Asmaa Abdol-Hamid is a young Danish politician who has just won a candidacy on the leftist Unity List. According to Ian Traynor of the Guardian who interviewed her recently, she is liberal and modern in her outlook:
“The 25-year-old social worker, student and town councillor describes herself as a feminist, a democrat, and a socialist. She has gay friends, opposes the death penalty, supports abortion rights, and could not care less what goes on in other people’s bedrooms. In short, a tolerant Scandinavian and European…
“Ms Abdol-Hamid… says her political mission is to fight for this underclass [of immigrants and Muslims]. ‘This is such a rich country. But we have people in Denmark in deep poverty and nobody helps them.’ “
So why is Abdol-Hamid better known than other idealistic young politicians who might or might not win a Danish parliamentary seat in 2009? Why is she the centre of controversy?
Because she is a Muslim, who “flaunts” her religion by insisting on wearing a headscarf and who was one of the complainants following publication of anti-Islamic cartoons in a Danish newspaper a couple of years ago, and who therefore challenges Danish secular values.
I have my own (evolving) views on the issue of veiling: I don’t much like it any more than I like seeing women and girls in the pornalicious outfits of modern Western fashion. To my mind, both are part and parcel of a patriarchal culture in which they mark out the wearer as a member of the sex class. Even assuming that the wearer has choice in the matter (and it is worth remembering that many women do not get any realistic choice about what they wear), a choice to wear patriarchy symbols is a choice to support patriarchy in at least this one respect, if not in others.
But, at the end of the day, it’s just a piece of cloth. There are much more pressing issues in the world – for example, the deep poverty in which many people live even in the affluent West – than whether or not a person chooses to put a piece of cloth on her head. The fact that all anyone is interested in is the piece of cloth is more interesting to me than the piece of cloth itself. The fact that a relatively obscure Danish parliamentary wannabe can shoot to international significance because she puts a piece of cloth on her head amazes me.
She doesn’t advocate “islamisation” of Denmark, or of anywhere else for that matter. She actively condemns societies in places like Iran or Saudi Arabia where women are forced to live under strict Islamic dress codes regardless of their own preferences.
You can hear her point of view on Europe Today (BBC World Service) – available online until 6pm tomorrow. She sounds a lot like a Western “choice feminist” – and that to my mind, while problematic in some ways, is significantly better than not being feminist at all.
The most coherent argument against her decision to wear the veil is that it sends or may send a message that veiling is socially and politically neutral, when in reality veiling is at least symbolic of, and often an active part of, female oppression in Islamic culture.
I follow that. I even agree.
But the same applies to sexbottery. And nobody* goes around telling women on Western streets to cover up their exposed flesh, to ditch the painful high heels, or to stop wearing T-shirts with pornstar slogans. Nobody* goes around telling these women that they are bad because they are collaborating in their own oppression, or in the oppression of other women less fortunate than they, by sending out the message that dressing like a sexbot is socially and politically neutral when in reality it may help to perpetuate female oppression in Western culture.
[* Nobody but feminist zealots, anyway. It isn’t a serious national issue.]
Those of us familiar with the feminist blogosphere will have seen the kind of all-out internecine wars that can break out when someone suggests that a “real feminist” shouldn’t wear makeup or high heels. The same presumably applies to Islamic feminist debate around veiling. For example, in this Islam Online article:
“The appearance of hijab-wearing Asmaa has drawn mixed reactions from women’s groups in the Scandinavian country.
“Feminist Forum, a Danish women’s organization, said Abdol-Hamid’s TV presence ‘strengthens ethnic and gender equality in Denmark’.
“But another feminist group, the Women for Freedom association, echoed a different stance. ‘The choice of Asmaa Abdol-Hamid (…) is an insult to both Danish and Muslim women,’ claimed Vibeke Manniche, the association’s head. ‘She sends the signal that an honorable woman cannot go out unless her head is covered,’ she said.”
I think it is pretty clear that the veiling/modesty issue for an Islamic feminist is in the same ballpark as the beauty and raunch issues for Western feminists – although it strikes me that veiled women are subject to a good deal more attack and a good deal less celebration in the Western media than beautiful or raunchy women.
What does that tell us? That the Western media have a problem with Islam? Or that they are invested in Western patriarchy and Western beauty/raunch requirements but not in Islamic veiling/modesty requirements? I suspect that the answer is: both.