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Western political discourse needs to evolve

by Tareq Shahwan February 5, 2019
Western political discourse needs to evolve

The debate surrounding the hijab should be seen as more than just conservative versus liberal

As the debate about the place of hijab rages in Western nations, Arab feminists and scholars are still rarely consulted or referenced when analyzing this important issue, especially in Western public spheres. As a highly political Arab in Canada, every single time I participate in a debate about the hijab, I feel that I’m sorted into one of the camps that dominate Western political discourse: liberal vs. conservative.

When I tirelessly try to convince the debaters that Arab intellectuals and feminists have dealt with the issue of the hijab from every standpoint possible, long before it started gaining momentum in the West, and that their intellectual endeavor was neither liberal nor conservative, the reaction I get is shock, and most commonly, disbelief.

The question is how can Western people believe that there are other theories, which can extend beyond the fruitless debate between “people should wear whatever they wish to” versus “the state and public spaces should be religion-neutral”? Meanwhile, the media is using these lines of thought to provide a Western framework for cultural translation of a non-Western issue.

Yes, I am writing this article because I refuse to be “Westernly” dichotomized, with all the preconceptions that are attached to each camp. The issue is deeper than this though, and it is very layered and nuanced. One can infer from this forced dichotomy that Arabic intellectuals are not sophisticated enough to empirically and scientifically analyze a social phenomena like this. Or, at least, analyze it to the level of complexity needed to relax the political anxiety that people in the West have. The focus on complexity is perhaps connected to the focus on academia as a source of intellectual authority in the West.

When I was able to get over the dispiriting part of this feeling of intellectual inferiority, I started looking for ways to further analyze this Western belief, and then professor and literary critic Edward Said came to my aid. His famous concept of Orientalism teaches us that Western colonialists planted the idea that the East is primitive and needs rescuing, but not in the traditional sense; they need to be rescued intellectually.

Therefore, Orientalism can explain why Western media rarely quote famous Arab feminists, such as Nawal El Saadawi, who adamantly argues against wearing the hijab and supports the French ban on religious garments. Nawal gives a nuanced and complex analysis of the idea of choice, and how religion, with all its pressures, can prevent Muslim women from taking an independent choice. Be it political, economic, spiritual, or even the societal and state pressures, which she faces on a daily basis in Egypt—she was imprisoned multiple times for being a radical feminist.

Nawal has been dubbed the Simone de Beauvoir of the Arabic/Islamic world due to the sheer amount of research and work that she has done on the topic of women’s rights. In spite of this, she among other Muslim/Arab feminists, will continue to be excluded at worst and marginalized at best from the Western political discourse. This will continue as long as the political climate and discourse does not go beyond the subtle Orientalist thought, which prevents Westerners from achieving a successful cultural translation. It is about time to start thinking outside the box of liberal vs. conservative. This is where change happens.

Graphic by @spooky_soda

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