The Veil, the ‘War on Terror', and the Women's Movement

(This article is excerpted from one by Maleiha Malik in The Guardian , October 19, 2006. The title is ours. – Ed.)

Muslim women welcome a debate about the status of women in Islam. Intelligent, honest critique is an invaluable source of ideas for Muslims as we begin the process of reclaiming our religious and intellectual tradition. Muslim women also welcome feminist alliances with other women in the task of challenging the misuse of power by Muslim men - just as we can offer our own perspective on both women's advances and setbacks in the west. 

But such public debate and alliances obviously don't take place in a vacuum, but in a social, racial and political context. It would be naive to imagine that the domestic debate about Islam - and Muslim women in particular - can be hermetically sealed off from the politics of the “war on terror”, as the last couple of weeks have demonstrated. Polly Toynbee was right to say that “women's bodies have been the battle flag of religions”. But the significance of religious and cultural symbols such as the veil is not immutable and static - they have a mixed and changing social meaning. Muslim women who adopt the veil in Europe may simultaneously be seeking to affirm their religious identity while being determined to enter the public sphere as full and equal citizens. They are often also trying to change the cultural and political meaning of the veil in a contemporary context. For some it may be linked to patriarchal pressure, for others a symbol of identity and emancipation in a commodified and patriarchal society - and for many a response to a religious vocation. Feminist politics needs to be flexible and respond to these complexities. And for Muslim women their religion and even their gender are not the only, or the most grievous, focus of their oppression - their bodies have also been, and continue to be, a battleground for European and US imperialism.

Dalrymple Distorts 1857

(South Asia Solidarity Group sent the following letter to the New Statesman in response to William Dalrymple's article ‘Neo-Cons and the Raj' about the 1857 uprisings.)

While the US establishment tries to persuade us to understand current events through the distorted lens of the ‘clash of civilisations', William Dalrymple (16 October) appears to be attempting to remake history in the same image.

He bends over backwards to portray the 1857 uprisings as a clash between militant Islam and Christianity, dismissing in half a sentence the fact that the great majority of soldiers who mutinied against the British and identified the (Muslim) Mughal Emperor in Delhi as their leader were Hindus.

Dalrymple claims to have uncovered ‘jihad' in 1857, pointedly ignoring the many established Indian historians (notably the Subaltern Studies group) who have over the last thirty years documented the religious idioms through which resistance to imperialism was expressed among people of a variety of classes. In the case of 1857, people sharing a syncretic culture but identifying with distinct religions consciously united to fight the British colonizers. Dalrymple omits to tells us, for example, that many of the rebel proclamations were explicitly addressed to ‘Hindus and Muslims of the land of Hindustan '.

Dalrymple contrasts his apocalyptic, proto-9/11 view of 1857 with a previous golden age where British officers of the East India Company adopted Indian dress and ‘cohabited' with ‘Indian Bibis'. To characterise this phase of imperialist plunder as a ‘multicultural' idyll on this basis shows a remarkable insensitivity to issues of power, race and gender. The ‘knowledge' generated by the British orientalists who studied India in this period - and whom Dalrymple so clearly admires - was to form an important element in the racial supremacist discourse which was consolidated in the latter half of the 19 th century, and it is now informing anti-Muslim racism.

Kalpana Wilson

South Asia Solidarity Group

Lord Cromer, British consul general in Egypt in the late 19th century, famously justified British colonial rule by arguing that it could liberate Egyptian women from their oppressive veils. Commenting on French colonialism in Algeria in the 50s the writer Frantz Fanon noted: "There is also in the European the crystallisation of an aggressiveness, the strain of a kind of violence before the Algerian woman. Unveiling this woman is revealing her beauty; it is baring her secret, breaking her resistance [to colonial rule]. There is in it the will to bring this woman within his reach, to make her a possible object of possession."

When the US launched its war on terror in Afghanistan in 2001, George Bush glorified his aims by stating: "Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes ... The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women."…. By December 2001, 3,767 Afghans, including women and children, were reported to have been killed by US bombs.

The "war on terror" moved to Iraq in 2003. Once again Bush included concern for the rights of women as one of his war aims: "Respect for women ... can triumph in the Middle East and beyond," he told the UN in 2002. Four years later, as Iraq spirals into a violent abyss, women are paying the highest human costs for foreign invasion - an ever increasing number of victims of murder, rape and abduction. Female politicians in Blair's cabinet are falling over each other in their enthusiasm to protect the rights of vulnerable Muslim women. Yet these same politicians voted to launch aggressive war against Iraq . Muslim women listen in amazement when these women… are praised for their “bravery” in speaking out so freely about protecting them from the veil when none of them felt it necessary to resign their political office when it became clear that illegal war had unleashed a tide of violence, killing vast numbers of Iraqi women and children.

In offering support to Muslim women, all feminists need to be strategic and prioritise the harm those women actually suffer. Toynbee, female politicians and other feminists from the majority community would do well to reconsider the disproportionate weight they are giving to complex symbols such as the veil, which can undermine alliances around more grievous harms such as war, violence, genuine patriarchal oppression and poverty. By attacking the veil - as in the colonial past - they may strengthen many Muslim women's commitment to it and make it more difficult for Muslims to have a much needed debate on women and Islam… There is a risk that their powerful female voices will inadvertently sustain another political discourse: the words and actions of an illustrious line of men who continue to justify their imperial ambitions on the bodies, often dead bodies, of Muslim women.