While reminiscing Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s feature film, Submission (2004), I couldn’t help but attempt and connect her paradoxical intent of bettering the lives of Muslim women to the mindset of the colonizers that traveled around the world in the attempt to civilize the native.
Submission, essentially is a discussion between the narrator (an oppressed Muslim woman) and God, in which the women is disillusioned by her life and the way women generally are treated in Islam. The narrator is undergoing a ‘crisis of faith’, as Van Wichelen so eloquently puts it. The film illustrates four different types of Muslim women; defenseless young women who ‘submit’ to the will of God, and thus have little to no method of dealing with the problems that they inadvertently find themselves in. The four women are depicted from a very Orientalist perspective, as the location of the scenery is, according to Hirsi Ali, ‘Islamistan’ – a dark, barren area.
Obviously the terms is loosely applied to invoke an ‘Islamic setting’ as the images depict women wearing transparent veils coupled with Arabic calligraphy embedded on their semi-naked bodies. Furthermore, the sensual voice of the narrator, the use of American English, coupled with blatantly naked women can not only be associated with soft-porn images (Van Wichelen), but serve the useful and arguably intended task of reminding us of myths associated with the Orient.
Hirisi has not only invoked a controversial image, an image that has undoubtedly been utilized by Western Orientalists since the times of Napoleon, but also one that plays very well in the Western attempt of depersonalizing women’s bodies as mere objects of desire and lust (Van Wichelen). By also writing Qur’anic verses on the body of these women, it suggests, according to Leila Ahmed, that the ‘root cause’ of Muslim women’s abuse can be located to just a handful of verses, logically implying that, if these verses were to be omitted from the Quran, Islam would then become a tolerable ideology that comfortably coexists with Judeo-Christian principles found in modern Western culture. Such a simple thought completely disregards the hundreds of years of scholarship dedicated to Islam, and the numerous applications of science found behind the interpretation of the Quran. Hisri is essentially trying to convince us that a literal translation of only these five verses can truly exemplify the status of women within Islam! Hirsi goes on to state that the film is for specific viewers:
The calligraphy, for instance, is very beautiful, but complex at the same time. Sometimes, behind that beauty lays cruelty, not so much for the viewer, but for the Muslim woman. I want to show this in Iran and Saudi Arabia, I want to show it to women who live under the sharia and also to other women, smart women . . . That’s why I did it in English. (De Leeuw and Van Wichelen, 2005)
However, this stereotypical depiction of Muslim women (if we remind ourselves of Oriental drawings) did not premiere for a Muslim audience – it was shown to a primarily non-Muslim Dutch one. An audience that is not only unable to read the Arabic calligraphy, but one that is also largely ignorant about Islam and hence susceptible to the fear mongering lies found within the film. These Orientalist clichés of the ‘other’ do not illustrate one of Dutch Muslim women whatsoever, and furthers only a misrepresentation and a dilemma for Muslim feminists, who both are practicing Muslims and also feel deeply embedded within Western society. Furthermore, there is a huge contradiction in the above statement made by Hirsi Ali, in that her main audience are women who ‘live under the Sharia, and also to other women, smart women…’ To Hirsi Ali, it seems that there are either women who are living under the Sharia, them of course being ignorant and naïve, and then there are the ‘smart’ women that refuse to be ‘oppressed’ by Islamic law. The former is stupid and cannot speak English, whereas the latter is smart and can speak English. The path of logic that Hirisi Ali has initiated, one that creates and perpetuates binary oppositions (Sharia woman vs. smart woman) is eerily similar to Western Imperial thought that so clearly stated that the ‘other’ was uneducated, backward and needed to be enlightened through Western education and ultimately emancipation from cultural barbarity.
