Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Niqab equals ...

I'm posting on the niqab subject in a new post because I want to clarify a few things.

What Sarkozy is doing is saying: "You're in our country, you abide by our norms, and if not, we may take things into our hands." He wants to change the law.

And you know what, on reflection, that's probably a more honest approach than pretending to be tolerant when you can't stand the sight of niqab.

Meg asked what niqab equals?

Niqab equals devoutness.
Niqab equals piety.
Niqab equals a visible display of religiousness.
Niqab equals a statement of virtue and decency.

As far as we know, niqabs existed before Islam, and not just within Arabia. But it became part of Muslim culture when the Prophet Mohammed's wives were named "the mothers of the muslims", told not to marry after his death and to wear niqab. Even though this was directed to the wives of the Prophet, many women followed their lead. The niqab became a symbol for maximum decency, propriety, virtue, etc.

It is absolutely not "required"; but for some reason women have been held captive by its strong statement of "rising above" the standard hijab.

You know how nuns wear a particular uniform to indicate their choice to rise above, get themselves out the equation of, the sexual, the material? The niqab is the same - max strength.

It seems that its wearing came and went with fashion and place. I'm not sure that in Egypt, for example, women always wore niqab. But certainly in the 1920s, middle class Cairenes would put on something to cover their face on top of what they were wearing.

My late grandmother told me about the time when - as a result of a campaign by a man called Qasem Amin - women stopped doing that and started wearing European-style clothes. I got a sense that it was a weight off her young shoulders.

Today, women who wear niqab in Egypt do so by choice. Their life is not easy. Some hijab-wearing women see niqab as affront; as if the niqab wearer is saying I'm holier than thou.

In parts of Afghanistan, and the tribal regions of north Pakistan, I understand that niqab is widely spread, and "comes as standard". A girl grows up with all her female relatives in niqab, she knows that's what she'll wear when she grows up.

Sarkozy was addressing niqab wearers in France. These women chose.

There is little evidence - in my opinion - for the "causality" argument: that women wear niqab because their men would kill/intimidate them otherwise. Such a link would not hold up under scrutiny.

I recently received a call from a Saudi PhD student at another university in the UK. She wears the niqab (not all Saudi women wear niqab). She'd met me a year ago at a seminar at her university. She is finding some difficulty in making progress in her studies and was panicking a little. Let me say that I found a strong, clear-thinking woman on the other end of the phone. I felt a lot for her.

I know her supervisors (Englishmen), and the rest of her faculty (mostly Englishmen), and I can imagine what is going on in their minds while dealing with her. In fact, I advised her to seek a Muslim supervisor (not me) - because she might contend with less with him/her. But then she told me that one of her PhD colleagues is a non-hijab-wearing Muslim woman who absolutely, studiously distanced herself from her. Talk about isolation!

Having been a foreign PhD struggling with a different educational system, on my own, with no close family or genuine friends, I knew her situation. She not only has to deal with all that, but also the unremitting prejudice that no doubt exists in the minds of all who deal with her. All they can see is "slave", "prisoner of male domination", etc.

I am going to say something slightly controversial, and it may disappoint you, but I think the feminist story is simply that. It's a story. It has a bad guy (manhood) and a hero (womanhood) and it's about the hero's struggle with the bad guy. I'm not sure it's true.

Throughout history, smart men have known that women are an asset best at their sides. The Prophet Mohammed said “God enjoins you to treat women well, for they are your mothers, daughters, aunts.” "Kindness is a mark of faith, and whoever is not kind has no faith."

I'm not evil for being a man. Yes, I may inherited a baggage of male domination issues. But women have also to realise that the genders have different strengths. Under pressure, under stress, some women are not effective. Many women yearn for male leadership: they look for a strong, visionary man; they want to be in the company of an expert; they want a teacher; etc. Again, I'm going on personal observation and hunch.

The genders have different qualities - let's just accept that. And no one's perfect.

The strongest women I have met have been the ones most wanting to be _dominated_ (their word) by strong men. I've heard it from impressive, independent, high-achieving women that I'm sure it says something.

