So I read this story the other day about how Egypt is trying to discourage the spread of fundamentalist Islamism in its nation by prohibiting women’s wearing of the niquab, a full face-covering veil that shows only the eyes. Evidently, this has not traditionally been a feature of women’s wear in Egypt, and is a new development resulting from exposure and influence from more conservative Islamic nations.
Setting aside for the moment the feminist issue of veiling women to protect them from men who are supposedly unable (but who really are unwilling) to control their own behavior, the focus of Egyptian officials on the veil is also sexist, not to mention cowardly.
It reminds me of the old joke about why animal rights activists so frequently target the wearers of fur over leather: because it’s easier to beat up on old ladies than it is bikers.
If Egypt wants to stop the spread of fundamentalist Islamism, it should probably look to social programs that would fill the gap that those madrasas which function as terrorist training schools fill now. Terrorism and other crimes are the result of populations who feel themselves victims of injustice and persecution that is not only not being addressed, but is being enforced and reinforced; people with full bellies and a sense of day-to-day security rarely rise up in armed rebellion. If Egypt wants to root out militant Islamism, it has greater and more useful targets than women in veils. While the number of women engaging in violent terrorist acts like suicide bombing has increased, it is still largely the province of men.
If Egypt wants to limit the influence of fundamentalist, and potentially violent, Islamism, this action is not just impotent; it’s counterproductive. I’m not aware of a single instance in history where the persecution and outlawing of religious beliefs resulted in people releasing them beyond mere appearances; indeed, we tend to cling tighter to our beliefs when they are attacked. They go underground, but they don’t go away.
But this action is not in the least surprising, unfortunately. Women are easy targets, easier in societies where they are already subjugated. Which is to say, all of them. If you doubt that, you haven’t been a woman lately. The same thing happens every day in airport security lines across America. I have been pulled out of line for secondary security screening far more times than chance would predict, given how much I’ve flown. I watch little old ladies in wheelchairs selected as well. I have been wanded when wearing only enough summer clothing to be decent in public while a man in a 3-piece suit, an overcoat, and a hat walked right through without receiving a second glance. (And this happened in July.) When you want to make a big show of security while simultaneously avoiding a big scene, you choose those who are least likely to make a fuss, those who are bred to compliance. On planet Earth, that generally means women.
In Egypt, too, it appears to mean women. It’s so much easier to tell women to take off their veils than it is to determine the roots of the rise of fundamentalism in Egyptian society and non-politically address the human needs and insecurities that are making that fundamentalism newly attractive to folks. Veils off! Right! We’re all safe now. Where’d we put that “Mission Accomplished” banner?
The interesting thing about the article is that it is the women themselves who resist removing their veils, because besides asserting their desire to comply with their understanding of religious requirements, the veil acts as a protective armor they’re unwilling to give up. Veils were originally required in ancient times to differentiate the “good women” of the community from prostitutes; prostitutes were prohibited from wearing them. That way, men could know whom they could crudely importune with impunity and whom they could not. This tradition continues in Muslim countries in an obvious way, but in Western nations where what a woman wears (or doesn’t) determines the treatment and commentary she’ll be subject to by both men and women, the tradition is nowhere near dead, however subtly expressed. Girls learn from a young age that to be visible is to be a target for everything from rude remarks to rape, and if a woman has the audacity to file a complaint (or charges), what she was wearing at the time of the incident will be entered into evidence against her (slyly, if need be), because she was asking for it. Obviously.
There was a recent conversation at a blog I read about the commonplace, everyday harassment women are subject to in America and other countries when walking down the street, riding public transportation, and just generally minding their own business. It is so generally accepted that many women swore they’d never been subject to such harassment, “except for this one time when…” and as they thought about it, they realized it had happened all the time, but because it wasn’t overt or completely beyond the pale, they didn’t file it under “personal attack,” but rather under “things that men just do that I’ve learned to live with.” Much of it barely fazes them anymore. Boys will be boys, and the onus is on women to defend, deflect, and avoid. Every girl knows this from the first time she’s complained about a boy pinching her and pulling her hair and is told that it means he likes her (which no doubt sets the stage for women accepting all kinds of unacceptable behavior in relationships for the rest of their lives, but that’s another post) and that she should be flattered and grateful.
It is no wonder, then, that a lot of women would rather avoid the hassle entirely, and while they may or may not see the veil for the tool of control and segregation that it is, regardless, it may be easier to comply than to fight. If you just want to go out to the grocery store and get some bread, you might not quite have the time or energy to engage with thousands of years of systemic and systematic misogyny. To carry the banner of equality can get tiring, especially in societies which are especially lagging (because they all are lagging) in treating women as equal, sovereign human beings. Sometimes you don’t want to fight, and it makes more sense to choose expediency over principle. Do you want to be right or happy?
While I would prefer it if women the world over could do what they please and go where they wish and wear what they want without reference to public opinion or fear for their safety because it’s only right, the fact is that if these women are living in a society where all or some part of that society will judge them and harass them for NOT wearing a veil, then to insist on them going without it is to paint a target on their backs. It is to send them into battle without the only armor they possess. And it victimizes them twice. Once again, women are gotten coming and going. Don’t comply, and your culture will punish you. Do comply, and your government will punish you. But in any case, you are going to be controlled without regard to how you feel about the issue at hand. Now, go about your business and stop complaining, ladies.
I found it interesting in the article that the explicit goal of unveiling women was to suppress Islamism in Egypt, not to liberate those women from the perceived tyranny of the veil and that of fundamentalist Islam as a whole. The veil is meaningless in itself; it is merely a highly visible symbol of fundamentalist Islam, their true “enemy.” And as any good army knows, there are few better ways to demoralize (and further anger, but no one talks about that) an enemy than to attack their women. As such, it is just one more assault on women’s human rights, in my opinion. It seems to me that if these women feel more comfortable and safe in their lives when they are veiled, then by all means, they should be left alone to be veiled. In the meantime, there is plenty of work to be done in the name of true security. Our world will be safer, for all of us, when society has evolved enough in every sphere to make veiling unnecessary and the fear of the veil and what it represents obsolete.