Hirsi has become the liberated ‘other,’ one whose purpose was now to liberate her fellow Muslims. In a Dutch news program, Nova (October 13th, 2004) Hirsi Ali discussed her movie with four Muslim women in a shelter home and was confronted for the first time with the people she wished to represent the most. Hirsi Ali was taken aback, as these women were disappointed of her ‘Hollywood’ portrayal of women’s oppression. In response, Hirsi Ali makes a dismissive gesture with her hand and says, ‘okay, goodbye then.’ As in to state that the problem is within the women who are somehow in denial and do not wish to change their situation, and that there is nothing that could even be deemed inappropriate or flawed in the perspective and actions carried by Hirsi Ali. This elitist bigotry shows that Hirisi Ali can neither relate to these abused women, and these are women from the category of those that are ‘stupid’ and do not wish to change themselves. Hirisi Ali’s whole premise is broken as the discussion continues, as these women are both educated and Muslim, yet still do not agree with Hirsi Ali’s account of Islam’s tyrannical nature.
This notion however that Muslim women, since they abide by Sharia law, do not understand true freedom and hence need to be shown it by Western society, is one that Hirsi Ali exemplifies for those with a bias perspective. As Leila Ahmed calls it, 'white men saving Muslim women from Muslim men', or 'white women saving Muslim women from Muslim men'. Since Hirsi Ali is a 'brown woman, saving Muslim Women,' the same condescending notion can be a bit deceiving, as it gives her a pedestal of leverage on the topic, as she is the 'other,' yet promotes 'our' values and beliefs. Hirsi Ali not only wrongly identifies herself to be an expert on religious matters, but has in-turn robbed Muslim women of an identity of their own. These women are doing all they can to balance religion, education and integration into the Western society and family, yet Hirsi Ali, by claiming to be their spokesperson, dismisses their attempts and depicts these women as ‘backward’.
This notion is further solidified if we merely notice that, even after Hirsi Ali decided to change political parties from the left to the right wing, leftist liberal thinkers continued to vouch in support for her, ultimately showing how deeply embedded this idea is within European thinking, and to a greater extent within North American discourse as well. Hirsi Ali, a single individual with no credibility on the issue, is given ample support, whereas these women are invisible in a society that claims to be assisting their struggle. It is then less surprising that liberals believed Afghani women had to be 'freed' after 9/11, or that the West had a moral responsibility of correcting the inaccuracies within Islamic thought (terrorism) throughout the world.
But that is not the only intellectual sphere through which such condescending views have existed. During the first Gulf war, the primary discourse taking place did not concern whether Kuwait was illegally invaded, nor that taking action would endanger the lives of thousands of Iraqi's who could not be held accountable for the actions of its dictator. Instead, it was predicated on the very notion that America was a beacon of world order, and as such it was their 'moral' responsibility to ensure that order was kept. 'How could Sadaam disobey the United States?' Of course the psyche automatically ensures that one believes the 'other' can only understand ration and reason through force. This is a Western inherent principle concocted during the age of imperialism, that it was the duty of Europe to ensure order around the world. It is no wonder the United States feels that it has inherited that role from the British and French empires of the past.
In so much when Edward Said discusses Jane Austen, Conrad Black and Charles Dickens to name a few, in Culture and Imperialism, it is not because he believed these people were truly promoting imperialism, but because literature naturalized imperialism by making it a common occurrence within its pages. Characters were interconnected to imperialist endeavors, and as such the colonization and continuation of authority over the 'other' had gradually become part of the Western psyche. This psyche - the 'other' was unable to stand up for itself until it became as much like 'us' as possible. Therefore Hirsi Ali's attempts at 'waking up' Muslim women through Europen enlightenment is just the continuation of such said thinking. She is accepted for she is the ‘other’ accepting ‘our’ way of life and discarding the backward practices that ‘our’ culture has worked so diligently to erase.
Hence, when Cameron apologized in Islamabad for British imperialism, it is no surprise that Peter Oborne stated that instead of apologizing, Pakistani’s had to be reminded of the great things England did for them, such as ‘parliamentary democracy, superb irrigation systems, excellent roads, the rule of law, the English language and, last but not least, the game of cricket.” Thank you England! As if three hundred years of Imperialism can now all just be washed away with one good game of cricket. But again, this is a world where everyone believes that they need to broadcast their opinions, and that every individual is capable of thinking must have something very important to inform us of.
