No, I haven’t turned my back on feminism. But rather I want to invite discussion on the things we sometimes do to ourselves that appear contrary to the defining tenets of feminism. I couldn’t bring myself to write or blog about feminism lately because I found myself arriving at a state of crisis, both an internal one and a crisis that not many feminists have addressed. And it has to do with the mantra ‘Choice’ and the choices made that, not far beneath the surface of emancipation, lies agency that is inextricably linked with cultural limitations that we all cannot fully escape.
What do I mean by all of this? Well, firstly, I was afraid that Muslim feminists in the West are perhaps using the term ‘choice’ too loosely to defend the rights of women who the face veil. Yes, a Muslim woman has every right to choose what to wear, but simply arguing that it’s all about choice full stop may be not answering the questions many detractors of the hijab are interested.
Feminism is big about choice and emancipation, but what we’ve been accused of is the gradual decline in happiness since the women’s libbers in the West took centre stage. How many times have we heard about the rise of unhappiness in women and that maybe feminism has got to do with it? I think choice should be about happiness. But when we talk about emancipation and empowerment, I think feminism will be a losing battle if it concerns only individualist pursuits. I am strongly convinced that the fragmentation of feminism has plenty to with the idea that “It’s about MY choice and what empowers ME that matters”.
On the niqab: I think Muslim feminists need to have an honest discussion about what we feel uncomfortable about it. We all need to be honest about the gendered nature of women’s clothing in Islam and how that fits in with our feminism. Muslim feminists may be backing themselves into a corner if an argument of choice cannot explain for the sexualisation of women’s bodies and why certain societies cannot bear the sight of them.
How much is the choice of women in hijab influenced by these attitudes and cultural trends? I think it’s wonderful that women can have a choice to retreat from the world where women are judged by the way they look. But that choice is grounded on the basis that women are not respected enough as a complete person.
The crisis in Muslim feminism may be all in my overheated head from thinking too much. But I am nonetheless resigned to believe that sometimes choice can be irrational, just as happiness is. Choices can be contradictory and that should be okay as long as we’re honest about them. Empowerment can mean different things and can be just as contradictory as ‘free’ choice. As for emancipation, I don’t think there can be full emancipation of the self until emancipation of society as a whole is possible. I think feminist politics can do better by slowly moving away from pushing for simply ‘choice’ but an informed one. Just like in reproductive terms, an informed choice can genuinely empower women.