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Mona Eltahawy

0 In Identity/ Politics

Open Letter To Mona Eltahawy

Mona, I am disappointed in you.

Given your long history of standing up for women’s rights, your recent public statements on CNN in support of France’s recent ban on the niqab surprised me.

It’s not that I disagree with some of your beliefs: I, too, don’t believe that wearing a niqab is a requirement of Islam, I agree that the face is central to communication, and I am concerned about a woman’s ability to work or participate in society if she chooses to veil her face. But the operative word here is “choose” – and no one can claim to be a feminist while arguing that a woman is not capable of making her own choices.

In the course of your arguments, you basically implied that women who choose to cover their faces are doing so because they are oppressed. So in other words, if only these women would do what YOU want them to do, then they can be more autonomous? It doesn’t work that way.

Your arguments remind me of several conversations I’ve had with Muslim women friends who choose to wear hijab.

One friend of mine is fluent in four languages, has a Ph.D. in engineering, and has a demanding career with more than 50 men reporting to her. She is as worldly, educated and empowered as any woman I know, and yet she is constantly fielding comments from women who want to “help” her to know that “she doesn’t have to” wear her hijab. The conversations are usually framed as “let me enlighten you about your choices”. Can you appreciate the irony of being saved from your ignorant decisions by people with only a fraction of your education?

Another friend, an engineer who happens to also hold a law degree, recently commented about how, when she goes to work at Intel each day, she is treated as an intelligent and valued colleague, but when she leaves her office and goes out on the street, she’s just another brown woman with a scarf on her head. It’s hard to take seriously the claims that Western cultural mores support & empower women when you’re on the receiving end of daily condescension.

After sharing these two anecdotes, I feel like I should be clear about one thing: I don’t believe that the decision to pursue a demanding career is the only mark of a woman’s intellect or empowerment.

In the course of your debate with Hebah Ahmed, you asked with more than a small dose of judgment in your voice if Hebah “even works”. You then elaborated on this question by saying you knew from previous conversations with Hebah that she had chosen to stop working, using this knowledge as some kind of proof of Hebah’s disempowerment.

People choose not to work for any number of reasons. Maybe Hebah decided to stop working because she wanted to stay home to care for and educate her children. Maybe she decided to sacrifice a steady income in order to pursue her writing. Who knows, maybe she has a way to support herself without working, be it by marriage, inheritance or early retirement, and now she simply doesn’t feel compelled to pursue a career.

But more to the point, why does it matter whether Hebah works? Since when does a person’s economic status determine their ability to dress themselves without legislative guidance, or to make valid intellectual arguments in a debate? More than a non-sequitur, I fear your comment reveals an underlying belief that when a woman makes a lifestyle choice that is different than your own, it’s an indication that her intellect can’t be trusted, and that she needs to be saved from her own bad decisions. Ironically, in the name of feminism, you’ve taken a classically chauvinist position.

You say that you are concerned about an Islamic value system in which women who choose to cover their faces are considered “the pinnacle of piety”, holier and closer to God than women who don’t cover, and that women will be influenced or coerced by these values into wearing something they don’t want to wear. This may be an understandable concern, but I’d like you to show me a woman anywhere on this planet whose decisions about what to wear have not been influenced by the culture around her.

There is a reason why I like to wear blue jeans and cardigans instead of going topless and wearing a grass skirt. Where is the line between culture and freedom? Perhaps my wardrobe is informed more by societal norms than by personal choice, but I really don’t want to be liberated out of my blue jeans.

I’d also like to add, as a woman of faith, I choose each day how to negotiate between modesty and personal style. I’ve often felt pressure from both ends: to wear more and to wear less, to care more about fashion and appearances or to care less. Any woman of faith in a plural society is going to feel this ambivalence, no matter where on the spectrum they find themselves. You can’t legislate this pressure away, nor should you, because to do so is to eliminate a conversation with God, to eliminate a woman’s opportunity to discover her own truth and to stand in that truth in the face of judgement or peer pressure, which is an extremely empowering and holy experience.

Lastly – and I realize this may be a little too esoteric for you, Mona – but lastly, I agree with you when you say that wearing the niqab represents the belief that “the closer you want to become to God, the less of you… the more you disappear.” But I have to add that this disappearance of the self is exactly the objective for many people, and not just Muslims. It’s the reason Buddhist monks shave their heads and wear identical orange robes, it’s the reason Catholic priests wear vestments and nuns wear habits. By removing individual expression on the outer, it reinforces the annihilation of the ego on the inner, which is the objective of many spiritual paths.

If we are going to protect the right of any person to pursue God by submitting themselves to structured religious orders, we also have to protect the right of any person who wishes to pursue God in a similar manner outside the walls of a monastery. Islam is, by nature, an inherently non-hierarchical religion. There is no centralized priesthood, there’s no Pope or Dalai Lama of Islam, everyone’s salvation is in their own hands. If an Islamic woman wants to pursue God by means of self-annihilation, and if that woman believes self-annihilation requires her to wear niqab, her choice to cover her face is no different than a woman who chooses to take vows at a convent: she is merely pursuing the same objective in a manner consistent with the ethos of her faith.

Photo via Illume Magazine