anything in my person other than being female..., I decided to eliminate what wakens men's desires. ...Gaining freedom from their stares, I affirm my freedom." In spite of her being a theologian, she claims not to know whether the veil is or is not a religious obligation, but she feels it has become a need as a result of social context. On the other hand, she does affirm that polygamy, special inheritance laws, and the male right to repudiate spouses are Islamic precepts.

In several countries, women said that wearing the veil makes them feel free. Fatima, for instance, says: "The hijab is like a wall built up against the instincts of males. It makes femaleness disappear, leaving room for the person."

Family pressures are different in different countries: sometimes children make their mothers wear the veil; at other times, boyfriends forbid it or parents fear that wearing it will end their chances in life.