Gender Questions

    About Fikrun

    Fikrun wa Fann was a cultural magazine published by the Goethe Institute from 1963 to 2016 that supported and shaped the cultural exchange between Germany and Islamic countries. Together with the publishing of the last issue, “Flight and Displacement” (issue 105), in autumn of 2016 the maintenance and updating of this online portal was ceased.

    Solidarity or Patronisation?
    The ‘Other’ Woman in the Feminist Gaze

    Pascale Marthine Tayou, Colonial Erection, 2010 (Detail). From the exhibition: Who Knows Tomorrow. Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin. © Stefan WeidnerThe term ‘Orientalism’ refers not only to the genesis and tradition of certain negative and positive stereotypes about the Orient, it also describes the discourse of the Western subject that makes the Orient into an antipode, thereby confirming its own autonomy and power of definition. Meyda Yegenoglu writes: ‘If we admit that the power of Orientalism does not stem from the “distortion” of the “reality” of the Orient, nor from the dissemination of “prejudiced” or “negative” images about other cultures and peoples, but from its power to construct the very object it speaks about and from its power to produce a regime of truth about the other and thereby establish the identity and the power of the subject that speaks about it, then it becomes a peripheral concern whether the images deployed to this end are “positive” or “negative”.’

    Orientalism determines both what we see in the Orient as well as our ways of seeing it. Thus, Western projections of the Orient are at work even when the issue at hand seems to be the rejection of ‘false’ Oriental stereotypes or the ‘liberation’ of the Oriental woman in accordance with Western ideals of equality. Meyda Yegenoglu has emphasised that Western women’s demand for the unveiling and ‘liberation’ of the ‘Oriental woman’ must also be viewed in the context of the Western gender order. This means that women (and feminists) who use their rejection of the headscarf as a way of fighting against Islam’s patriarchal structures and for universal women’s rights act as accomplices of a masculine discourse of unveiling. Due to their gender, Western women who travelled the Orient in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had inside access to the harem, thus acting as agents of Western man compensating for his lack of authentic insights with their testimony. ‘It is thus only through the assistance of the Western woman (for she is the only “foreigner” allowed to enter into the “forbidden zone”) that the mysteries of this inaccessible “inner space” and the “essence” of the Orient secluded in it could be unconcealed.’

    Women looking at women

    In her study Wie Frauen Frauen sehen. Westliche Forscherin­nen bei arabischen Frauen [How Women See Women: Western Women’s Research among Arab Women], the ethnologist Marion Baumgart found that the image of the ‘Oriental woman’ as constructed since the nineteenth century in these studies and accounts closely corresponded with the ruptures (and continuities) in images of femininity in the European countries from which the writers came. ‘In summary,’ she concludes, ‘it can be said that several subject areas – the harem, the veil, polygamy, and the issue of Arab women’s social position – have attracted the interest of Western women scholars time and again for nearly a hundred years. Their interpretation, like the problematisation of other clusters of issues, is determined by the discussions of femininity being held at that given time.’

    The Enlightenment, to which Western feminists always appeal when the headscarf is at issue, gives reason precedence over faith and posits the recognition of the individual. However, this system is based on a gender relationship in which the man is seen as the embodiment of the universal subject, while the woman is regarded as embodying deviation, irrationality and Nature. When the Western woman views the Oriental woman as the cultural ‘other’ and addresses this ‘other’ from a superior standpoint, she too is able to occupy the position of the universal subject. ‘The subtext of the desire to liberate Muslim women from the atrocities perpetrated by Islamic culture was to attain a particular self-representation. [...] [T]he failure of Western women, as the devalued others of men, to assume the universal has motivated them to look for other means of claiming universality.’  For Western women, the additional advantage to unveiling and liberating the Oriental woman – aside from satisfying their voyeurism – is that it enables them to create an ‘other’ over whom they can exercise the very same power of definition that is denied them in their own culture. ‘Hence it is not far-fetched to argue that Western woman’s recognition of herself as a subject was possible only outside national boundaries, in the encounter of a sexually same yet culturally different other.‘ Here lies the continuity between those nineteenth-century women who opened up the harem to the Western gaze and Western femini­sts today who wish to liberate Muslim women from the headscarf.

