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Transcript - Beyond the Veil

Middle Eastern Woman wearing a veil

 

On this episode of History Talk, guests Johanna Sellman, Gulsah Toronoglu, and Sabra Webber discuss the diverse and dynamic history of women in the Middle East and North Africa. Highlighting the region's great range of historical experiences, they question the idea that women's rights marks a divide between Islamic societies and the "West," explore the history of women's movements, and address the ways in which the flourishing of new media is transforming political and artistic expression throughout the Islamic world.

[Listen to the podcast here.]

Transcript Begins Here:

Mark Sokolsky 
Welcome to History Talk, the podcast that brings together a panel of experts to discuss current events in historical perspective. I'm your host, Mark Sokolsky. When Western media turns its attention to the Middle East and North Africa, the question of women's rights frequently comes to the fore. And generally the overall impression is one that glosses over differences and complexities, and ignores the region's long and fascinating history. Today on History Talk, we're joined by three experts, Johanna Sellman, Gulsah Toronoglu, and Sabra Webber, who will help us dig deeper into the history of women in the Middle East. We'll discuss how women's status and role in public life varies and examine how this diverse and dynamic world is changing today.

Sabra Webber 
Hi, I'm Sabra Webber, and I'm a specialist in cultural anthropology and folklore, and concentrate especially on North Africa.

Johanna Sellman 
Hi, my name is Johanna Sellman. I'm a specialist in comparative literature and modern Arabic literature. And I'm Middle East Studies librarian here at OSU.

Gulsah Toronoglu 
Hi, I'm Gulsah Toronoglu. I'm a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at the Ohio State University.

Mark Sokolsky 
At least in the West, it's often believed that one of the greatest differences between Western and Middle Eastern societies is the role and opportunities for women. Would you agree that one of the primary divisions between the Middle East and the "West" concerns gender, the treatment of women, and the place of women in society more broadly, and Gulsah, maybe we'll throw this question to you first?

Gulsah Toronoglu 
Thank you for the question, Mark. I think such divisions can be very arbitrary. So rather than maybe the reference to the dichotomies of East and West, traditional/modern, religious/secular, Western/indigenous, we need to evaluate the various manifestations of maybe democracies, secularism, and religion, and their implications for the treatment of women, and the place of women in society. I just want to give you an example. In 2010, the National Assembly and the Senate of France passed an act prohibiting the concealment of face in public space. So this ban applies to burka, which is a full-body covering, and it applies to niqab and other veils covering the face in public spaces. Actually, it also applies to motorcycle masks and helmets, so anything that covers your face then applies to that. And there was another French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools, and that law banned varying Islamic veiling and headscarves in schools. And obviously the law was taken to the European Court of Human Rights, which upheld the French law in 2014 and accepted French government's argument that the law was based on a certain idea of living together. As you can imagine, most parts meet with sponsors, but proponents of the laws prizes gender equality and women's emancipation as their primary goal. I mean, some of them, some of the Islamic women that I talked to in Egypt, even, they find scholarly obsession with veil not only insulting but patronizing. So the dilemma that we were talking about, East and West, is really ironic. You can see that Sarkozy says, "Veil denies woman's personhood." And other Muslim woman says, "No, veil defines my personhood."

Mark Sokolsky 
Okay, great, thanks Gulsah. Sabra or Johanna, would you like to jump in here?

Johanna Sellman 
Sure. I think one thing when we get these...certainly the idea of women being kind of at the center of the fault line between the so-called "East" and so-called "West," I think it's important for us to problematize this notion and also place it in its proper history with the Middle East, such as women's opportunities to work or to participate in public and political life. They're not very far from up here in the so-called "West," either, if we think about women's access to the public space here in the United States, or in Europe, women's ability to own property, participate in public life. So I think many of the assumptions that people are making when they talk about women and the West are predicated upon a pretty recent experience of women having certain opportunities, and certainly, many of the challenges remain with us here in the so-called "West" today as well. And I think it's also important to remember that many of the, Gulsah mentioned the practice of veiling, so many of the practices that are associated with women in Islam, these are practices that were not originally Islamic, but part of regional practices, part of the Christian, Zoroastrian practices of secluding women and veiling women and they were adopted as Islam spread around the region. And I think it's also important to remember that, probably for a, you know, it's hard to generalize across space and time, but probably for the better part of Islamic history, women had comparable or probably better opportunities in the Middle East and in the Islamic world than women in Europe, especially in regard to property rights.

Mark Sokolsky 
You mentioned adoption of certain practices prevalent among Zoroastrianism and Christianity.

Johanna Sellman 
Right.

Mark Sokolsky 
When are we talking, like sort of eighth, ninth century or -?

Johanna Sellman 
Right, so early. So I'm not a historian of the medieval period, but I know that a lot of the veiling, for example, veiling and seclusion was practiced in the Christian communities of that period. When Arabs conquered the area of Persia, they incorporated a lot of the traditions that were prevalent in that area, including certain types of veiling and seclusion of women that were not as prevalent, as I understand it, in Arabia.

