It may seem counterintuitive for many to hear an icon of feminism defending the Muslim veil. But don’t expect to receive conventional wisdom when you discuss issues such as the role of women in the Middle East with Judith Butler. She is the Maxine Elliot Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the acclaimed Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity.
Butler believes that the veils worn by some Muslim women have unjustly become universal symbols of female disempowerment. For her, veiling is partly an expression of cultural belonging, signifying a variety of meanings that must be understood through different religions, cultures, and regions. Sometimes, she says, the veil also signifies a way of resisting compulsory assimilation to so-called ‘Western’ norms. “I think women around the world are now trying to figure out how they honor certain practices, religious traditions, and the communities where they belong,” Butler explained over tea with the Cairo Review in November, before delivering the sixth Edward W. Said Memorial Lecture at the American University in Cairo. “What I think is misunderstood is that the veil signifies a mode of cultural belonging and values. There are, of course, many forms of agency through the veil.”
At the same time, Butler believes, many Muslim women are trying to negotiate autonomy for themselves, to enter into the public sphere. “There’s always some degree of anxiety and fear of punishment in departing from gender norms,” she argues, as she has so often before about the difficulties inherent in those negotiations. “That’s as true for an effeminate boy in Wyoming as it is for a woman in Cairo.”
Butler is harsh on the tendency in the West, especially among feminists, to categorically condemn the veil. “Negotiating questions of sexuality and gender is not always done according to the same language you find in the U.S. or in France,” she explains. “It’s not always a rights discourse. It’s a different kind of negotiation, but critics very often don’t have the patience to learn about it. The idea of liberating Afghan women under the Bush presidency was to tear off the veil in front of the global media. But that comes very close to a new form of cultural possession: ‘You now belong to the West. We get to consume your visual beauty as we wish.’ We need to be a little more careful before we assume that the veil signifies the loss of autonomy.”
Adds Butler: “If we allow Islam or the problem of women in Islam to stand for contemporary problems of women’s inequality, then I think we’re scapegoating. We’re not actually thinking more concretely about the many sources of relative inequality in the West, which include the sexual division of labor, the disproportionate number of women who suffer across the globe from poverty and illiteracy. We need to think about gender regulations in a global and comparative way so that some abstract idea of a woman with the veil does not become the signifier of sexual oppression. It really gets the so-called West off the hook and it displays extraordinary ignorance about the history and present of Muslim practices.”