Feminism, imperialism and the veil

“Muslim women who adopt the veil in Europe may simultaneously be seeking to affirm their religious identity while being determined to enter the public sphere as full and equal citizens. They are often also trying to change the cultural and political meaning of the veil in a contemporary context. For some it may be linked to patriarchal pressure, for others a symbol of identity and emancipation in a commodified and patriarchal society – and for many a response to a religious vocation. Feminist politics needs to be flexible and respond to these complexities. And for Muslim women their religion and even their gender are not the only, or the most grievous, focus of their oppression – their bodies have also been, and continue to be, a battleground for European and US imperialism.

“Lord Cromer, British consul general in Egypt in the late 19th century, famously justified British colonial rule by arguing that it could liberate Egyptian women from their oppressive veils…. When the US launched its war on terror in Afghanistan in 2001, George Bush glorified his aims by stating: ‘Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes … The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.’ The US social anthropologists Saba Mahmood and Charles Hirschkind have noted that the relationship between the neoconservative Bush administration and some US feminists was reciprocal and intimate….

“Those feminists who give well-meaning lectures to Muslim women on what they should think, say and wear are not in the end alone. There is a risk that their powerful female voices will inadvertently sustain another political discourse: the words and actions of an illustrious line of men who continue to justify their imperial ambitions on the bodies, often dead bodies, of Muslim women.”

Maleiha Malik in the Guardian, 19 October 2006