Veil of Tears

Whatever happened to Arab feminism?

It’s been a mixed couple of weeks for Muslim fundamentalists. First, France voted overwhelmingly to pass a law banning the hijab, or Islamic headscarf, from state schools. Then this week the top U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, threatened to veto any constitution that would make Islam the principal source of Iraqi law. All this is good for the fundamentalists insofar as it lends credence to their claims that Islam is under attack from the West. But it’s also bad for the fundamentalists as both the French and the Americans are quite explicit that they’re not targeting Islam but rather the fundamentalists themselves. What’s interesting is that while the starring roles are played largely by men, Muslim and non-Muslim, the story line of both episodes is about the freedom of Muslim women.

After all, among other things, the hijab affair is about a woman’s right to veil—or her right not to be bullied into the veil by male relatives, neighbors, or community consensus. And Bremer apparently reached his decision after hearing the concerns of Iraqi women afraid of losing the gains accorded them under the 1959 Law of Personal Status. That law, which grants uniform inheritance rights, equal divorce rights to husband and wife, and governs child support, is a rare piece of pro-woman legislation for the Arab states, which typically use Islam, as a principal source of law, to restrict women’s rights. The question is: If Iraq had been, relatively speaking, a beacon of Arab feminism for more than half a century, why, all of a sudden, do Iraqi women see their rights endangered? Or, put another way, whatever happened to Arab feminism? Not surprisingly, the veil plays an important part in the story, since rightly or wrongly, women’s issues in the Arab world are always tied to the veil.

The key date in Arab feminism is 1899, when an Egyptian lawyer, a man named Qasim Amin, wrote a book called The Liberation of Women. He argued that women’s liberation was a patriotic duty that would serve all Egypt, not just its females. “The evidence of history,” he wrote, “confirms and demonstrates that the status of women is inseparably tied to the status of a nation.”

As far as the veil was concerned, Amin considered it “one of the permanent cornerstones of morality.” However, he used the Quran and other Islamic texts to advance his belief that modern-day veiling, and the consequent sequestering of women from many aspects of public life, was excessive and not true to the original message of Islam.

In spite of his caution regarding local customs, Amin was nonetheless attacked for his book. His response was equally sharp. In 1901 he published The New Woman, a considerably more radical volume that draws on Western social philosophy, especially positivism and classical liberal theory. Here he makes few concessions to Islam or tradition, and his stand against the veil is unequivocal. Man, Amin wrote, treated woman like a slave and thought she “was not capable of moral or intellectual development.”

This is the secret behind the imposition of the veil upon women and for its continued existence. The first step for women’s liberation is to tear off the veil and totally wipe out its influence.

Amin touched off a revolution, and feminism became one of the central tenets of Egypt’s influential but brief liberal movement that lasted more or less until Gamal Abdel Nasser’s 1952 coup. While Amin singled out U.S. society as the most advanced in its treatment of women, he and other liberals were concerned that feminism would be seen as a Western import and rejected out of hand. So, they elaborated a plausible, indigenous lineage for feminism. Its roots, they said, were in the desert and countryside. Farmers and Bedouins had always treated women as equals, they argued. The demands of physical labor and country life made it necessary for everyone to pull their own weight. Moreover, unlike urbanites, country folk weren’t squeamish about women’s bodies. A woman working all day in the fields might wear a loose scarf to cover her hair, but she also hiked her skirt up to her thighs so she could move freely.

It was true that the farmers and Bedouins treated their women with respect, and no doubt in many cases equally, but they were hardly feminists. The actual agents of Arab feminism were women like Hoda Shaarawi, generally considered the pioneer of Egypt’s women’s movement. Returning from a women’s conference in Rome in 1923, Shaarawi threw off her veil at a Cairo train station, where others joined in the gesture and gave the women’s movement its first public triumph.

After, many women would continue to wear the veil, of course, but typically they were either from poorer or very religious families, or they were older women who’d effectively retired from public life. However, for much of the middle classes throughout the Arab world, the veil was out of the picture. Indeed, the most popular representations of women and women’s lives were to be found in Egyptian movies from the middle of the last century that showed off women’s increasingly liberal lifestyles—and modern fashions, like the miniskirt.

Things have changed in the last couple of decades. For instance, some reports estimate that 80 percent of all female students at Cairo University are veiled. Of course, it’s a good thing that women are at the university, but as one Egyptian woman explained to me, “We have more professional opportunities than women of our mothers’ and grandmothers’ generation, but socially we’re being choked by this conservatism and Islamization that’s permeated all levels of society.”

So, what happened? Well, there are two ways to look at it. The first is that the advance of women’s rights is a very small and anomalous blip on the timeline of an intensely traditional culture. Those advances could only take deep root in a democratic society that promoted freedom of speech and individual rights, neither of which were particularly high priorities in Baathist Iraq or authoritarian Egypt.

The second way to look at it is that while Egypt and Iraq represent traditional, even ancient, cultures, they are very young countries still working out their identities. And, as in every society, that question of “Who are we?” is asked on both a national level and an individual one, “Who am I?” Right now, much of that identity, national and individual, is being constructed in terms of the West, either in distinction or opposition to it, or in the case of the hijab affair in France, as a part of it.

The West is the 800-pound gorilla that Qasim Amin and Hoda Shaarawi tried to write out of the Arab living room by presenting feminism as a local issue with a local history. The problem, of course, is that at this point the West can’t be ignored. In a sense, it doesn’t really matter. Arab feminists might be assisted and enabled by the West, but the idea that women are entitled to equal treatment under the law already exists in their own culture. Amin and Shaarawi now represent an authentic tradition of Arab feminism. And finally it’s up to Arab women to extend it, whether they believe the hijab is a religious obligation, a part of their cultural identity, an interesting fashion accessory, or a symbol of oppression.