    The cliché of charms beneath the veil

    One early example of a Western woman who travelled the Orient is Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who extolled the Turkish harem and the veil as expressing the freedom of the Turkish woman. Yet her letters, published in book form in 1767, repeat the same clichés she criticised as inauthentic in the accounts of her male contemporaries. Montagu, the wife of the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, lived from 1717 to 1718 at the Sultan’s court in Istanbul. In a letter to the Countess of Mar, written in Adrianople on April 1st, 1717, she initially criticises the false impressions about the harem and the veil as spread by male authors: ‘Now, that I am a little acquainted with their ways, I cannot forbear admiring, either the exemplary discretion, or extreme stupidity of all the writers that have given accounts of them. ’Tis very easy to see, they have in reality more liberty than we have.’ That, Montagu continues, is because the women cannot be identified under the veil: ‘’Tis impossible for the most jealous husband to know his wife, when he meets her; and no man dare touch or follow a woman in the street. This perpetual masquerade gives them entire liberty of following their inclinations, without danger of discovery.’

    Montagu imagines the Turkish woman’s freedom primarily as sexual promiscuity, showing that her praise of the veil is simply another variation on the cliché of the sensual Orient – a cliché that lives on today in the (usually well-meant) assertion that veiled Muslim women wear sexy lingerie under their veils, setting to rest any worries about their femininity. This same pattern of perception is reflected in her description of Turkish women’s beauty and of the clothing worn beneath the veil. ‘I never saw in my life so many fine heads of hair. In one lady’s, I have counted a hundred and ten of the tresses, all natural; but it must be owned, that every kind of beauty is more common here than with us. ’Tis surprising to see a young woman that is not very handsome.’ The description of one single costume she wore in the harem goes on for more than three pages; we cite just one short passage here: ‘My shoes are of white kid leather, embroidered with gold. Over this hangs my smock, of a fine white silk gauze, edged with embroidery. This smock has wide sleeves hanging half way down the arm, and is closed at the neck with a diamond button […].’

    The feminist Vittoria Alliata, who travelled the Arabian Peninsula in the 1960s and 70s and published her experiences in the book Harem: Memorie d’Arabia di una nobildonna siciliana [Harem: A Sicilian Noblewoman’s Memories of Arabia], was still writing in the same tradition. The following excerpt is taken from a much longer passage: ‘One moonless night I was invited to a celebration. A floor made of bodies, swathed taffeta shot through with metallic threads, diaphanous agate, a swirl of purple and amaranth, cadmium yellow, sea-green and cobalt blue, trusses of pearls and basil, diadems of coral and brocade. In rapturous passion the bodies loomed amidst the perfumes of cinnamon and tubero­se, the glitter of gold, the smoke of enormous hookahs, swaying to the wild song of the musayene, leaping up to the rhythm of the drums, quivering with eerie vehemence, languishing in torpid delirium as their faces flared like heathen deities.’

    It is not always the prostitute or the lady of the harem who is concealed behind the veil. Even back in the nineteenth century the Western world suspected it might also hide the disenfranchised, oppressed and abused wife, confined to the house and the harem and living as if in a luxurious golden cage. Travelogues by nineteenth-century European women who had the opportunity to visit harems make arguments resembling those of contemporary feminists. ‘You can’t imagine,’ Ida von Hahn-Hahn wrote to her brother in 1844, ‘how difficult it is to talk to people who see the world only from behind barred windows and the curtains of their araba [...], for here the soul, even more than the body, lives in a cage.’ In 2004 Der Spiegel published a cover story on the headscarf, writing: ‘Many Muslim women live in this country as invisibly as in a cage, a cage forged from the Ko­ran, patriarchy, the family clan, violence and honour.’

