By Laila Zayan
TMO Editorâ€™s Note: This essay tied for third place in the 2011 TMO Foundation Essay Contest.
Lift the Veil! They say, â€œOh poor girl youâ€™re so beautiful you know! Itâ€™s a shame that you, cover-up your beauty so! â€œ She just smiles so graciously, responds reassuringly: â€œThis beauty that I have is just a simple part of me.
This body that I have, no stranger has a right to see. These long clothes and shawl I wear, ensure my modesty, Faith is more essential than fashion, wouldnâ€™t you agree?
â€œThis hijab – This mark of piety! Is an act of faith, the symbol, for all the world to see ! A simple cloth, to preserve her dignity!
So lift the veil from your heart, to see the heart of purity! They tell her girl: â€œDonâ€™t you know this is the west and you are free! You donâ€™t need to be oppressed, ashamed of your femininity!
This paper discusses the public sphere in Islamic nations from the perspectives of womenâ€™s uses of their visibility, mobility, and voices. I argue that the sociopolitical transformations unfolding in many Islamic countries are not taking place in the absence of womenâ€™s contribution and participation, but quite the opposite. Using examples from different countries, I illustrate how women are shaping, impacting, and redefining the public sphere by producing alternative discourses and images about womanhood, citizenship, and political participation in their societies that prove that Islam and modernity can co-exist without being secular. Pious Shiâ€™i volunteers and Javanese women are strategically using their bodies and their actions to participate in the public sphere and in turn have used the public sphere as a stage in proving that Islamic nations can indeed be modern.
I will begin by discussing the controversial debate between whether or not an Islamic nation can be modern. In doing so, I aim to provide a backdrop in which the role of women in the public sphere can be analyzed. Next, I will give an explanation of the public sphere and introduce the query about the necessity of secularization in the public sphere. Given this backdrop, I will then discuss how women have become the touchstone of modernization by giving examples of how women in different Islamic cultures have used their visibility, mobility, and voices in creating a new discourse in the public sphere that proves modernity can exist in an Islamic nation.
Can Islam and Modernity Co- exist?
In the wake of September 11th, images, assumptions, and conclusions about Islamic nations began to circulate as media interest in Islam exploded. The military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq led to crash courses on the history of Islam, Muslim attitudes toward democracy, the reasons some women veil, and the question of whether the Western and Muslim worlds are indeed fated to what Samuel Huntington describes as a â€œclash of civilizationsâ€ . Unfortunately, the infatuation with Islamic nations, post 9/11, has led to increasingly skewed depictions of these nations as being the â€œotherâ€ and has led to â€œculture talkâ€ in which cultures are defined by their â€œessentialâ€ characteristics . Culture talk as Mamdani describes has led to the world being divided into the modern and pre-modern, such that â€œthe former makes culture in which the latter is a prisoner.â€
This divide between modern and pre-modern has been an underlying theme that has emerged in depicting Islamic nations as the â€œotherâ€. For centuries, Islam represented the greatest military power on earth, prevailing economically and socially over Europe, Africa, India, and China. But with time, Europeans were beginning to progress in the civilized arts, leaving the cultural heritage of the Islamic world far behind them. Western innovation coupled with successes on the battlefield resulted in European dominance, and the establishment of Christianity as the state religion. Throughout Christian history, church and state existed side by side, but as different institutions as a result of tension that emerged in their coexistence. These institutions remained separate, â€œeach with its own laws, and jurisdictions, its own hierarchy, and chain of authorityâ€, providing a secular system of rule. In contrast, the idea that any part of human life is in any sense outside the scope of religious law and jurisdiction is alien to Muslim thought. The absence of secularism in Islam, and the refusal of an imported secularism inspired by Christian example, may be attributed to profound differences of belief and experience in the two religious cultures. After looking at the development of Islamic nationsâ€™ correlation with modernity, it may be concluded that this debate has plagued the relations between the East and the West. While secularism is believed to be a condition of modernity in some respects, alternative models of modernization that do not include secularism have also been thought to work, only perpetuating this debate further into inquiry.
Public Sphere: A Stage for Modernity
Islamic nations contest secularism as a pre- requisite to modernity by showing how a public sphere acts as a stage where modernity can exist devoid of secularism. A public sphere, as Nilufer Gole describes, is institutionalized and imagined as a site for the implementation of secular and progressive way of life where people can get together and freely discuss and identify societal problems, and through that discussion, influence political action. The public sphere is not simply a pre-established arena; but it is constituted and negotiated through performance, be that through self-presentation, dress code, cultural taste, or leisure activities. Because the public sphere provides a stage for performance rather than an abstract frame for textual and discursive practice, images become vital in the public sphere.
