Thursday, September 25, 2008

Behind the Veil and the Pole: Transgressive Feminism and Democratic Citizens?

In this commentary, Naomi Wolf makes the point that the veiled Muslim woman is not necessarily a repressed victim of patriarchy. Many in the West, Wolf writes, take the veil as a sign of oppression, the mark of a culture that thinks that women are sources of sensual sin that need to be hidden under layers of clothes, away from the eyes of men. But this is not necessarily so, she argues. For many Muslim women, the veil can be a liberating shield, allowing women to have a sense of release from objectification by men in public settings. Wolf talks about her own experience covering up in Morocco and says she felt free not being glared at by men for her body.

In her book, The Rights of Others, Seyla Benhabib makes a related point: we should not be so quick to dismiss women who veil themselves in European countries as simply brainwashed individuals in the thrall of patriarchy. For some immigrant women, the veil is not so much a sign of fidelity to patriarchal norms, but a badge of honor that represents the women's pride in her cultural specificity. Benhabib thinks we ought to see some of these women as engaging in projects of democratic rejuvenation, trying to transform the liberal notion of citizenship to encompass recognition of difference against governments that wish to maintain the homogeneity of subjects under the law.

There is something to these ideas, and easy, or effective, is it for individuals to confront and change patriarchal or cultural norms through transgressive dress and behavior? After all, these norms are built on beliefs held by the community. Just because a woman puts on a veil and says she does it to challenge the French understanding of religious worship does not mean that she is not taken by others as a woman submissive to patriarchy.

This point seems clearer when we think of a different phenomena in the U.S.: women who think they are doing something feminist by learning to pole dance like strippers. Some of these women think that they are learning to tap into some kind of sensuality by learning this set of skill and "empowering" themselves as strong women.

There is a very interesting satire of this done on the Colbert Report:

The joke, of course, is that they are just learning to act like strippers. Can putting on the veil, as a transgressive and transformative gesture, be different?

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At 5:00 PM , Anonymous Lani said...

Very tempting to respond at length, however suffice it to say it's too bad Wolf didn't ask why the cultural practice of women covering exists at all.


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