    The Western woman’s discomfort

    Wholesale and one-sided, these negati­ve descriptions are no more ‘true’ than those that idealise the sensuality of the Orient. However, they illuminate the discomfort experienced by Western women, including Oriental women who have adopted a Western gender image, with regard to their own (exposed) femininity. By perceiving the foreign woman as passive and uneducated, they themselves appear (though they are women and thus, according to the prevailing gender discourse, ‘creatures of nature’) to be cultivated. And by perceiving the foreign woman as the victim of male violence, they project the symbolic violence that has been inflicted upon them onto the body of the veiled Muslim woman in order to revealing ‘there’ what is invisible and unprovable ‘here’. This is the principle: only what is veiled can be unveiled. Thus, just as the Western man projects a symbolic castration onto the Muslim man, the Western woman delegates her ‘defect’ to the Muslim woman. ‘The contempt with which the female sex is treated,’ reported Anna Forneris, who spent thirty years in the Orient in the first half of the nineteenth century, often travelling alone, ‘also exposes it to many dangers, the maxim being more or less: ‘With a woman you can do as you please!’ In a letter to her brother, Ida von Hahn-Hahn attempts to refute the proverbial beauty of the Oriental woman: ‘How do they look, you’ll ask with great curiosity, and I am truly sorry to say that we have found not a single trace of beauty. The Pasha’s sister has quite a kind and benevolent face, but it is so fat and round, and her entire form is of such striking curvature that I constantly had to think of the full moon.’ Ida Pfeiffer, who travelled across Syria and Palestine at about the same time as Hahn-Hahn, found no trace of beauty either: ‘I did not see many beauties, if one does not regard corpulence – much revered here – as such, but I did see a one-eyed woman, a not uncommon sight in this country.’ In her eyes, all the women of the Orient seem the same: ‘Subsequently I visited several other harems, some still more eminent, but I found the same thing everywhere. At most, the difference consisted in the fact that in some harems I found more beautiful wives or slaves, that they were more richly dressed or adorned. But everywhere I found the same ignorance, curiosity and indolence.’ Anna Forneris’ description leaves no doubt that the ha­rem is an institution in which the woman must serve the man: ‘After the midday meal the master of the house often takes a siesta in the salon. If he so desires, a velvet mattress and cushions are fetched, upon which His Majesty lays himself to rest. The ladies, who thereupon don gauze garments that are somewhat more than angelic, sit or kneel about the bed. One strokes her sovereign’s soles, another scratches his head, one fiddles with his moustache, another cools him with a fan made of splendid feathers until the man, thus attended, falls asleep, whereupon they carry on silently until he wakes. European women dissatisfied with their husbands ought to come here and see how slavishly the “fair sex” must serve the “lord of creation”.’

    In their one-sidedness, these descriptions are no less stereotypical than the cliché of the harem as a place of sensuous seduction. For Marion Baumgart the criticism of ‘misogynistic’ harem structures is connected to the gender discourses these women travellers and scholars were conducting in their home countries. Stefanie Ohnesorg also comes to the conclusion that travelogues by women in the nineteenth century were heavily influenced by their own situation as women. By depicting foreign women as oppressed, they implicitly assert the superiority of their own situation as women. Thus the description of the Oriental woman serves as a foil against which the West’s images of women stand out positively. Moreover, the Western woman speaks of the Oriental woman from the position of the‘objectivity’ that is only very rarely granted her in her homeland. In other words, by peeking behind the veil and glimpsing there the power of patriarchy, the Western woman not only assures herself of her cultural superiority over the Orient, she also asserts herself as a subject with regard to Western men. ‘The woman who travels the Orient,’ writes Ohnesorg, ‘goes to foreign countries in part to actively create alternative visions in a realm where she believes she can strike European men the hardest - that is, in the realm of their fantasies.’

