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Third World Feminism & the Hijab

By Mandie Lavery
February 11, 2019

Third world feminism is a school of thought which acknowledges that we cannot classify all women in one way. There are multiple types of women throughout the world facing different kinds of oppression and experiencing different types of agency. This is a crucial way of thinking, which provides the opportunity to understand and listen to women from other cultures. This can be seen in the general concept of the veil in the Islamic religion. Many Western feminist models claim that women wearing a hijab are oppressed by the patriarchy because they are being forced to dress this way. Third world feminism, however, suggests that we need to stop superimposing our own culture onto other cultures. Instead, we need to put aside our own views and norms and look at the complex dynamics of other cultures.

Many American feminists believe these women are in need of saving. This narrative is very problematic. Instead of telling other women how they should live their lives, we need to be listening to the stories of these women and getting to know and understand their culture (Abu-Lughod, 2002). The hijab in this instance is religious in nature and represents a closeness with God. Yes, there are societies in which women are forced to cover themselves and do so without any free will, but those are not the societies I will be focusing on in this paper. Third World Feminism points out how important it is to recognize agency and understand that different does not mean worse. In order to do this, it is crucial to look at the dynamic of the Islamic religion and culture.

While many Western women have a skewed, negative view of Islam, the code of this religion has many aspects we would consider “progressive.” Men and women alike are expected to desexualize themselves, as we can see in this excerpt from the Qur’an: “And say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their genitals and say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their genitals” (El Guindi, 2005). Islam is not against sex or sexuality, as many other religions. Islam is against the flaunting of sexuality. This is why it is important for men and women to remain covered and “modest” when in public. This practice of Islam can be seen in many cultures throughout the world, including the United States, Egypt, Afghanistan, and Malaysia (El Guindi, 2005). Furthermore, the act of wearing the hijab, as well as other religious veils, is voluntary in many cultures. Of course, the underlying patriarchal messages do not simply go away, but there are many other explanations for participating.

The reasons women wear a hijab can expand far beyond the patriarchal scope. Many women express the desire to dress this way in order to feel closer to God. Some have argued that they do not even think about what men will think or how they will feel about the way they are dressed. Instead, they are focused on following what they believe in and being devout within their religion (Al Wazni, 2015). Moreover, in some cultures (Egyptian culture, for example), the dress of these women corresponds to their degree of Islamic understanding, reading, and knowledge (El Guindi, 2005). This provides the opportunity for social mobility and capital that men in this society are not awarded. Women who are more fully covered are granted a high level of respect because they are presenting themselves as Islamic ideals. It has little to do with modesty, restriction, or innocence. It is more about the respect and adoration of their religion.

Veiling has even been used in some Arab cultures to regain a sense of power and agency for women which was lost to men. This was a crucial aspect of the Egyptian feminist movement in the 1970s. In many ways, men had been dominating the culture prior to this movement, particularly in the religious context. Many women did not know the Arabic language and therefore could not read or write religious texts (El Guidi, 2005). To combat this, women educated themselves on the religion and begun producing many forms of literature. The hijab was a huge part of this movement as well. As previously mentioned, this way of dress became a symbol of religious power and knowledge because, as El Guidi argues, “reserve and restraint in behavior, voice and body movement are not restrictions- they symbolize a renewal of traditional cultural identity” (60). This movement rose alongside the “Egyptianness” movement, which sought to reclaim a cultural identity from British colonizers. This is a relationship we as a society have a hard time understanding, particularly in white Western feminism. White women in the United States have rarely had to navigate fighting for a gendered voice and a cultural voice at the same time. This is why it is imperative for us to set aside our Westernized view of feminism.

By telling women in “third world” countries how to fix their problems, we are effectively telling them that we know better than they do about their own society. Not every woman is striving for the Western ideal and it is important for us to recognize this. There is much more to feminism than we are able to see from our limited gaze. Because of this, we need to set aside our savior complex and start listening to the stories of these women.

Third world feminism is about acknowledging the differences between and among women of different cultures. It points out how there is no one feminist model which will fit every society because there is no model of femininity which does. We need to approach oppression with an intersectional lens, looking at all aspects of identity, including race, ethnicity, social class, and sexual preference. This is the only way to effectively understand and recognize the struggles of women in other societies. We cannot keep putting words in their mouths.

Works Cited

Abu‐Lughod, L. (2002). Do Muslim women really need saving? Anthropological reflections on cultural relativism and its others. American anthropologist, 104(3), 783-790.

Al Wazni, A. B. (2015). Muslim women in America and hijab: A study of empowerment, feminist identity, and body image. Social work, 60(4), 325-333.

El Guindi, F. (2005). Gendered resistance, feminist veiling, Islamic feminism. The Ahfad Journal, 22(1), 53-78.

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