Therefore, when Ed West states that Britain should apologize to Pakistan for not ‘doing enough to make it more Britain,’ it is parallel to the viewpoint held by individuals such as Kipling and Renan (‘une combinaison inferieure de la nature humaine’) and many other European thinkers of the imperialist era. As Edward Said states, the idea that the Orient needs to be ‘civilized’ and that the culture and lifestyle is barbaric is firmly supplanted in their psyche. A natural result – they eventually want to become more like teachers. Ed West, like many individuals these days who miraculously have the ability to convey their thoughts freely, has completely simplified the history of imperialism and the problems that Pakistan has faced over its 64-year history.
Similarly, the issue of the burqa has been oversimplified amongst both the Western media, as well as amongst intellectuals that have been debating the validity of the ban in France. The ban is supposed to assist women on whom supposed Islamic principles are wrongly being used. However, the debate has become more centered on the ‘savagery’ of the religion itself rather than on whether this ban will actually integrate and make Muslim women feel more comfortable in society. In any case, instead of allowing lawmakers and intellectuals to discuss the ‘modernity’ of the niqab/burqa at their own discretion, shouldn’t it first and foremost be a choice that the women with the attire be allowed to make?
Naima Bouteldja, in the Guardian, interviewed women who chose to wear the burqa. Amongst the women interviewed, ‘most of them were the first members of their family to adopt the veil, the majority had no niqab-wearing peers, their attendance at their mosque was minimal, and their affiliation to any Islamic bodies almost nonexistent.’ What is most shocking about this piece though is not the amount of abuse women are facing for not wearing the burqa by the Muslim community, but rather the shocking amount of heat that they are receiving for putting it on in the first place! These women have been pressured by many peers to take the burqa off because they believe that it is attracting unnecessary attention at the Muslim communities in France.
Sadly, instead of defending their sisters, these women are being shunned by both their community and the mainstream society. If Hirsi Ali truly represented these women, she would be aware of the predicament that these women undergo. She, like many scholars and so called human rights activists and liberals, would understand that the burqa ban is a bigoted opposition placed in a xenophobic French state, in which a President about to lose the next election is willing to do anything to gain the extreme right’s vote. This will only further alienate the very people that the state is trying to assist.
Furthermore, the method that many scholars have taken in discussing the burqa ban has been very disappointing to say the least. BBC News night’s debate concerning the veil was disappointing because of the answers some of the intellectuals have made during the debate. According to Mona Eltahawy the state has the right to enforce a dress code on its citizens and that the ban is a step in the right direction for women’s rights, especially considering the Salafi ‘Muslim right wing loves to tell women how to dress.’
If the irony within the statement is not present on its own, let me make it clear – if the ‘Muslim right wing’ enforce a dress code on women, why is the only solution also to enforce a dress code on women, albeit in a opposite direction. In the end all you are essentially doing is still imposing your own beliefs on these women.
Mona Eltahawy seems like a very educated and articulate individual, but I do not think she knows much about the different madhabs (schools of thought) in Islam and their rulings concerning the veil and the hijab. The Hanbali school of thought has ruled that women should cover their face in public, while the other schools have not made it mandatory to put on the veil.
The point I’m purporting is basically that there are rulings in different schools of thoughts in Islam on the veil itself, and for Mona to state that the ‘Muslim right wing’ is enforcing it on women, well that term basically could mean anything. Islam is not a political ideology, it is simply a life style, and as such there are different rulings that go according to it. If one school of thought has ruled that it is mandatory for women to wear a veil, than those women that do not agree with it do not have to be Hanbali (they can be from the Hanafi, Maliki or Shafi school of thought). But most Muslim women who wear the veil already know that, and continue (willingly) in wearing the veil. Mona should really have thought of that issue logically.
And that is what I mean that people who know these issues should be discussing it more thoroughly. Mona is a very intelligent individual, but she is not an expert in this field. The West will continue to contradict its own principles, because the values that this society is built on itself has become hallow, and that is the greatest tragedy.