    The woman as foreigner in the West

    When these alternative visions are examined more closely, however, one finds that they involve projecting Western images of femininity onto the foreign woman of the Orient. The images used to describe the Orien­tal woman comprise everything the Western woman experiences as an affront in her homeland; in other words, to speak with Julia Kristeva and Farideh Akashe-Böhme, everything that makes her a foreigner in her own culture. As the ‘other’ sex, in Western tradition woman symbolises not only the ‘other’ of reason, but the ‘other’ of culture as well. Woman’s supposed closeness to nature relegates her to a place from which the (masculine) subject must distinguish itself; closeness to nature implies that femininity is a state of ‘natural alienation’, as it were. ‘For if the true nature of human beings is seen as based in their reason, naturalness is nothing but a state that must be overcome. If human beings’ nature is defined as the animal rationale, the rational animal, rationality becomes their essence, while animality, that is, their natural being, is something they must cast off.’

    This raises the question of whether the alternative visions the Western woman constructs in view of the foreign woman of the Orient represent a symptom of the experience of foreignness to which she herself is subjected in her homeland. ‘The foreigner comes in,’ writes Kristeva, ‘when the consciousness of my difference arises.’ Kristeva’s assumption makes sense not only because these descriptions, while seeming to run counter to the usual stereotypes, are as clichéd as the ones they seek to override, they also rely on metaphors evoking the ‘natural state’ of the Oriental woman that must be overcome.

    The greatest contrast between the views taken by Western women and Western men lies in the rejection of the Oriental woman as uncivilised and uneducated. Many female travellers and scholars emphasise the Oriental woman’s lack of intellect. ‘They can neither read nor write, much less speak a foreign tongue’, Pfeiffer writes. A similar conclusion is drawn by Lady Anne Blunt, who accompanied her husband from Beirut to Baghdad in 1878 and wrote of a visit to a harem: ‘[…] the women are without ideas, good-natured, but quite uninteresting.’ In her study The Harim and the Purdah (1915), the scholar and feminist Elizabeth Cooper, also from England, asks ‘whether the Oriental woman, with all her intellectual and social advance which is already beginning, will be able ever to free herself from those traditional and inherent influences which have been wrought into the very warp and woof of Eastern humanity’. Among these influences she includes the Oriental woman’s habit of ‘rely[ing] upon her superstitions, her emotions, and to use her intuition in the place of a brain […] The woman of the Orient is a woman swayed by emotions, by the heart instead of by the intellect.’

    This supposed lack of reason on the part of the Oriental woman, interpreted as a result of her ‘imprisonment’ in the harem, was equated with a lack of civilisation, thus moving the Orien­tal woman toward the realm of animality. In Moslem Women Enter a New World (London 1936), the author Ruth Francis Woodsmall claimed: ‘Immured within the four walls of their own courtyard, not even seeing the neighbour next door, nor the street outside, their life means a virtual paralysis of all movement, a low level of bare physical existence.’ A very similar tone is struck today in the weekly Der Spiegel, in which summer vacations in Turkey for Turkish-born girls living in Germany are described as subjecting them to an uncivilised existence: ‘For these girls, the word vacation doesn’t sound like freedom. It sounds like the mutter of the elders in a foreign home village, like whispering, and then, one day, the quick panting of a stranger in their ears.’

    The Oriental woman as pure nature

    In the harem, the Western woman seems to encounter the ‘woman as creature of nature’ to which she is reduced in her own culture, but from which she can distance herself vis-à-vis the foreign woman. ‘The Persian women, lacking all intellectual cultivation like most harem women of the Orient, are extremely boisterous among themselves; their discourses are almost always of a sensuous, lewd nature, and they barely know the name of what we call shame,’ is the verdict of Anna Forneris. By describing the Oriental woman as ‘pure nature’, she can assure herself of her own cultivation - all the more so the wider the chasm between her own ‘cultivation’ and the ‘animal’ nature of the Orien­tal woman. For instance, Ida von Hahn-Hahn writes of an evening she spent as a guest in a harem: ‘Beside me sat the Pasha’s sister, eating soup, crème, etc. with a spoon made of black horn, and all the rest with her fingers. A truly remarkable sight! Diamonds in her hair and all ten fingers with orange-coloured nails, and dripping with fat and sauce! Of course all the other ladies did no differently. The great activity in which their hands were engaged gave me the chance to observe them: they were fleshy little hands with short, stubby, underdeveloped fingers, fingers that might never engage in another activity than that of our forks; I confess to you, it seemed to me they were connected by a web.’ Her views on the animal nature of Oriental women are expressed still more bluntly in a letter to her mother. ‘It appals me to see such a mass of brutish women,’ she writes. ‘I’d rather see a herd of cows or sheep. The harem debases women to livestock! [...] The harem is a pasture that satisfies life’s animal needs. And that’s that.’

