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A few years ago, the Moroccan feminist writer Fatema Mernissi published Scheherezade Goes West, a book in which she drew comparisons between the treatment of women in the west and in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Men in both societies, she concluded, oppressed their women, but in different ways: the west by only allowing youthful women to express their sexuality, and only in certain ways; Islamic societies by allowing sexual expression, but limiting women's physical space.
Whatever one thinks of Mernissi's analysis, her book points to a significant cross-pollination of feminist thought. Like other equality movements, feminism crosses borders and feminists from the west and the Muslim worlds need each other and have a great deal to learn from each other. The question is, how can they best do that?
Feminism, as I wrote last week, is having a difficult time across the Arab and Muslim worlds in prising its narrative from political Islam. It could use some help. But for western feminists to speak meaningfully to their fellow travellers in the Islamic worlds, the former will have to tackle something deeply divisive: the veil.
The veil - whether you conceive of it as a scarf worn lightly over the hair or a cloth that covers the face (and most writers have not been clear about the distinctions) - has been a central theme in western feminists' interactions with the Arab world. Some have decried it as a dehumanising practice, others have argued for tolerance of the choice to wear it. Few have been able to ignore it. What, then, should western feminists do about the veil?
First, ask why there is such a fixation on one piece of cloth. Washington warmongers, feminists among them, invoked both the burqa and the Iraqi niqab as justifications for destroying entire societies, as if the veil made those countries modern Sodom and Gomorrahs. (A UK charity reported (pdf) this year how that has worked out: "Seven years after the fall of the misogynist Taliban regime, Afghanistan is still one of the most dangerous places to be a woman.")
One of the dilemmas feminists in the west face is the lack of an overarching narrative. With initial struggles for voting, education, equal pay and abortion rights largely won, feminists have grappled with less tangible issues such as family-friendly working hours, glass ceilings and societal expectations. Unable to agree on big themes, feminists have grasped at small issues. That would explain why nothing – absolutely nothing, not forced marriage, not losing their sons and daughters to bombs from the air, not being denied an education - nothing seems as important as the veil.
It is why feminists have struggled to work out a coherent response to coercion. The Taliban forcing Afghan women to hide under burqas is condemned; the Tunisians, Moroccans and Turks forcing them to uncover is not. But coercion is coercion.
Worse, the veil seems to be a real blind spot for some people, even for western feminists, who appear to infantilise women who choose to wear the veil, even as they argue men have infantilised women in other areas. The idea that wearing a veil could be a free, rational choice appears to elude them. Instead they posit questions on the decision: Yes, but does she really like it? Is it really a choice? Is it really a religious requirement?
Naturally clothing is rarely a free choice in any society, but by focusing on what the veil conceals, feminists have lost sight of what it may reveal: those Muslim women who choose to wear it (and not all do) often claim they are reappropriating their own bodies from the public sphere. The veil is complex. At various times, it has been seen both as an instrument of male oppression and of female liberation. In that, it is not all that dissimilar to the bra, which started life as a liberator of women's bodies from Victorian corsets, but became, by the time of the Female Eunuch, a "domination of foam and wire". Both, for some women, are identity garments, a politicisation of the personal.
That is not to discount how the imposition of the veil has been used and abused across the Islamic worlds. There's no doubt the veil is used by some as a way of marginalising, controlling and dominating women. It is used to relegate women to second-class citizens, to deny their sexuality and even to threaten sexual violence. But the veil, a piece of cloth, does not have the power to do that. Only societies do. Focusing on the former does not reform the latter.
(Note, though, that what feminists say about the veil in the Islamic worlds may be quite different to what they do and say about it in the west. In Britain, the veil is not popular. For a variety of reasons the veil brings out strong emotions: people who hold tolerance as one of their highest values are driven to spit the most intolerant abuse over the veil. Thus those who confront policy questions - such as how to forge a common public space - have sometimes answered them by seeking clothing regulations in public institutions. We should not blind ourselves though: in legislating what some women can wear, we would be outlawing those women from participating in those public institutions. The veil is not a choice for those who choose to wear it. But those are not exclusively feminist questions.)
The veil, then, is literally veiling the ability for feminists in the west and the Middle East and wider Islamic worlds to communicate. Feminists are handicapped by history and culture: history because, as Katherine Viner has pointed out, feminism has often been used as a cloak for imperialism; culture because outsiders seeking to remove the veil elevate it to a symbol of resistance.
Time to get rid of it. This is not a question of compromising but of prioritising. Focusing on the veil detracts from other far more pressing issues such as education and legal reform, topics on which western feminists have much experience to impart. Feminists need to be careful they don't fight culture wars on the battleground of women's bodies. Voltaire had something to say about that - though he didn't really say it and he wasn't talking about clothes.
Faisal al Yafai - Guardian