Women in Islam
Hoodfar Homa draws upon her personal experiences, historical concepts and research data to provide individuals with a deeper insight into contentious issues regarding Muslim women and culture. The Muslim way of living has been a subject of debate in Western societies and Europe for decades. Contentious issues surround wearing of the veil among Muslim women, and the pertinent discussion about the “liberation” of women in Islamic states. Homa’s article attempts to demystify the contentious issues surrounding the veiling of women in Iran and the Western views on the same, arguing that veiling is a celebration of Islamic culture as opposed to the oppression of women. As such, the Western view on veiling as oppressive to women is simply a reflection of pro-colonial thinking. This paper is a critical review of the article by Hoodfar Homa on issues relating to veiling and the western views on the same.
The author raises various issues regarding veiling of women in Islamic states and the Western society opinions over the same. One of the critical issues that emerge from the article is that Muslim women in Western democracies are the center of constant discussion and questioning from Western women who hold the perception that Muslim women face oppression. Of interest, most women in Western societies are quick at judging their lack by being born to non-Muslim parents. Homa asserts that the Western society holds a myriad of false assumptions about Islamic women. The basis of these assumptions is pure racism and prejudices related to colonialism. There are general tendencies to project the Western culture among Muslim women. For instance, the author argues that many researchers in Western societies are quick to assume that the lifestyle of women in such countries is inherently good among other women in other nations.
Muslim women often suffer discrimination projected to them by racists and feminist groups. In countries such as Canada where Muslim women are the minority, discrimination is rife and is one of the leading causes of psychological stress. Muslim women often feel frustrated due to the negative talk they often have to persevere. The population, on the other hand, has stuck to the colonial views of oppressed Muslim women. The public associates the veil with oppression and ignorance among the women, which is in fact not true. The consequence of this is that Muslim women have to spend a great deal of their time trying to prove they are rational and capable of making their decisions. Another key issue that Homa touches is drawing comparisons on women repression in both Western and Islamic states. This comparison is an attempt to identify the social injustices that befell women in Western societies. This comparison forces the readers to think deeply about the issue of feminism in such countries.
Homa attempts to construct a picture of how Western societies developed a subverted opinion about Muslim women and oppression. She argues that the distorted view of Muslim women was entrenched in the Western society through reading numerous travel books. The travel books attempt to portray the Muslim culture in a negative way since they portray Muslims as inferior and in need of emancipation from the colonists. Homa argues that the Western writers sought to depict a different picture from reality concerning the Muslim world. It is in light of this that Western writers gave false accounts of how men enslaved women in the Muslim world. Also, the writers claimed that women in the Muslim world served no other purpose beyond satisfying their husbands’ sexual desires.
Homa raises some overlapping themes in the article. By examining the historical background of the veil, she reveals that it holds little religious significance, contrary to what most individuals believe. The practice itself started before the rise of Islam in the Mediterranean region and Arab societies. Veiling in these areas was a sign of a higher social class. As such, veils were meant for respectable women in the society. According to Rakhimov (2007), the practice of wearing veils was common among Jewish women. Islam copied the traditions from Byzantium Empire, Assyria, and Persia region. Homa contends that there are no attributions in the Qu’ran about wearing the veil. As such, wearing the veil is not a religious rite. Nonetheless, this is contradictory since she fails to provide reasons why Muslim women must wear the veil. If veiling were not a religious passage, it would be plausible to expect Muslim women to be at liberty to choose whether to wear the veil. This may not the case since, in some places such as Iran, the government mandates all women to wear the veil.