    The racist images that are evoked here to deny the foreign woman any human status suggest that the seemingly detached observer is in fact quite emotionally involved and insecure about her own status as a subject. In fact, in the same letter she counts herself lucky not to have been born into the ‘animal’ culture of the Orient. ‘Ah, what a blessing to belong to the peoples of the Germanic tribe, where the woman has taken a man’s place ever since time immemorial.’ This is not the place to reflect on women’s social and cultural position among the ‘Germanic’ peoples. It is clear, however, that the description of the Oriental woman as anima­listic, irrational and bovine serves to make the Western woman’s own position seem exactly the opposite.

    The beauty academy of Kabul

    The ‘feminist’ legacy of colonialism lives on to this day. Shortly after the overthrow of the Taliban, a group of American and British feminists founded a beauty academy in Kabul intended to introduce the unveiled Muslim woman to the Western ideal of beauty. Beauty activists travelled especially from the United States or Great Britain to teach Afghan women how to use makeup and dress their hair. The beauty academywas sponsored by the organisation Beauty without Borders, itself backed by American and European cosmetic companies that hoped to capture Afghanistan as a new market for their products. With a name inspired by ‘Doctors without Borders’, ‘Beauty without Borders’ aimed to be perceived not as a commercial enterprise but as an altruistic aid organisation. The film The Beauty Academy of Kabul, which ‘documented’ the beauty academy’s establishment and first semester, provided an opportunity for this. In interviews the founders of the beauty academy refer to themselves as aid workers selflessly serving the ‘liberation’ of the Afghan woman. What the beauty activists did not tell viewers was that they were employed full-time as consultants to the cosmetics industry.

    After successfully completing the three-month course, the Afghan ‘students’ receive certificates identifying them as graduates of the beauty academy. Most of the women attending these courses had secretly worked as hairdressers under the Taliban; in other words, they already know how to cut hair and apply make-up. But their knowledge counts for little – at the beauty academy, technique matters less than the ability to imitate and internalise Western norms of beauty. For this reason lessons are not confined to the classroom. The instructors make house calls and ascertain whether the future graduate’s private sphere also lives up to these beauty norms. This goes back to a paradigm we have already seen in the accounts of the early feminists who travelled in the Orient in the nineteenth century: the ‘Oriental’ woman is ugly until she makes herself attractive for the Western gaze. From a Western perspective, the unveiling is merely the first step on the path toward ‘liberating’ the Muslim woman. Above all, she must learn to wear the mask of femininity. Instead of a burkha, she must now don – in the words of Jennifer Fluri – a ‘naked veil’. Only then is her ‘beauty without borders’.

    Yet there is no need to travel to the Orient to ‘civilise’ the Muslim woman. The ongoing virulence of Western women’s attempt to resist affronts to their own femininity by projecting them onto the female foreigner can vividly be seen in the current European controversies about the headscarf. Against their better knowledge, many opponents of the headscarf argue that it cannot be reconciled with education, independence and critical consciousness. According to Yasemin Karakasoglu, in Germany the prevailing notion is still that the veil denotes the primitive Anatolian peasant woman without schooling or the housewife without employment or rights who never leaves the home. When asked, however, immigrant women cite mainly a lack of public childcare and a lack of success in job hunting (due mainly to employers’ prejudices regarding ‘foreigners’) as reasons for their unemployment, not prohibitions on the part of their husbands. Nonetheless, the ‘increase in information on Turkish families in Germany is evidently not causing stereotypes to be challenged’.