The women most sensitive about how men deal with them, I found, are the ones who have a deep, dark backstory involving their father or an old ex. Again, it's a hunch I have based on a small sample.

The niqab issue for me is a matter of practicality. I wouldn't want my wife and daughters to wear niqab, but that's mainly for social reasons. I recognise that they would become outcasts or ill-advantaged (even in Egypt). But do I approve of this outcasting business? No way.

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Meg said...

Regardless of what niqab stands for, in any country in modern Europe wearing it is not conducive to that woman being able to establish or maintain any kind of meaningful relationships with anyone outside of her family.
I immediately think about Desmond Morris and his works like "The Human Animal" and how important the 'unspoken' is in our interactions with each other. Eye contact, touching, gestures, the subtle facial expressions. These things are VITAL to our survival as a species (no really - watch his BBC series).
So in that sense when you are deprived of interacting with people using these other senses you are in a sense being deprived of identity and more importantly, any way to meaningfully connect with other people.

Ahmed said...

The thing I'm trying to figure out is why aren't all Western countries following cuckoo Sarkozy's antics. Perhaps they will. France leading the way.

By doing so, however, they forfeit becoming a tolerant, liberal society. They become like everybody else: "follow our way, or you're can't live here". Which is fair enough. Call a spade a spade.

Building a relationship with someone is mostly about eye contact. Not touch or facial expression (touch is definitely an intimate thing). The Curb episode with Larry hooking up a niqabi to a blind man had the niqabi say very funny lines even without us seeing her facial expressions. Mime theatre, with its reliance on physicality and its fixed masks, shows you can communicate volumes without a face. Indeed, part of my growing as an actor is to realise that people like Al Pacino's mastery is in adopting very still facial expressions. They let the script, their physicality, the clothing, the props, do the talking.

If you knew your salvation lies with a niqabi, oh you would be able to develop a very meaningful relationship with her.

In any case, niqabis take off their niqab when in the company of women.

I can't help thinking Meg, that underneath it all is the feminist story. This is what this whole thing is about - it ain't about connection and touch. In the West, women perceive themselves as liberated from the domination of men, and niqab affronts them, full stop.

They need to get to know niqabi women.

Ahmed said...

Another point of view on same subject:

avantcaire said...

not sure which side of the fence to come down on the sarko v niqab thing. the idea of the niqab bothers me as much as big-brother-state-meddling.

i believe the feminist movement has evolved since the early militant, adamantly equality-focused beginnings, to something that is more receptive to the idea of men and women being different.

your male-centric approach does not sit well with me though:

"Throughout history, smart men have known that women are an asset best at their sides."

"The strongest women I have met have been the ones most wanting to be _dominated_ (their word) by strong me"

i don't see why men cannot also be seen as assets by the sides of women or why women shouldn't dominate men if that suits their relationship (or non-domination on either side for that matter).

Ahmed said...

I make no apologies for being male-centric. I am a man.

Domination is a non-issue, you're right. Neither side of a relationship should dominate the other.

Yet, it also is an issue. In any relationship between two parties, one side will feel - from time to time - as put upon.

avantcaire said...

a slight digression here: shelina zahra janmohamed discusses being a woman in islam in the guardian.

Lynn said...

I've just finished a good book on women in Islamic nations, called "Nine Parts of Desire" by Geraldine Brooks. She notes that the Shah's ban on women wearing hijab in Iran in the 50's/60's simply forced a huge number of women to stay in the house. It was very confining and one of those unintended consequences that was not helpful to women.

Ahmed said...

Thanks for the insight, Lynn.

Ahmed said...

Always keen to unseat the status quo, Mona el-Tahawy comes out in favour of banning the burqa!

Ahmed said...

Going back to the importance of eyes versus full facial expressions, there appears to be a difference in the way western people and south east asian people.

See East Asian participants tended to focus on the eyes of the other person, while Western subjects took in the whole face, including the eyes and the mouth.