Criticisms against the headscarf in Arab societies stem from a standpoint that links this type of clothing to various institutional arrangements that strip a woman from her agency and power. In addition, the headscarf presents a case where certain assumptions are made about women, all of which put those women at an unequal footing with men.
One reservation raised by the headscarf critics6 is that the message sent by the veil, as a symbol, reaffirms the notion that the public space is owned by men.7 It is an acknowledgement on the part of women that they are entering into a sphere that is not theirs. If they happen to be in the public space, they become like guests who enter their host’s home and have to be respectful of their host’s domain. This is a reaffirmation on the part of women that their presence in the public domain is exceptional and temporary, though sometimes necessary. A woman who puts on the veil and enters the male domain would be sending a message that she is doing that because of a necessity. A woman who puts her veil and joins the workforce is acknowledging that she is entering into space that is not owned by her:
A woman is always trespassing in a male space because she is, by definition, foe. A woman has no right to use male spaces. If she enters them, she is upsetting the males order and his peace of mind. She is actually committing an act of aggression against him merely by being present where she should not be.8 (Mernissi, 2011, p. 158)
In her interesting analysis of the public and private space in early Islam, Mernissi argues that the Prophet actually made attempts to mesh the public and private spheres.9 The way he situated his dwellings (private space) adjacent to the mosque (public space) indicates that he was sending a message of blurring the distinctions to the nascent Muslim community. Yet, according to Mernissi, the forces of patriarchy did not just go away.
They insisted on a strict dichotomy based on male-dominated readings of the religious texts and of Islamic history. The implications of this have been detrimental to female participation.
According to those critics, when a religious understanding asserts that not only women should be veiled, but they also should be separated from men, this would effectively shut women out from public life. That’s why some Muslims scholars insist that the free intermingling of men and women—ikhtilat—(whether social or professional) is against Islamic doctrines and has to be avoided at all costs. A woman’s presence, if tolerated, should be a rare exception to the rule. Sometimes women’s presence in certain space within the bigger space is tolerated. This is the case in female- only parts of the public sphere, such as female schools and female-only businesses. In other cases, her presence is tolerated out of necessity. Female doctors and nurses in hospitals would be tolerated out of economic necessity, or out of the need to have female medical practitioners attending to the needs of female patients. Beyond those cases, a female entering the public sphere is going into a place that is not hers. According to such critics, some Muslim historic practices have reinforced this dichotomy.
It is in the public sphere where the decisions are made, and it is in the public sphere where the economy is developed. This sphere is one of influence, control, prestige, and decision-making.10 By excluding women from this space, they were stripped from all power, and accordingly lost control over their respective societies. Societies became a reflection ofmen’s aspirations, needs, and desires. This was exacerbated by the emergence of legal understandings, based on oblique readings of the holy texts, which further led to the marginalization of women. Those interpretations, mostly conducted by male religious authorities, have led to extreme readings of the holy texts which became embedded in the Muslim legal traditions.11 Those male jurists monopolized the understanding of the religious text, which is the Qur’an in the case of Muslims. Accordingly, there is a male-bias in such understandings. Attempts to have a feminist interpretation of religious texts are still very weak and ineffective.12
An example of such readings of the holy texts is the interpretation regarding the famous verse of hijab. Many interpretations of the scriptures assert that this verse ordered the community of believers to address the wives of the prophet from behind a hijab which means a physical screen. According to such perspective, this verse is specific to a group of individuals within a specific historical setting. An alternative reading of this verse asserts, however, that this verse has a universal message in regards to the necessity of secluding women from men. If the verse was directed at the purest individuals who lived at that time, the argument goes, then it also applicable to all Muslims in those contemporary “corrupt times.”
Qasim Amin13 (1865-1908), the famous Egyptian author and defender of women’s rights in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, was among the first to write about the problems associated with this thinking that led to deterioration of female education and participation. The societal impacts of seclusion are detrimental, not only to women, but also to the overall development of societies within which they live. Amin comments on the impact of this dichotomy, which led to the seclusion of women:
Despising the woman, a man imprisoned her in the house and boasted about her permanent restriction ... Despising the woman, a man secluded her from public life and kept her from involvement in anything except female or personal issues. A woman had no opinions on business, political movements, the arts, public affairs, or doctrinal issues. (p. 10)14
Linked to this perspective, Mernissi notes that the forces of patriarchy were actually troubled with women’s power. From that end, extreme understandings were put in place to control female power, embodied in the threat of her sexuality, and thus there was a need to control her. Social mechanisms including secluding her in the private space was one mechanism by which women could be controlled. This is contrary to other readings which assume that men in Arab societies perceived a woman to be weak and thus needs protection by keeping her at home. Not so, Mernissi would argue. It was actually the woman’s strengths that needed to be hidden, not her weaknesses.
Irrespective of whether seclusion and restricting women to the private sphere was out ofconcern for women to be protected or as means to control their innate strengths, the results were the same. By keeping them at home, they had little access to education and could not develop. Thus their chances ofpenetrating the public world ofmen became even more unlikely. Even when societal conditions change, women are not equipped to function properly in a men’s world. They are less educated, less skilled, and less sure of their powers. When they enter the public world of men, they are more likely to fail as they have been historically disadvantaged. Women’s failures thus further strengthen the argument that they do not belong to the public sphere. This argument is in line with recent studies which show that women’s organizational performance is usually closely scrutinized. It is evaluated more strictly and failures are ascribed to their gender, them being women in men’s domains. Other contributing factors are usually discounted.15