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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 20 Sept 2016, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Europe and the Muslim Body

By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam

20 September 2016

Whether it was the issue of veil or the Burqa or now the Burqini, Europe seems to be having real problems with understanding why members of the Muslim community fail to appreciate their vision of the world. The French, the Germans and increasingly the British are aghast at the medieval horror of women walking in Burqas in 21st century London or Paris. Whether it is the veil or the Burqini, the fundamental issue here is how European modernity has looked at the human body and how Islam differs from it fundamentally.

Part of the problem is also the European reluctance to understand that its own perspective on the body is a product of its own religio-cultural location and that different cultures experience and look at their bodies in very different ways. In trying to set a standard way of defining the representation of human body, Europe diminishes the space for dialogue and a genuine attempt at mutual transformation through debate and dialogue.

 So while Europe understands the veil as a symbol of oppression, there are conservative voices within Muslims who argue that the veil is a religious commandment ordained by God. Opposed as it may sound, but there is a fundamental unity in both these arguments since both claim a monopoly over how the Muslim women’s body should be represented. 

There is a sense in which it can be argued that the Islamic veil is a symbol of women’s oppression. The conservative Muslim opinion argues that the Quran ordains both men and women to dress modestly. However in reality this dictum is followed strictly only when it comes to be applied to the women’s body; Muslim men are free to dress pretty much the way they like.

Women and modesty go together in Islam as many verses from the Quran and the Hadis can be marshalled to show. The conservative Muslim opinion which understands women as the eternal temptress is backed by scriptures which they can quote at will. Thus there is certainly a case in which the veil or the Burqa can be seen as control of Muslim women’s sexuality.  But that does not exhaust the myriad uses to which the veil is being put these days. The veil today serves various other functions as well and some of them are beneficial for Muslim women themselves. One of these functions is a relatively minor one and that has to do with the fact that the veil has become a fad. With only a select group of wearers, the veil has become a mark of distinction, a matter of taste and being cool.

 However, this status function of the veil is limited to a select audience for whom the veil can be replaced by any another fashion article. Far more important perhaps, is that the veil might actually symbolize ‘freedom’ for scores of Muslim women around the world. In the context of Europe, Muslim families which migrated primarily from South Asian countries brought with them their inherited worldviews. It has been the crying failure of European states not to integrate them into their ideological superstructure. Alienated from racism and unemployment, these families fell back on the support structure that other immigrant families provided.

Islam knitted these families together. More than a religious ideology, it was the sense of community and belonging which made Islam a part of the daily practice of a Muslim immigrant. The early eighties also saw the decline of anti-racist movement in Europe and the inauguration of the policy of multiculturalism, particularly in Britain. Noble though in its intention, the policy confused culture with religion and ended up with associating Muslims more with Islam rather than the host British society.

Moreover, as a policy, multiculturalism encouraged the import of Ulema from South Asia and North Africa who came with their own understanding of Islam. There was no effort to engage with these religious specialists in an effort to forge a common worldview, which would be equally acceptable to the modernist demands of European society as well as Muslims. The veil therefore is as much a feature of Muslim intransigence as it is of the failure of European policy of integration.

The children of these immigrants however inherited a worldview very different from their parents and grandparents. They went to British schools and wanted to do the same things as the British children did. While it was easy for boys to do so, the old worldview of the parents restricted Muslim girls’ movement and freedom after they attained puberty. In many Muslim homes, the veil became and is a symbol of compromise. It gave parents the assurance that their daughter is dressed according to the Muslim norms so that no one can question the family while at the same time it gave Muslim girls freedom of movement whereby they could access higher studies and enter the job market.

 Ironically then, the veil which many see as the symbol of oppression gets used as a symbol of negotiation and freedom. Especially in the European context the veil is not always symptomatic of tradition or backwardness; rather it can also be seen as tool, which furthers Muslim women’s integration into modern sector. There can be no greater example of this than the presence of veiled women in the public sphere.

Not all veiling is fad and a result of compromise. For some women it is also a matter of voluntary choice. Certainly what has astounded the Left liberal opinion is that among the votaries of the veil, influential voices also come from Muslim women. And most of these women defending the veil happen to be products of modern education and are successful women in their own right.

What Europe perhaps needs to understand is that Islam’s relationship with body and sexuality has not been the same as in Christianity. There is nothing comparable in Islam (or for that matter in any other religion) to the Christian concept of original sin. Philosophically, life itself became sinful under a Christian dispensation and attitude towards sexuality and human body became repressed which manifested itself in doctrines such as Calvinism which preached that sex should be for the sole purpose of procreation rather than pleasure. It became necessary for the European enlightenment therefore to talk about the body and liberate it from religious fetters. The collective revulsion of the veil in Europe seems to be guided from this historical experience.

 What they forget is that Islam had a completely different take on the body. As a religion it never repressed carnal pleasures rather only tried to regulate it. Sex and sexuality was never a taboo subject and early Islamic texts devote pages after pages to its discussion. Hence in Islam liberal ideas may not develop a critique of the body similar to the West for the simple reason that the Muslim body was never denied its pleasures. Thus the reason why some Muslim women would not see the veil as a symbol of sexual repression while the Christian West will is precisely because their historical and religious experiences have been very different. By reading the veil only as a symbol of oppression, Europe wants to universalize its own historical biases, anxieties and particularisms.

Arshad Alam is a columnist


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