The Veil in Their Minds and on Our Heads: The Persistence of Colonial Images of Muslim Women

Article excerpt

Muslim women, and particularly Middle Eastern and North African women, have been among the most enduring subjects of discussion in the western media for the past two centuries. Without any doubt I can also assert that the issue of the veil and the oppression of Muslim women have been the most frequent topics of discussion I have been engaged in, often reluctantly, during some 20 years of my life in the western world (mostly in the UK and Canada). Whenever I meet a person of white/European descent, I regularly find that as soon as he/she ascertains that I am Muslim/Middle Eastern/Iranian, the veil very quickly emerges as the prominent topic of conversation. This scenario occurs everywhere, in trains, the grocery store, the laundromat, on the university campus, or at a party. The range of knowledge of these eager conversants varies: some honestly confess total ignorance of Islam and Islamic culture or Middle Eastern societies; others base their claims and opinions on their experiences in colonial armies in the Middle East, or on their travels through the Middle East to India during the 1960s; still others cite films or novels as their reference.

What I have found remarkable is that despite their admitted ignorance on the subject, almost all people I met were, with considerable confidence, adamant that women had a particularly tough time in Muslim cultures. Occasionally western non - Muslim women would tell me they are thankful that they were not born in a Muslim culture. Sometimes they went so far as to say that they were happy that I am living in their society rather than my own, since obviously my ways are more like theirs, and since now, having been exposed to western ways, I could never return to the harem!

For years I went through much pain and frustration, trying to convey that many assumptions about Muslim women were false, and were based on the racism and biases of the colonial powers, yet without defending or denying the patriarchal barriers that Muslim women face. I took pains to give examples of how western biases against non - western societies abound. In research, for example, social scientists often fail to compare like with like. The situation of poor illiterate peasant women of the South is implicitly or explicitly compared with the experiences of upper - middle - class women of western societies (Lazreg, 1988). Failing to contextualize non - western societies adequately, many researchers simply assume that what isgood for western middle - class women should be good for all other women (Mabro, 1991; Kabbani, 1986; Alloula, 1986). Frustratingly, in the majority of cases, while my conversants listened to me, they did not hear, and at the end of the conversation they would reiterate their earlier views as if our discussion were irrelevant. More recently, however, they treat me as an Islamic apologetic, which in fact silences me so that I can no longer argue.

I had assumed that my experiences were unique, and were the result of my moving in milieux that had little contact with or knowledge of Muslim communities or cultures. However, through my recent research on the integration of Muslim women in educational institutions and the labour market in Canada, which has brought me into contact with many young Muslim women, I have come to realize that these reactions on the part of the dominant group are much more prevalent than I had thought. Moreover, all members of the Muslim community, and in particular veiled women, are suffering the psychological and socio - economic consequences of these views. This situation has created a high level of anger and frustration in response to the deliberate racism toward Muslims in Canada and the unwillingness, despite ample examples, to let go of old colonial images of passive Muslim women. The assumption that the "veil" equals "ignorance" and "oppression" has meant that young Muslim women have to invest a considerable amount of energy in establishing themselves as thinking, rational, literate students/persons, both in their classrooms and outside. …

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