Another overlapping theme in the article is women’s oppression. Homa provides hints on women oppression and marginalization in Muslin societies, through what she terms as purdah or seclusion. Purdah signifies that women should receive protection against males who are not their relatives. Ensuring protection primarily involves curtailing women to stay at home where there is a lesser danger of harm from males. Homa argues that this practice is not in any way associated with veiling. The practice of seclusion arose due to the endogamous nature of Muslim marriages. As such, there is more emphasis on placing tighter controls on how young people lead their lives. This is relevant because, in Muslim traditions, women inherit part of their family’s wealth. Thus, it is important to place controls on who they may marry. Homa argues that the practice of purdah enables progression of family wealth among clans or close friends by controlling whom their daughters marry.
The author makes some major assumptions in writing the article. One of the key assumptions is that only people from Western societies have prejudicial tendencies towards the Islamic culture and in particular veiling among Muslim women. Homa fails to note that prejudices against veiled women or even men exist in different cultures across the world. According to Wagner, Sen, Permanadeli, and Howarth (2012), minority religious groups must construct own unique cultural identity to avoid losing it to the majority. This makes the minority groups more conspicuous in the society. As such, the larger society is likely to develop prejudicial tendencies against the minority groups. This is the case for most Muslim women in Canada and other Western societies where they are the minority.
Another major assumption by Homa relates to Muslim women and the choice of wearing the veil. While the author openly declares that she is a non-veiled Muslim woman, she assumes that other Muslim women have the freedom to make the critical decision on whether to veil. The reality is that in patriarchal societies, women have no freedom to make personal decisions such as how to wear. The majority of Muslim women have no choice but to wear the veil in such societies. Zine (2006) asserts that Muslim girls have enormous challenges to confront – these range from racial discrimination, Islamophobia, and worse still having to confront the patriarchal societies in which they belong. Homa completely ignores the fact that some of the Islamic states force women to wear the veil, with harsh consequences if they fail. In some countries such as Iran, wearing of the veil is under tight control by the state. The assumption that wearing of the veil is a matter of choice among Muslim women is thus misleading.
The author examines the historical marginalization of women in both Western and Muslim societies. At the turn of the 19th century, women in both societies experienced significant marginalization. Any reader may agree with the facts raised by Homa concerning marginalization of women in virtually all societies in the past. In the United States, for instance, women could not participate in the political affairs of the nation. It is only in the 1920s that women were allowed to vote through what is known as women’s suffrage. According to Homa, Western writers ignore the historical injustices committed against Western women, while they opt to concentrate on the marginalization of Muslim women. While this might be true, Homa fails to consider the fact that a lot has changed in Western societies concerning women’s rights. Over time, Western women have earned similar rights as men. They are no longer slaves to subjugation that was common in the last century.
There are areas where one might not agree with the author’s views. The author asserts that purdah or seclusion is necessary for women to ensure that they do not experience harm from male members of the wider society whom they are not related. It is in line with this that women ought to stay at home in order to minimize contact with the outside world. Homa fails to see that this serves as an opportunity for men to deny the girl-child an education and to perpetuate the patriarchal nature of most Muslim societies. A study by Alexander and Welzel (2011) indicate that Muslims have an overwhelming support for patriarchal societies. These societies tend to be a major barrier to women’s advancement in terms of education and career development. Controversy exists on whether the tendency by Muslim societies to perpetuate patriarchal societies is structural in nature or as a core component of the Muslim religion. Alexander and Welzel (2011) conclude that regardless of whether the reasons are structural or religious in nature, Muslims tend to be more patriarchal comparing to non-Muslim groups.
Homa compares Muslim women’s reactions when they learn about how western women dress. She asserts that Muslim women felt that the clothes were too tight for their bodies. Moreover, they felt that the Western society is unjust to these women since it restricts them to such “horrendous corsets” (p. 10). Although both groups of women view each other as a prisoner of their own societies, there can be no comparisons between the two. This is because, in the Western societies, women are free to dress the way they like. In fact, new fashions keep developing and are adopted by women over time. However, Muslim societies tend to place strict controls on how women may dress or behave. As such, a Muslim woman who dresses in an unusual way may face severe consequences compared to a Western woman who wears in an unusual way.
