Jonathan Lyons on Islam and Women

Jonathan Lyons, Islam Through Western Eyes

The Bush administration adopted and perpetuated the established discourse of Islam and women for the benefit of specific Western interests—in this case, the military occupation and political and economic domination of Muslim societies…. Bush and his fellow social conservatives were able to obscure their own opposition to women’s advancement at home by contrasting the freedoms of Western women with those of women suffering under Islam.”—Jonathan Lyons, Islam Through Western Eyes

In his book Islam Through Western Eyes: From the Crusades to the War on Terrorism, Jonthan Lyons examines Western, frequently misguided views on Islam. In the chapter on Islam and women, Lyons “traces the emergence of th[e] discourse of Islam and women from within the greater anti-Islam narrative, commencing with the Enlightenment and progressing to the war on terrorism.” This discourse, Lyons argues, has been used to further various political and ideological agendas.

Lyons concludes the chapter by examining how in recent years, the West, particularly the media, has looked to the veil and women’s sexuality as a kind of barometer of progress and modernity. Here is an excerpt from the chapter:

This narrative of the veil, sexuality, and Western notions of modernity and progress reaches its height, however, whenever the subject is postrevolutionary Iran. Since the victory over the U.S.-backed shah in 1979 and the creation of the Islamic Republic, Iranian women have been required to veil in public. In the early years, dress requirements were extremely strict—no hair showing, no makeup or nail polish, no open-toe shoes, and so on—and at times brutally enforced by religious vigilantes. These practices have been relaxed significantly in recent years, and some middle-class and upper-class urban women now adopt colorful and personal expressions of the hijab that do little to disguise the figure or fully cover the hair.

Both the official line and public opinion toward this dress code have a complex and nuanced history (Abdo and Lyons 2003), but the Western media have universally seen and shown it as a reliable barometer of progress or lack thereof by secular civil society at the expense of the ruling religious establishment. In this schema, then, the more lipstick and hair visible to visiting foreign correspondents, the less secure the conservatives’ grip on power and the better the chances of popular revolt against the Islamic system.

Back from a reporting trip to the southern Iranian city of Shiraz in the spring of 2004, Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times, concludes in “Those Sexy Iranians” that the transformation of the veil from shapeless, basic black to “light, tight, and sensual” marks the beginning of the end for the ruling clerics and their despotic regime. His troll through the city’s shops revealed new consumer demand for robes slit up to the armpits or tied to the legs to show off the curve of the hip. “Worse, from the point of view of hard-line mullahs, young women in such clothing aren’t getting 74 lashes any more—they’re getting dates,” he writes. Kristof then waves off objections from fashionable Iranian women who oppose Westernization—“We totally reject that,” says one. “We don’t want that freedom”—to assert that a style revolution profoundly threatens the Islamic Revolution. “Ayatollahs, look out,” he concludes

This transposition of the material and the discursive, of the actual and the imagined Muslim East, clouds our ability to understand cultures other than our own, just as it hinders our ability to formulate appropriate and successful policies and responses to the inevitable conflict of interests in today’s globalized world. It also reveals the extent to which legitimate questions of history, economics, and politics are set aside whenever it comes to Western views of the Muslim world. Instead, questions of culture trump all. Assessing this phenomenon after the start of the Afghan War, Lila Abu-Lughod notes: “There was a consistent resort to the cultural, as if knowing something about women and Islam or the meaning of a religious ritual would help one understand the tragic attack on New York’s World Trade Center and the U.S. Pentagon” (2002:784).

The same confusion hopelessly entangled Karen Hughes, Bush’s envoy to the Muslim women of the world, when the powerful undersecretary of state mistook her imagined East for the one now staring her in the face. At a meeting with professional and university women in Saudi Arabia, Hughes (2005) was surprised to find that American notions of freedom and social participation were not necessarily shared, universal values: “We in America take our freedom very seriously. . . . I have to tell you that—and I believe that women should be full and equal participants in society. And I feel as an American woman that my ability to drive is an important part of my freedom.”

Members of her Saudi audience, prohibited from driving by the country’s strict social regime, were less than impressed. To these women, the educational opportunities and professional advancement they clearly enjoyed were far more important and relevant to their lives. Nor were they impressed by Hughes’s repeated attempts to present herself as an ordinary “mom”—a notion that struck many as odd or simply irrelevant. Similar debacles occurred before Muslim women in both Turkey and Egypt, and even some reporters in the traditionally sympathetic American media were withering in their reporting of Hughes’s mission. What is crucial here is not that the worldview of any one government official should be shaped by life in suburban Texas, with its driving culture and “soccer moms,” but that the combined resources of the White House—the State and Defense Departments with their legions of consultants, public-relations advisers, Islam experts, and envoys—could not foresee the coming train wreck

Instead, the Bush administration adopted and perpetuated the established discourse of Islam and women for the benefit of specific Western interests—in this case, the military occupation and political and economic domination of Muslim societies. By casting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as wars for the liberation of Muslim women from the veil and other social restrictions, the administration both invoked this discourse and advanced it in new directions. At the same time, Bush and his fellow social conservatives were able to obscure their own opposition to women’s advancement at home by contrasting the freedoms of Western women with those of women suffering under Islam.

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