As Gole further describes, in a â€œWesternâ€ public sphere, religious signs and practices have been silenced as the modern public sphere has positioned itself against the Muslim social imaginary and segregated social organization. However, in a Muslim context, womenâ€™s participation in public life, corporeal visibility, and social mixing with men all count as modern. Here it is visible that while the public sphere adheres to some of the basic universal principles of the Western public sphere, these principles are translated into social practices that are uniquely altered as well. Because the public sphere provides a stage for performance and discussion, rather than an abstract frame for textual and discursive practice, women are able to prove that their â€œimageâ€ is a site for resisting secular modernity.
The Modern Woman
The ways in which Islam appears into the public sphere challenges Western aspirations for a secular, therefore, modern society. However, I argue that women have become the touchstone of modernity by using their bodies and actions as a means to be both religious, and modern simultaneously. Suzanne Brenner describes how Javanese Muslim women use the veil as their particular language in order to assert themselves and their aspirations in the public sphere.
In Indonesiaâ€™s Island of Java, most Muslim women do not veil, and not all Muslim activists agree with the practice of veiling. Some strongly oppose veiling, arguing that the Qurâ€™an calls for veiling â€œonly for prayer and that its adoption for daily wear is excessive.â€ Others believe that as a symbol, modern Islamic dress fails to invoke an image of the Indonesian past; it does not summon up any sense of nostalgia or local authenticityâ€. Instead, some Indonesians believe it invokes a picture of fundamentalist extremism that is â€œculturally dissonant for them as it is for many Westerners.â€
The fact that modern veiling is understood as a departure from local practice is vital in understanding the veiling movement in the Javanese context. The veil represents for some Javanese Muslims both self-reconstruction as well as reconstruction of society through individual and collective self-discipline. A goal for women who veil is to effect religious and social change through the individual and collective actions of members of the Islamic community. The lack of and skepticism of veiling in Java has allowed women to use the veil to signify a new historical consciousness and a new way of life, weighed down neither by their tradition nor by centuries of colonial rule or Western capitalism. The veil in Java stands for a new morality and a new discipline, â€œwhether personal, social, or political-in short, a new, Islamic modernity.â€ Women see themselves as pioneers in the struggle towards redefining their society as modern, yet religious. They have used their bodies and actions by veiling to spark a discourse in Indonesian society. They have used the public sphere in refashioning themselves to fit their image of modern Islamic womanhood.
Similar to the example of the Javanese women, Lara Deeb illustrates how women in the Shiâ€™i community of al-Dahiyya in Lebanon use volunteerism in the jamiâ€™yyas as a display of public piety and spiritual progress through authentication, or full understanding of meaning and purpose, to prove that Islamic nations can be modern while still being â€œenchantedâ€ with religion. Deeb states that states that the jamiâ€™yyas were believed to be a spiritually developed institutional framework for helping others. A jamiâ€™yya volunteer, Maliha, describes the jamiâ€™yyas as a place where the connection between spiritual and material progress is clearly practiced and where â€œauthenticatedâ€ religious motives lead to the pious modern.
Deeb proves that women are the main actors in illustrating an alternative model of modernity because Muslim women have faced stereotypes held by the West that depict them as backward, passive, and oppressed by their religion. The Muslim womanâ€™s self-conscious confrontations with these stereotypes have led to what Deeb regards as â€œgender jihadâ€, or a gender struggle. Women have combated these stereotypes by drawing upon volunteerism in jamiâ€™yyas in order to provide evidence of womenâ€™s ability to be both religious as well as being connected to the contemporary world. A colleague of Deeb, Hajjeh Amal, speaks to these stereotypes by saying,
â€œOur goals as women are to improve these images of Muslim women within our society that thinks that women are less than men, and to change the image of the oppressed Muslim woman that exists outside our society. This work (volunteerism in the jamâ€™iyya) is part of our religious duty, because woman is the example for everything. A culture is judged by the level of its women.â€
A Shiâ€™i womenâ€™s jihad uses the public sphere to take on the work of proving to the West that Muslim women can be both pious and modern. The visibility of the pious Shiâ€™i women- marked by their public activities and volunteerism- is crucial in demonstrating how women have progressed both spiritually and materially, into a pious modern, in contrast to the Western modern.
Women have used their visibility, mobility, and voices to redefine the public sphere by producing alternative discourses and images about womanhood, citizenship, and political participation in their societies that prove that Islam and modernity can co-exist without being secular. As orientalist imagery of the East has been depicted by the media and internalized by the public, women have faced the bud of the stereotypes regarding subordination and inferiority. By looking at the correlation between Islam and modernity through a female lens, one may be able to see how women act as a systematic thread, one that interweaves the power relations between the â€œEastâ€ and the â€œWestâ€, one that knits the yarn of Islamic society, and illuminates the shades of modernity through the prism of Islam. Rather than seeing women as needing to be saved and liberated in the wake of 9/11, women in Muslim nations have proven that despite their inferior reputation, they are in fact the main actors in the public sphere in proving that modernity and Islam can co-exist.
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