Last Word: Tearing the Veil

The banner around Miss Afghanistan’s waist is a reminder of her country, and also an insignia of exile. When Vida Samadzai entered the world’s most famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) beauty contest, she was breaking several taboos. Samadzai had left her country in 1996 to study in the US. She became the first Afghan woman in three decades to walk the ramp in that fashion, and then she wore a red bikini for the Miss Earth contest.

The reaction from her home country was immediate, and lasting; if she returns to Afghanistan, she will face criticism and even legal prosecution.

Samadzai makes traditional feminists uncomfortable. Very few feminist thinkers would find it easy to endorse beauty contests, with their emphasis on looks as the most important aspect of a woman, the often negative impact they have on young women in terms of body image, and the sheer mindlessness of most pageants.

But Samadzai made me wonder whether the problem with contemporary feminism was that the rules had become too rigid. For women from several war-torn or otherwise beleaguered countries, from Bosnia to the Lebanon to Afghanistan, taking part in beauty contests has become a symbol of empowerment. I find it baffling, as a woman, that we need to be empowered through teeth whiteners, cosmetic surgery, diets that would call Amnesty down on your head if you administered them to prison inmates, and all the rest of it—but that’s just me.

For Samadzai and the many women in Afghanistan who have followed her career, entering that beauty contest was a way of reclaiming their rights to do as they pleased with their bodies. The Taliban enforced the burkha; Samadzai tore through the veil. In that sense, her achievement is as important as the achievements of, say, Afghanistan’s first women chess players.

Take another case, that of Samira Haddad, who recently won the right not to wear the hijab in a case in the Netherlands. Haddad applied to the Islamic College of Amsterdam. She was told that, as a Muslim woman, she had to wear the headscarf or risk being rejected. Her win has widely been interpreted by the Western media as a blow against the hijab in the debate over whether the scarf is a symbol of oppression or empowerment.

But Haddad is invoking a different tradition—she comes from Tunisia, where women do not wear headscarfs in public. She wants Muslim religious groups to endorse the right of women to choose what they can and cannot wear. Like women who have fought for exactly the opposite—the right to wear the headscarf in countries where the hijab is seen as a disturbing reminder of religious differences—Haddad is fighting for herself. She is not anti- or pro-hijab—she merely wants the right to wear what she’s comfortable with.

These are just two, fairly superficial examples, but they made me think. Women have been told what to do by men, by religious leaders, by social custom, and yes, even by feminist ideologues. Perhaps what we really want is just the right to make our own decisions—regardless of whether they seem to be anti-feminist when they’re not, or whether they seem to be feminist when they’re actually deeply personal.


(Published in The Kolkata Telegraph, November 2005)

One comment

  1. “Perhaps what we really want is just the right to make our own decisions—regardless of whether they seem to be anti-feminist when they’re not, or whether they seem to be feminist when they’re actually deeply personal” — that is a very interesting point and it raises the feminist debate by a few notches. I like where this debate is heading and without taking anything away from it, I’d like to add another dimension to your argument: (this particular line of thought is the result of a very similar discussion I had with a very dear friend who happens to be a psychologist) Could it be that Muslim women who argue in favour of wearing a Hijab or burqua do so not out of a “deeply personal freedom” but because of “internalised patriarchal pressure” as my friend put it. That is, they think they’re making “choices”, but their choices are, in fact, symptoms of years of living in very patriarchal societies. I do realise that one of the pitfalls of this argument is that one can label practically anything as “internalised”. Still, I’d like to know what you think…

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