Friday, November 25, 2005

Some thoughts on Purdah

An article...

...and some thoughts of mine (I apologize if they seem rushed, as these are excerpted (and adapted) from an e-mail I had written a friend last year):

"On polygamy, however, I think the author gives it the short end of the stick: given that polygamous societies are historically quite common (not just "in" Islam, but in Indic societies, and many others too; indeed that polygamy has been banished from Hinduism is precisely the result of a Westernized secularist intervention-- primarily by means of the likes of Nehru and Ambedkar, neither of whom was particularly observant, and the latter highly critical of Hinduism), I do question the uncritical acceptance of "one man, one woman" as the summa of civilization. Yet it is important to clarify and explain how this questioning is different from an apologia for all sorts of oppressive practices "in the name of Islam."

The author hits the nail (perhaps inadvertently) on the head as to the following: polygamy is problematic because it is used as a means of control-- of women, of their bodies, of, broadly speaking, their sexuality-- and is as problematic as the veil because that is also used for precisely these reasons. But unlike the author the problem as I see it is the oppressive political arrangement, and not the veil or polygamy per se.  To put it another way: a law that mandated the wearing of short skirts would be no less oppressive than one mandating the wearing of the burqa; in both cases it is the law (and the sort of polity implied by the framing of such a law) that is problematic in the first instance; in itself the dress concerned-- whether burqa or bikini-- is problematic inasmuch as it encodes a certain ideology of femininity, but this problem is not of a kind that would make one mode of dress (burqa) more problematic than another (bikini).  The toddy-tappers (Nadars) of the erstwhile princely state of Travancore offer a useful illustration: until the mid-nineteenth century, Nadar women were forbidded from covering their breasts in public, only winning the right to do so after long agitation.  Nakedness here was the signifier of low-caste status, not of liberation.

[Aside: I think India offers a useful and somewhat hopeful example when it comes to the veil: a lot of Muslim women wear it; growing numbers do not. The reason this transformation or change can go relatively unremarked is that there no law--not even the Muslim Personal Law in force in India-- that enforces veiling. That of course does not mean that the veil is not used as an instrument of social coercion in India-- it can be and is-- but it does mean that the dynamics of change are suddenly different, and the space of resistance greater. To put it another way, laws above all else regulate, and the "solution" is not to put the Christian monogamous idea forward as the ideal, but to question and undermine the notion that sexuality/women may thus be regulated. Contrast with polygamy: in
India, Muslims and certain adivasi tribes/groups are legally allowed polygamy, but note what "allow" means here: there is a law in place that regulates polygamy. The mere existence of such regulation has meant that Muslim women in India who incline to a different view have found it far more difficult to mobilize against polygamy than against purdah. A stand against the latter may be made in a certain zone of privacy, the way a stand against the former cannot (opening as it does other political Pandora's boxes, as the always vacuous Rajiv Gandhi government found). Indeed the interplay between polygamy and other political questions has even meant that Muslim women who "go too far" risk being seen as "traitors to the cause," and as guilty of undermining the well-being of the minority. The same does not appear to be true of Muslim women who simply do not veil themselves-- yet I have no doubt that the same would have been true if the Muslim Personal Law made veiling compulsory.]

I see a second problem whereby Muslims seek to link polygamy to their identity as Muslims, which I believe to be a dangerous notion. That is, Islam obviously sanctions polygamy, but, unlike for instance the Mormonism of Joseph Smith's and Brigham Young's day, Islam does not set up polygamy as a marker of Islamic identity. Thus the man with one wife is no less a Muslim, even under the strictest reading of the Quran, than the man with four wives. It is for this reason that one might argue that Muslim males ought not to be allowed polygamy in, for instance, a country where no-one else is allowed to marry multiple spouses (that country is not India, where various non-Muslim adivasi groups are also allowed polygamy). More radically, I would also not be in favor of allowing polygamy if polyandry were disallowed. It is this asymmetry that contributes to the "social arbitrage," enabling the system to be rigged one way or another. I do not mean to suggest that changing laws is a panacaea for all our ills; what I am saying is that the mindset that insists upon legal regulation for everything under the sun is a mindset pursuant to which in time nothing comes to seem more natural than the framing of laws, than the regulation such laws principally involve.

The reason we need to question regulation is that otherwise, we will fall into the same trap liberals often fall into: since the latter believe to the nth degree in "choice," they are reduced to incoherence when confronted with the educated socially privileged woman who chooses the veil. Personally, I don't think "choice" should be any kind of sacred cow, and "choice" is not immune to critique (we seem to choose very little of any consequence: I did not choose my sexual orientation, my ethnicity, and I cannot meaningfully be said to have "chosen" my political orientation). The so-called Islamic feminist (but--and this ought never to be forgotten-- not only the Islamic feminist) is open to critique whether or not she has chosen the veil: she is open to critique by seeking to propagate a view that incarnates the female body as a zone of political contestation, and by ascribing an irrational and demonic power to the female body-- a power so dangerous that it must be policed by the state, or by other patriarchal forms. Worst of all, the "liberals" (in the Anglo-American sense) who "choose" the veil see no irony in the fact that they have absolved the male other of any "choice" whatsoever. But the reason it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the issue is about far more than "polygamy" or "purdah" is that many men and women who do not wear the veil hold similar views-- and they are all open to the same critique, whether or not veiling is an issue (for instance, related critiques could be made of pornography, the semiotics of the fashion industry, cinema, etc.). It needs to be the same critique."


Anonymous said...

We have been created by Allah to worship Him.Thus the individual (as well as the whole society) is to be oriented towards this goal.This is one of the maqsads of the Shariah.

PH said...

Whole heartedly agree with you. You've articulated what I alwasy vaguely felt!

Anonymous said...

If we are created by Krishna, Jesus or Allah to worship them, then all these gods are selfish and no greater than human. These gods are created by individual humans who want to control and have power over other humans. So let us come out from these practices and care for other human beings irrespective of religion.