When it comes to Women in Islam much has been written about their dress, hijab, veils and burqas. Katherine Bullock and Asma Barlas are examples of such examiners; these two women investigated the veil and western politics of the body. Katherine Bullock observes veiling in her book “Rethinking Muslim women and the veil” by critically examining western media’s representation and perceptions of the veil.
She also takes it one step further by interviewing sixteen Muslim women residing in Toronto; with attempts to challenge the popular western stereotype that the veil is oppressive and to stress the multiple meanings behind Muslim women’s choice of covering (Bullock, 2002). Whereas Asma Barlas explores the politics of morality and immorality of Muslim bodies, also touching on Islamic discourses on veiling and the dissonances between Muslim tradition and the Quran (Barlas, 2009). This paper examines both key questions and issues raised by these two authors along with an overview of overlapping themes found in both articles.
Bullock converted to Islam throughout the course of her studies. Her personal responses to much western journalistic views is reflected in much in her writing, along with her personal experiences living as white middle class Muslim woman. In much of Bullocks writing in this book, one can note that she is clearly frustrated and overwhelmed by the West’s refusal to respect Muslim women dress. The theme that surfaces throughout the book seeks to challenge, “The popular western stereotype that the veil is oppressive” and to stress the multiple meanings and reason’s behind the personal choice of wearing a veil (Bullock, 2002).
She argues that the social misconstruction of the veil being oppressive is not a true reflection of the lives of Muslim women (Bullock, 2002). However she is also careful to note that for some Muslim women, historically and in some sociopolitical settings, enforced veiling is true. Which in this case, these women are denied basic human right of choice: this is when the veil can be viewed as oppressive (Bullock, 2002). Bullock observes two schools of thought found in western feminist which include both Muslim and non-Muslim views.
The first school of thought includes feminist who believe that Islam is patriarchal and oppressive to women. Therefore stating that women in Islam are denied and unable to embrace the opportunities of “true” liberation (Bullock, 2002). This school of thought finds difficulty, according to Bullock, accepting Muslim women who speak positively of Islam and their choices to cover due to their “false conscious”, thus ignoring the voice of Muslim women. Bullock refers to this school as “liberal feminism” due to its stress found on individualism, equality, and liberty (Bullock, 2002).
The second school of thought is based on historical and anthropological methodologies, in which attempts to understand social practices through factors such as localized cultures, and socioeconomic views (Bullock, 2002). These feminist who practice this “contextual approach”, as Bullock states, avoid using western liberal qualities (Bullock, 2002). This is due to the fact that these feminists question whether or not if western feminism can be universally applied. Bullock is evidently part of this school of thought due to the fact that her collected research was found through Muslim women in Canada, which she interviewed.
She used this as a way of better understanding the practice of covering, and as a way of puncturing the popular image of Muslim women being oppressed. Therefore Bullock was not only challenging the popular mainstream thought but also liberal feminist understanding of the oppressive nature of veiling as well. However Bullock’s method of collecting research can be considered a weakness as the sample size being considerably small and thought to be bias to thoughts of Sunni and Ismailia women.
In order to create a voice for Muslim women as she promises with this book, Bullock should have interviewed Muslim women from all sectors of Islam as thought’s of veiling can vary with cultures and practices. Asma Barlas also attempts to challenge mainstream view of Muslim women and Islam through exploring the politics of morality and immorality of Muslim bodies. Touching on Islamic discourses on veiling and the dissonances between Muslim tradition and the Quran (Barlas, 2009). She creates a distinction between Islam and Muslim tradition, which is found in modern women today.
She states that this Islamic tradition was introduced by men, carried on by men and forcefully re-introduced today in order to control and discipline the female body; considering Muslim tradition a male power strategy that may be Muslim but not Islamic. Interpretation of Qur’anic verses led to the image of veiled women as keepers of morality, masking the female as pudendal and polluting (Barlas, 2009).
She notes that the public domain is not a safe space for women in many Muslim societies, even if they are veiled, and it is not a very hospitable space for them in any European societies if they are (Barlas, 2009). Arguing that Muslim women remain caught by the double bind and the double oppression of conservative Muslim and secular Western politics of the body (Barlas, 2009). She also discusses non-Muslim European attitudes to Islam and Muslims. She argues that Islam remains the religious other in Europe and uses the body of the prophet to become a site for criticism and negativity. The prophet’s body is linked to terrorism and antichrist, therefore linking Islam to “islamic terror” (ex.
