Article by Staff Writer Nazeela Elmi
Image by Kiana Hayeri from The New York Times

In September 2021, a few days after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, a group of women in black head to toe niqab covering went out in Kabul University and Kabul streets to demonstrate their support for the Taliban regime. Many rightfully assumed that, as all of the signs held by the protestors had the same blueprint and all of them wore the same article of clothing, the demonstrations were staged by the Taliban against women who held anti-Taliban views and who protested following the collapse of the former Afghan government. This kind of covering was unprecedented in Kabul or anywhere in Afghanistan. 

Women’s veiling varies across Afghanistan given their roles in society, agriculture, throughout their historical junctures, and in various geographical and cultural regions. Veiling has not been mandated under the law in the former government in Afghanistan, though the burqa was imposed during the first rule of the Taliban with occasional precedents before that. Since the clothing was not representative of women in Afghanistan, Afghan women started a campaign on social media and protested with the hashtag “Do not touch my clothes, where they shared pictures of colorful traditional Afghan attire.  In response to the outrage on Twitter, a male professor at the American University of Afghanistan tweeted:

A tweet that reads "The reactions to the photos of this gathering is disheartening. The “liberals” can be equally intolerant. It is all about choice. Women’s choice. These women chose this hijab. We need to honor & respect their choice" in response to an image of a group of fully-veiled women.

The language of this tweet and the tweets that followed had self-righteous undertones, often using the lexicon of “liberalism,” “tolerance,” and “respecting choice,” disregarding the impediments and consequences surrounding and shaping that choice. This oversimplified understanding of choice and agency is not limited to this tweet; such rhetoric oppresses women further, obscuring the complexities concerning the notion of agency and choice under patriarchy. Such shortsighted framing of values, in Foucauldian terms, “not only coerces individuals but redefines such coercion as freedom and choice [making individuals] the instrument of their own oppression.” 

The aforementioned demonstration may as well have been due to an absence or a lack of women’s choice and not the presence of it. These matters cannot be simply “talked about in terms of individual choice and morality […] where structural violence pervades society, the terms of this issue must be expanded.” In Diffendal’s words, “this issue requires a more nuanced understanding of the religious controversy surrounding the veil, the reasons behind women’s decisions to wear the veil, and the contexts in which they make their choices.” Since such a “choice itself is constrained to religious and cultural norms” and at times constrained to power structures.

In this article, I attempt to explore debates around hijabs to address impediments surrounding women’s choices and agencies in countries such as Iran and Afghanistan and to highlight their lack of choice. An undertaking that concerns women’s “freedom and unfreedom” and their rights and lack thereof is a daunting task. Discourses signifying “liberal views” often romanticize complexities of women’s choice and agency and limit the space to challenge patriarchal power structures that affect women’s agency to enable them to pursue their end goals. This is not to suggest that women who wear the hijab have limited agency over their choice but merely a delineation of how women’s choices and capacity for action are restricted in countries where veiling is required by law/decree. In the light of this, the narratives on veiling vs agency/choice must be analyzed on a case-by-case basis and whether the choices of women who veil in pertaining societies are made in presence of substantive rights and liberties or in the absence of them.

Taliban de facto authorities declared in May 2022 that women in Afghanistan must cover their faces in public, “taking the Iranian dress code one step further.”  A correct understanding of a reflective and informed choice requires a nuanced assessment of obstacles and opportunities that lead to, allow or hinder women’s choices. As a central theme of Western debates, hijab lingers between the dichotomy of agency and religiosity, where the agency of the wearer is undermined. As well as a significant stereotyping of hijab is its association with oppression. To fight against these assumptions a lot of studies and campaigns have advanced the hijab’s political significance representing Muslim women. This certainly is significant for the struggle of hijabi women facing discrimination and violence in Western societies. Within these societies hijab allows women to exercise their agency, to defy Western objectification by reclaiming the female body and “gain[ing] power over themselves but also over the outside world.” 

Hijab has been a symbol of resistance for Turkish and Egyptian women in universities. However, “there are two vastly different kinds of hijabs: the democratic hijab, the head covering that a woman chooses to wear, and the tyrannical hijab, the one that a woman is forced to wear.” I believe there is a fine line between acknowledging agencies of women who observe hijab as a result of liberties afforded to them and addressing the circumstance where choices of women are realized in their absence. Skinner’s “idea of liberty […] is equated with the mere absence of impediments to the realization of one’s chosen ends.”  Skinner challenges us to inquire “whether our liberty is realizable only within a certain form of society, and whether this commits us into justifying the excesses of totalitarian oppression in the name of liberty.” In a society where women are ascribed no liberties, the realization of one’s end goals becomes impossible too. Fetrat, an Afghan scholar, maintains that in certain contexts discussion around agency has been exaggerated. To shed further light, she provides this example:

“If a girl in northern Afghanistan is disadvantaged in every possible way for being a girl in a family that favors men, born into an uneducated and very low-income family whose lives have been affected by war and many other reasons that explain her disadvantageous position in the first place, is forced to get married at the age of thirteen, constantly gets abused and beaten by the husband’s family […] what would it mean for her, and for us if we keep trying to assert that she had agency and that she had some power in her own way? What would our fascination with ‘agency’ and ‘power’ do to help her, or to change her narrative or destiny?” 

According to Fetrat, we must challenge typical understandings of agency to provide space for people whose agencies are “violated, threatened and overlooked by different structures of power”. Under androcentric power structures where public spaces are presumed to belong to men, women are afforded neither with substantive rights and liberties nor with a choice to realize their end goals. Thus, one can’t talk about existence of choice or a space where they can use veiling/unveiling as a tool to exercise agency and power. 

All in all, women’s veiling – while not universal among Muslim women and not intrinsic only to Islam- “is both a marker of autonomy, individuality, and identity, and a marker of inequality and sexist oppression.” While attempts of Western Muslim scholars are valuable in eliciting the experiences and acknowledging the agencies of women who observe hijab, they do not recognize the experiences of “other women” whose choices are formed as a result of stumbling blocks, impossibilities, or a lack of no other alternative choice and fear of consequences. My attempt in this article in the words of Hirschman is to “highlight the ways in which women’s agency, resistance, and freedom can be understood only by their location in a context where the control of women by men is a relevant aspect.” In these contexts, women rather than exercising authority over their choice, navigate their preferences within male-defined terms. 

A nuanced analysis of women’s agency under circumstances defined by androcentric power structures and absence of liberties is needed, we cannot simply deny the dynamics that shape women’s choices under patriarchy. Fixation on agency and an oversimplified understanding of choice precludes attempts and discussion that challenge power structures. This is crucial for countering “masculinist misinterpretation of oppression as agency and agency as oppression.” Hence, this novel imposition by the Taliban must not be understood as representative of women in Afghanistan, naively accepted under the rationale of “respect for choice”. Lastly, parameters of Islam and patriarchal interpretations of Quran must be reevaluated and reinterpreted by women themselves. Muslim feminist scholars play a critical role.

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