    The resistance to information and the persistence of stereotypical perceptions makes sense when read as a transference onto the foreign woman of Western women’s discomfort with their own culture. To the Western gaze the foreign woman embodies what is foreign in the self; that is what makes it so difficult to imagine an autonomous personality beneath the veil. And to the Western gaze, the headscarf and the veil are the most vivid symbols of (one’s own) foreignness; that is what makes it seem so hard to imagine that Muslim women see a different meaning in these articles of clothing and can, moreover, use them confidently for the symbolic implementation of their own goals. We will examine that more closely below.

    But it is not only the distorted perception of Islam that is responsible for the Muslim woman’s disenfranchisement, it is also the majority culture’s distorted view of itself. This is especially true with regard to sexual equality, which may be set down in the German constitution, but is far from being realised on a social level. The European Commission’s Gender Equality Report 2005 found a gender-specific segregation of the job market in all European states, and Germany was among the countries with the most pronounced segregation. Even today women earn an average of 25 percent less than men, due in part to the fact that they work in worse-paid part-time positions. Only about a third of the delegates in the German Parliament are women, and the same is true of corporate management positions, with the upper echelons of the top fifty corporations in Europe containing fewer than five percent women. Women still hold fewer than ten percent of C4 professorships at German universities. Women’s labour force participation rate in Germany is at a mere 41 percent.

    Still, these statistics show that gender-specific inequality on the job market has improved since the 1980s and 90s. As Birgit Rommelspacher notes, this progress is due to the fact that immigrant women are increasingly taking over the poorly-paid, insecure jobs – for instance at public or private cleaning services – and thus making an (albeit modest) social advancement possible for German women not from immigrant backgrounds. Given this rather meagre success record – based, moreover, on a little-mentioned ethnic hierar­chy among women – the discussion about non-emancipated headscarf-wearers seems to perform the function of making Western women’s emancipation and the accomplishments of the women’s movement look better than they actually are. In addition, the veil raises the issue of the relationship between equality and difference in gender relations, a question that remains controversial and unresolved in the women’s movement and which in turn raises the question of how equality and gender democracy can be achieved.

    Co-education or single-sex education?

    Yinka Shonibare MBE, Colonel Tarleton and Mrs. Oswald Shooting, 2007. From the exhibition: Who Knows Tomorrow. Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin. © Stefan WeidnerIn this context Rommelspacher has pointed out that gender segregation can be considered as a possible means of realising these goals without thematising the ways in which it contradicts the continued upholding of the equality principle. For years, renowned feminist scholars such as Ayla Neusel, Ulrike Teubner and Angelika Wetterer have, with good reason, questioned the benefit of co-education in schools and universities and championed the establishment of women’s degree courses and the founding of women’s universities on the American model. Two such projects have since been realised: the Internationale Frauenuniversi­tät (ifu) and the women’s engineering course in Wilhelmshaven. The segregation of female students is seen as a ‘paradoxical inter­vention’ that ‘can contribute toward eliminating gender demarcations’ if they are ‘organised according to the principle of equality or equal status’. For this reason, according to sociologist Ulrike Teubner, the ‘endorsement of monoeducation does not mean the establishment of gender images in the sense of different identity and life concepts, but rather a prerequisite for a range of options’.