Danish Cartoon of the prophet) (Barlas, 2009). Therefore illustrating a connection between the prophet and the veiled Muslim women, as both bodies a subject of obsession to the west (Barlas, 2009). Both authors illustrate how much the body is a powerful political symbol, stating secularists and Islamists use and expect that the female body to represent collective normative ideologies. Secularists promote unveiling as a reflection of liberation and modernization, whereas Islam views it as way to preserve purity, dignity and morality.
Bullock notes that critics of the Western discourse of the veil point out that the Western focus on the veil has been obsessive (Bullock, 2002), which reflects Barla’s theme of the west being obsessed with the bodies of a veiled women and the prophet (Barlas, 2009). Burlock argues that the obsession with the veil lead Muslim women who do not cover annoyed that women are being abridged to their head covers and there is nothing of their identity worth mentioning without the veil (Bullock, 2002).
Also women who do cover are disappointed that they’re positive experiences with the veil are not being identified and ignored (Bullock, 2002). Which also ties back to Barlas point that a veiled women remain caught by the double bind and the double oppression of conservative Muslim and secular Western politics of the body (Barlas, 2009). Burlock first school of thought of liberal feminism is considered western feminism and remains liberal autonomous individual of modernity. Thus considering Muslim as the “other”, who are burdened by culture and hindered by their communities from entering modernity.
Muslim and non-Muslim feminist have created a religious divide with their frameworks, between a modern, enlightened west, and tribal, religious Muslims (Razack, 2007). Stretotypical views found within western feminist will continue to create barriers for unification of feminist ideal of community goals (Afshar, 2008). They both also address the issue of public mainstream ideas that men socially enforce the veil to subordinate women. Where in reality, the veil is an embodiment of female virtue.
Current Islamophobia present in the west has burdened Muslim women with myths about the hijab and thus making them battle modern-day orientalism(Afshar, 2008); resulting in The veil to become an image of oppression, exotic and possibly dangerous(Afshar, 2008).. Muslim women also face the burden of there own politics, life experiences, and choices due to Muslim tradition. Barlas argues that Muslim tradition regards the female body as morally corrupting. This due to qu’ranic interpretations six centuries after the Quran’s revelation.
Quran exegesis brought force to traditional women discourses of the veil, and became a way for men to protect themselves from the impure but enticing female body (Barlas, 2009). She states that the Qur’an does not make any pejorative claims about women or sex, men and women are considered to have the same sexual natures and does not treat sex itself as dangerous or dirty (Barlas, 2002). In fact Quran views sex as fulfilling and wholesome in itself (Barlas, 2002). This theme overlaps with Bullock as well as when she states that Islamic jurists formulate laws that restrict and discriminate against women.
Like Barlas, Bullock argues that restrictions on women are based on local community’s way of “being Muslim” and exegeses of certain qur’anic verses. Both authors that touch base on the actions of terrorists in the Muslim world and the fear it brought upon the West. The western world, according to both authors, are convinced that Islam is barbaric and anti-western. Bullock states that actions of terrorists in the Muslim world, especially against Western tourists, leave the Western populace convinced that Islam and Arabs are barbaric and anti-Western (Bullock, 2002).
She further argues that US and Western national interests have allowed the demonization of Islam in the public mind to ?ourish (Bullock, 2002). Therefore ideas about Islam’s oppression of women and the role of the veil in that oppression are part of this discourse (Bullock, 2002). Barlas ties back to this theory when she explores the body of the prophet, she states that the right to freedom of speech has allowed open mockery of the prophet. Post 9/11 trauma has also (as Bullock stated) lead to a demonization of Islam, where both the religion and the prophet are linked to “terror” (Barlas, 2009).
All of these action’s, according to both authors, link back to the veiled women as she is considered to represent the prophet, terror, and Islam. Again reinstating Barlas argument that the veiled women is not only being oppressed by Muslim tradition but the West as well. Through both these authors writings, one can note that historical gradualism attests to changes in the social and political structures of Muslim societies which also influenced their approach to religious knowledge (Barlas, 2009) (Bullock, 2002).
Muslim women experience the direct consequences of oppressive misreading’s of religious text and according to Barlas victims of recycled historically dated exegesis (Barlas, 2009). In order to “fix” these outdated pejorative notions about women’s bodies and their rights, Barla’s notes in her paper “believing women in Islam” by recommending that a new fresh critical interpretation of the Quran is needed to renew the status of women in Islam (Barlas, 2009).
These women come to a common conclusion that Islam itself doesn’t oppress woman and should be seen separate from Muslim tradition. With Bullock concluding that some Islamic discourses may result in an oppressively patriarchal order, but other Islamic discourses do not. In conclusion both articles illustrate that their does not seem to be fundamental differences between conservative Muslim and secular Western politics of the body; as illustrated throughout the course of these authors themes, the veiled women is used by these two parties to stabilize their own privileges.