Unveiling Muslim Feminism, by Erin Wiegand
The cover of the July 21 Economist touted an article about
By using the image of the covered Muslim women to question the modernity of the Iranian state, the Economist reflects an entire history of Western interactions with Muslim women. As Nima Naghibi argues in Rethinking Global Sisterhood: Western Feminism and Iran (
Rethinking Global Sisterhood is a book that not only tears apart stereotypes and assumptions about the significance of Muslim women’s dress, but levels harsh critiques against those feminists who invoke “global sisterhood” as their cause while perpetuating colonial attitudes of superiority toward their veiled “sisters.” Western-minded Iranian nationalists and liberal feminists have generally viewed the veiled woman as a symbol of a primitive era, but Naghibi argues that the reality is more complex.
The interpretation of “hijab” (modest clothing) has varied greatly between cultures, classes and time periods. In early 20th century
Naghibi also examines the ways the state has regulated Iranian women’s dress in order to promote or reject an association with the West. In 1936, Reza Shah Pahlavi (the first of
Naghibi suggests that the visibility of Muslim women—whether veiled or unveiled—has caused a great deal of anxiety for Western feminists, who have largely ignored the indigenous presence of Muslim women’s activism. During the Constitutional Revolution (1905-1911), for example, Iranian women participated in protests, acted as couriers and even took up arms. [The Constitutional Revolution started in 1906, not 1905.] Naghibi argues that such actions threaten feminists’ perceptions of themselves “as liberated and modern in contrast to imprisoned and backwards Persian women, and … as leaders of the international women’s movement.”
Seventy-five years later, little had changed. The feminist writer Kate Millet gushed about the Iranian women’s demonstrations in 1979: “It’s a whole corner, the Islamic world, the spot we thought it would be hardest to reach, and wow, look at it go!” It was as if the only possible reading of the situation, for Millet, was to see the demonstrations as the direct result of Western feminism’s influence, rather than something Iranian women were seeking on their own and for themselves.
Millet had been one of a handful of Western feminists (including Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer) who visited
Naghibi’s critique of “global sisterhood,” a concept prevalent among feminists since the ’70s, is by no means new. Feminists of color have been arguing for decades that women’s experiences differ greatly between classes and ethnicities—to say nothing of the fact that the vanguard of such a “sisterhood” has tended toward the white and middle-class. But today, Naghibi writes, the “discourse of sisterhood” in the West has led to “a merging of interests between liberal feminism and a xenophobic nationalism. … [an] uncritical support of the Bush and Blair administrations’ rhetoric of the ‘us/them’ divide, the ‘civilized world versus the terrorists.’ ”
In November 2001, Laura Bush delivered a tear-jerking appeal during the weekly presidential radio address to save the women of