    However, Teubner argues, the separation of the genders can only be successful ‘if the separation concept renounces any normative orientation by gender difference, however formulated, rather referring substantively and structurally to the norm of gender justice’. Women’s segregation appears legitimate because, rather than contradicting the principle of equality, it serves the better realisation thereof. Here we wish neither to discredit this approach nor to dispute its possible efficacy; rather, our aim is to point out its underlying paradigm: the attempt to reconcile difference with equality, in fact, to regard difference as nothing but a precursor of equality. By creating difference, difference is to be overcome. In this sort of logic, the veiled or headscarf-wearing Muslim woman is almost inevitably a provocation, representing as she does ‘a position that boldly emphasises the difference of the genders’ but does not regard it as an obstacle to an emancipated life or to the realisation of gender justice. If social scientists expect that the ‘separation of the genders’ in schools and universities will ‘neutralise conventional conceptions of gender codes and order’, should they not then welcome all headscarf-wearing teachers and professors in German educational institutions, rather than prohibiting their head coverings?

    Behind the rejection of the veil lie the cultural constraints the ‘naked’ woman of the Western world has to put up with; precisely because she is exposed she cannot ‘unveil’ them, and because their source is invisible, it is very difficult for her to defend herself against them. The delegation of this (still largely female) discomfort to the ‘foreign’ woman strikes us as being one reason why so many feminists regard the headscarf and veil as unambiguous symbols of Islamic misogyny. It could be said that one’s own ‘foreignness’ – the deviation from the masculine norm – is made visible in the foreign woman. As Farideh Akashe Böhme writes: ‘When women today find themselves in conflict with the patriarchy itself, it is less an issue of domination exercised by a man in the form of control than the experience of foreignness in this dominant public culture.’

    Admittedly, our interpretation of the veil as a symptom of Western women’s own foreignness must appear speculative as long as Western societies neglect to reflect on the possibility that the perception of ‘the Oriental woman’ is an expression of their own gender order. To put it in the words of psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva: we should try to ‘analyse the foreign and the foreigner by analysing ourselves’. The exploration of the self is precisely what the furore about the headscarf attempts to avoid. In the process, it even becomes acceptable at times to base the rejection of the headscarf on sheer suppositions that barely hold up on examination. On the one hand, we are told that little can be known about the lives of immigrant women from Muslim countries – ‘outsiders are forbidden a glimpse behind the scenes,’ writes Der Spie­gel; on the other hand, we are told of the ‘fates of women’ who ‘are with impunity held prisoner, beaten, raped and forced into marriages under the guise of a religiously-justified patriarchy. Women for whom human rights seem to have been suspended’. The headscarf, claims Alice Schwar­zer, is ‘the flag of Sharia’. And sociologist Necla Kelek sees the headscarf as a symbol of ‘apartheid against women’.

    Downplaying the ‘compulsory’ nature of the headscarf?

    These comparisons create an emotional sounding board that gives voice to diffuse fears about Western culture. The Berlin lawyer Seyran Ates accuses headscarf defenders of downplaying the compulsory factors associated with the headscarf. ‘The women who suffer from the misogynist attacks of religion do not have the opportunity to act and live autonomously for even an hour a day.’ We certainly do not wish to dispute the fact that many Muslim women – like non-Muslim women – are subjected to domestic violence. And we take very seriously the aggression and threats which Seyran Ates faces for representing Muslim women seeking divorces. But the assertion that the headscarf is both a symbol of this violence and responsible for it does not stand up to scrutiny. Rather, we put forward for discussion the possibility that the physical violence to which the veiled Muslim woman is believed to be subjected is an expression of the symbolic violence to which the exposed Western woman is subject – a form of violence which she can neither prove nor make visible without being taken for a liar. Thus condemned to self-deception, she identifies and combats this violence in the face of ‘the other woman’. By running a title story called ‘The Headscarf Lie’ in Emma, Alice Schwarzer precluded any differentiated exploration of the headscarf issue. Ex occidente facts?
    Christina von Braun-
    is a professor at the Institute of Cultural Studies at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Bettina Mathes is a cultural critic and idependent scholar who lives in Manhattan. The essay is taken from Christina von Braun and Bettina Mathes, Verschleierte Wirklichkeit. Die Frau, der Islam und der Westen [Veiled Reality: Women, Islam and the West]. © Aufbau Verlag, Berlin 2007, pp. 210 – 229.

    Translated by Isabel Cole
    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    January 2011

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