Barak Obama and the Veil

World leaders are talking about Muslim women again. First, it was Barak Obama, and now it's Mu'ammar Al Qadhafi.

Let's begin with Al Qadhafi. On his historic visit to Italy, the Libyan leader asked that 700 Italian women, leaders in the economic, cultural, and political fields, be assembled to hear his speech. They did. During his speech, he told them that Arab women have no rights, that they are treated like pieces of furniture, and the situation is so terrible there is a need for a revolution.

I appreciate the fact that Al Qadhafi wants to champion Arab women's rights. But how is dissing Arab women in front of a crowd of accomplished Italian women help further the cause? After all, don't Italian women (or at least a significant number of them) already believe that Arab and Muslim women are nothing but pieces of furniture and that they have no rights whatsoever?

Haven't Arab feminists been fighting for years on two fronts: to gain women's rights in their countries and to fight against racist stereotypes that dehumanizes both Arab women and men but showing the formers as "pieces of furniture" or beasts of burden and the latter as their cruel masters and oppressors?

That was one speech. The other is the impossible-to-avoid Obama speech, given during his historic visit to Cairo. Let me first say that I've been resisting writing a post about it mostly because I have been irritated by a good number of posts, especially by those who apparently were expecting Che Guevara to show up in Cairo, and were stunned and heart-broken that it was Barak Obama, the President of the United Sates, the country that on November 2008 had an election, not a revolution.

But my resistance weakened and here I am with yet another Obama speech post. On the whole, I thought the speech was good. Tone matters and it struck the right one. That doesn't mean I wasn't disappointed. My main disappointment was that it emphasized Palestinian violence against Israelis but had nothing to say about Israeli violence against Palestinians. Damn, Mr. President! We die in so many original ways that it shouldn't be hard to find one or two colorful examples. That absence, for me, was glaring and painful.

The other disappointment, more intellectual than personal, has to do with what he said about Muslim women: that they have a right to wear the hijab, and that the right will be protected in the US, and that they are not to be thought less of if they wore hijab. Why is this emphasis on the Hijab as if it is the essence of what a Muslim woman is?

Obama must be aware of the long and complex colonial history in which Muslim women, and Islam generally, were reduced to the veil. He may have thought that he was rectifying hundreds of years of reductionism and othering, or maybe just distinguishing himself from Bush who invaded Afghanistan to unveil its women or from the Europeans who believe veiled Muslim women will bring down their "culture." All three aims are worthwhile. But in the process he ended up reiterating how important the veil is. But instead of saying the veil is bad and we will invade you to unveil your women, he said it's good and we will defend your (our?) women's right to wear it. In both cases, the veil is the object of obsession.

This is not all. I do believe that Obama's fixation on the hijab reflects a certain Muslim influence on his speech. I don't know if the Muslim woman who advised him on the speech believes that the hijab is the essence of Muslim Womanhood and therefore deserves multiple mentions in one speech, but certainly there are Muslims who have been insisting that the Hijab is acentral issue for Muslim identity. Their loudness tend to obscure the fact that millions of unveiled Muslim women disagree. These women I didn't hear in Obama's speech.

Of course, what is a post about Muslim women and hijab without a mention of Nawal el Saadawi. In an article in Al Quds al Arabi (June 11, 2009), she was scandalized by Obama's embracing of the hijab because she believes that it is forced on women and no woman chooses to wear it. My students at George Mason University prove her wrong every day. They wear their hijab because they want to. I never got the impression that it was the essence of their identity. They are far more complex for that (as Muslim women everywhere). Saadawi is right in pointing out that some women are forced to wear it, but that's not the hijab Obama was talking about. He was talking about my students' hijab, not the one Saadawi, rightly, detests.

Thus ends my contribution to the heap on Obama's speech and to the mountain on Muslim women and the veil!!

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