The issues raised by the author are great relevance in the contemporary society. Most of the issues reflect contentious issues in the modern society regarding Muslim women and veiling. The article indicates that the veil is not a symbol of oppression and ignorance contrary to perceptions in the Western media. Majority of Muslim women wear the veil as part of their culture. Homa indicates that Muslim women in diaspora suffer psychological turmoil due to “deliberate racism” they experience in Western societies. Most individuals in these societies still hold the colonial image shaped by the colonial period literature period that depicts Muslim women as passive and suffering from social oppression. For example, some Western societies such as France have introduced bans on veiling in public places (Crosby, 2014). Although such laws were meant to promote gender equality, they have only increased psychological turmoil that Muslim women in Western societies experience.
Homa raises another relevant issue concerning the perceptions of the Muslim society towards Western feminists and key political forces that attempt to “liberate” Muslim women from the veil and the supposedly social oppression they experience. As Homa notes, the participation of Western feminists in the de-veiling campaign in Muslim societies has only served to raise tension between the two groups. As Crosby (2014) contends, the involvement of Western feminists in the de-veiling debate has created an image of Western women as heroes who come to liberate the oppressed. This is also key in promoting sexist Islamophobia. In the recent period, the tension between the Muslim and Western society has increased dramatically owing to the involvement of Western feminists and the political class in Muslim affairs. This has led to rising of terrorist attacks in the Western societies driven by thriving hatred of Muslims towards non-Muslims. The increased tensions raise questions about the role of Western societies to Islamic states.
It might be difficult to outline reasons why veiling is so important to Muslim women. From the analysis, it is clear that the veil is not a strictly religious obligation, but one that transcends religion. Of great importance to note is that the veil is used in some cases as a discriminating factor towards women in the lower social classes. For instance in Egypt, it is only women in the upper class who wear the veil. Nonetheless, the major point of the article is that the Western society should take the time to understand the Muslim culture before leveling any form of criticism. It is clear that there is a knowledge gap between Western society and the Muslim culture.
Homa makes a number of assumptions that critically undermine the quality of the research. For instance, she assumes that only individuals in the Western societies that hold prejudices against veiled women. By drawing on existing literature, it is possible to see that prejudices against veiled women are rooted in different cultures across the world. The author also fails to recognize the fact that in Muslim societies, women lack the freedom of choice on various issues including the mode of dressing due to the patriarchal nature of the Muslim societies. Homa’s personal account of her experiences in Canada provides a critical insight into the plight of Muslim women across the world, and in particular Muslim women living in Western societies.
Alexander, A. C., & Welzel, C. (2011). Islam and patriarchy: how robust is Muslim support for patriarchal values? International Review Of Sociology, 21(2), 249-276. doi:10.1080/03906701.2011.581801
Crosby, Emily (2014). Faux Feminism: France’s Veil Ban as Orientalism. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 15(2), 46-60. Available at: http://vc.bridgew.edu/jiws/vol15/iss2/4
Homa, H. (1993). The Veil in Their Minds and On Our Heads: The Persistence of Colonial Images of Muslim Women. Retrieved from http://www.umass.edu/wost/syllabi/spring06/hoodfar.pdf
Rakhimov, R. R. (2007). “Veil of Mystery”: (On the Traditional Seclusion of Women in Central Asia). Anthropology & Archeology Of Eurasia, 45(4), 67-92. doi:10.2753/AAE1061- 1959450405
Wagner, W., Sen, R., Permanadeli, R., & Howarth, C. S. (2012). The veil and Muslim women’s identity: cultural pressures and resistance to stereotyping. Culture & Psychology, 18(4): 521-541.
Zine, J. (2006). Unveiled Sentiments: Gendered Islamophobia and Experiences of Veiling among Muslim Girls in a Canadian Islamic School. Equity & Excellence in Education, 39:3, 239-252, DOI: 10.1080/10665680600788503