BY Hamzah Saif
April 30, 2012
“Gender is not the study of what is evident, it is an analysis of how what is evident came to be,” said Maya Mikdashi at her recent 10-point reminder on studying gender in the Middle East. Unfortunately, an influential strand of observers remains steadfastly deaf to her admonition, peddling Orientalist stereotypes as insight instead. Orientalism, the academic and literary depiction of Arabs and Muslims that sustains the West’s stereotypes of this region and its people, provides a ready framework to confer both heroism and blame to the Muslim world.
Looking through this lens, these analysts identify valiant, often female, protagonists who battle oppressive institutions and figures, the latter typically male and bearded. They place the blame for misogyny in Muslim-majority countries on patriarchal and conservative religious dogma that curtails individual choice to the detriment of vulnerable communities, particularly women. The media and academia together serve the critical task of establishing a moral veneer, even imperative, for Western intervention. These interventions, or missions to civilize the Muslim man and rescue the Muslim woman, are tragically evocative of the words of feminist literary critic, Gayatri Spivak, “White men saving brown women from brown men.”
Assenting expatriate analysts – whom Iranian historian, Hamid Dabashi, terms ‘comprador intellectuals’ – lend legitimacy to this story. Dabashi summarizes: “The comprador intellectual speaks with the voice of authenticity, nativity ... He is from ‘there’ and she ‘knows what she is talking about,’ and thus their voices carry the authority of a native informer.” From Ibn-e-Warraq to Irshad Manji to Salman Rushdie, they confirm that across the Muslim world, misinterpretations of Islam trap communities in systems of oppression and abuse. And, they say, the Muslim world’s salvation lies in its progressive liberals coming forward as an alternative to the fanatical fringe that has taken over the microphone.
This view, with its emphasis on Islam's liberal dimensions, frequently masquerades as the progressive position. In fact – and despite its ubiquity – it is a retrograde and dangerous misdiagnosis. First, it conflates symptom with cause: it describes the evident – that intolerant interpretations of Islam dominate – but does not excavate the cause of their ascendency. And second, blind to history and context, it lays out an easy binary of the modern Muslim woman and the oppressed Muslim woman, the tolerant Muslim man and the traditional Muslim man, the good Islam and the bad Islam. And it provides as easy key to tell the two apart, a simple way to determine whom to bomb and whom to applaud.
The identification of intolerant strands of Islam is made possible, and accessible to West, by characterizing symbols, attire and practices – visible markers of affiliation – as belonging to an ideology. Political Scientist Wendy Brown, in her book Regulating Aversion, also identifies this maneuver. The bearded mullah, by virtue of his affiliation to the mosque and – to borrow from Colbert – ‘Muslish’ ways, has no progressive dimension; the blue denim of the jeans-clad professional woman automatically signals modernity, while the hijab of another Muslim woman warns us that she is under the thumb of her husband or father. The multiplicity of the human experience is denied and the Muslim reduced to a caricature.
From here, it is a logical next step to stamp out the outdated, oppressive and ‘bad’ Islam and make way for the modern Islam. Therein lies the elixir of Muslim progress. Unfortunately, this echoes Leila Ahmad’s famous description of a far darker era: “colonial feminism … introduced the notion that an intrinsic connection existed between the issue of culture and the status of women, and … that progress for women could be achieved only through abandoning the native culture.” Contemporary neo-colonial strands of feminism, represented by powerful figures such as Susan Okin, are similarly synonymous with discarding or updating traditional religious practices. Traditional religion is prioritized as the central impediment to gender equality, and its revamping is a sign of progress.
A hot-button issues like the hijab highlights the false narratives of the comprador intellectual. Let us look at former Italian minister Roberto Maroni’s recent response when asked about a possible law banning hijab.“If the Virgin Mary appears wearing a veil on all her pictures how can you ask me to sign on a Hijab ban law?” Maroni’s comment, likely inadvertently, conforms to the third-wave feminist position that places issues in context when analyzing them. Thus Maroni recognizes that while the veil has an undeniably sordid history as a weapon of patriarchy, it is not bound to that past. This de-linking of the veil from oppression, however, complicates the comprador intellectual’s tale, for whom the hijab is so heavily invested with misogynist Islam that it can not possibly been seen as a tool for progressivism. So, speaking to Bill Maher in 2011 regarding France’s Burqa ban, Manji concedes that some women choose purdah freely, but denies veiling any function in the feminist arsenal.
This stands in stark contrast to more thoughtful accounts of the veil. Leila Ahmad, for example, in A Quiet Revolution, documents the role of the hijab as a tool for women engaged in Islamist social justice movements to assert their power in contexts as diverse as the United States and Egypt. Saba Mehmood, in Politics of Piety, also describes that among Egyptian women, the hijab is both a symbol of traditional piety and lends its wearer broad political agency. Yet, these stories find no space within the Orientalist frame.
In contrast, there are a few academics who think outside the Orientalist frame and offer more than the overly simplistic binary description of the Muslim world. Mahmood Mamdani, for example, in Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, traces the genealogy of Taliban barbarity: How did a populist movement with women and youth at its core become violently repressive of both groups? He finds that the Soviet project to secularize Afghanistan and CIA missions to place power in the hands of one central authority both shoulder the blame for creating an intolerant political landscape and causing a populist movement to become an intolerant, misogynistic regime. Once it is placed within the context of history and politics, the image of the intrinsically misogynist mullah is shattered.
Plucking something that is happening in the Muslim world out of its proper historical and political context means a failure to analyze the root cause of the problem and a consequent misrepresentation of a people and their religion. Such gross misrepresentations are made possible first by dividing the Muslim world into two competing sides—one good, the other bad—and identifying each by physical markers, such as beards and scarves, and second by assuming that Muslims are a homogenous culture that needs to be escorted into the 21st century by the civilizing West. These ingredients put together allow Sally Wall, for example, to declare Islam as inherently violent towards women because the Taliban burn girls’ schools, without asking how the Taliban ideology came to be what it is. Meanwhile, concerns for women’s wages or the exploitation of female workers by indigenous and global predatory capitalism fall to the wayside. Attention to these issues—and not the headscarf—is what is needed.
Hamzah Saif holds a Masters in Public Policy from Georgetown University and is the co-founder of HamaraVote, an electoral awareness project in Pakistan. He also works with a USAID-funded financial inclusion project in Afghanistan.