Sabra Webber 
Right, and don't forget the Greeks. The early Greeks had veiling. The women were veiled, the upper-class women. It was a class issue, and also Egyptian women back in that day did not veil. So as Johanna said, I'm just trying to echo what she's already said that the veil itself was a pre-Islamic practice.

Mark Sokolsky 
While we're on the subject of the veil, was the veil a touchstone for women's rights in the Middle East at any point, or is this something that outsiders have sort of imposed on the region as a kind of mark of distinction?

Sabra Webber 
For some women, it was a touchstone, but I mean, I think this gets us into the whole issue of, again, that was already mentioned by my colleagues here, that there's so much diversity in terms of how women's rights are perceived in the Middle East, not just among countries, but within countries. Leila Abouzeid has a nice quote, she's a novelist in Morocco, she says, "Diversity and attitude, strategy and dress." I mean, some people, there's one quote that I read, I unfortunately can't remember who said it, but she said, "My veil does not suck my brains out of my head." So similarly, in Atatürk's Turkey, there was a time when men were not expected to wear hats with brims, which then worked against their ability to pray, to touch their head to the ground. So it wasn't just women, it's just that women somehow seem to take on the brunt of being representative of either nations or religions, and not just obviously in the Middle East, but also here in the United States, so.

Johanna Sellman 
Right, and I think you can look to certain historical context, when the act of putting on the veil was an act of resistance, for example, during the Iranian Revolution, when some women who were on the leftist side adopted the veil in order to signal their opposition to the Shah. So I think it's always, when you're talking about the veil, it's always important to look at the context and see what the veil is signifying in that context.

Mark Sokolsky 
And Sabra, I wonder if I could ask you about the Maghreb and your experiences there. Does this come into play at all in what you saw, witnessed in that part of the world?

Sabra Webber 
Thank you for asking about the Maghreb. My personal experience in the Maghreb has been mostly in Tunisia. As a cultural anthropologist, I lived with a family over many years starting in 1967, a Muslim family. I saw many changes during that time in applications of the veil, which is called safseri, the traditional veil in Tunisia. At the time I got there, it was not too long after independence. So then we saw that the younger generation were all going to school, boys and girls were going to school together. The girls no longer were putting on the veil, except maybe in the far countryside. It was not common at all. It waxes and wanes. So your question about Egypt in 1919, when the Egyptian women were helping with the resistance against the United Kingdom, they took off their veils at one point and threw them in the Mediterranean, as a gesture towards a new kind of Egypt. So and then, later on, you see many Egyptian women putting veils back on, of some kind of covering back on, of one sort or another.

Mark Sokolsky 
In Algeria, was it a sign of resistance against the French to wear the veil?

Sabra Webber 
Well, in Algeria, the women were extremely active in the resistance to the French. So sometimes they wore the veil so that they could smuggle weapons of one sort or another. Sometimes they took off the veil so that they would be disguised as French women.

Gulsah Toronoglu 
Yeah, just to quickly add to that, in Turkey, the headscarf issue has been a problem since the Kemalist reforms, because Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, he had banned veiling early on with the constitution of 1924. And later, this has become a problem for women who wanted to receive education, but are not admitted to university buildings because they are wearing a headscarf. In 1968, a public university student refused to remove her scarf in university buildings, and a lot of Turkish students, female students, they were banned from universities for wearing a headscarf, which kind of resulted in enrolling in religious schools so that they can wear their headscarf. And in 1999, for example, one of the representatives was prevented from taking her oath in the Turkish National Assembly, because she was wearing a headscarf and this problem's persistence have continued since lately. And there were a lot of attempts at lifting the ban, and more liberal progressives also contributed to the discussions, and they argued that veiling and headscarves should be lifted, so that everyone should have equal opportunity for education.

Mark Sokolsky 
Just given all of this diversity across different parts of the Middle East and North Africa. would you say that it even makes sense to talk about Islam as the, or one of the, decisive factors in shaping the place of women in these societies? For example, how is it that in Pakistan, which is not the Middle East but we'll include it here, women can be prime minister, but in Saudi Arabia, women can't drive cars? How do we explain this difference?

Sabra Webber 
I guess I'll try a little bit and then see what my colleagues have to say. But I think that, of course, Islam, for anybody that is a practicing, serious Muslim, it does make a difference what you think your religion is expecting of you. But if you again, if you even turn back to the quote that I mentioned about, "Diversity and attitude, strategy and dress," that also goes for Muslim women, there's so many different ways that they interpret what their religious duties are. Or if they are, if you think about Christianity here in the West, how religious are you? So when you talk about someone being the president of a country, and being a Muslim, I mean, I think I would venture to say that in some areas in the Middle East, at least in Lebanon, for example, more than 50% of the doctors and the engineers in Lebanon at one point, in the late 1900s, more than 50% were women doctors, and that's more than here. In Morocco, 20% of the judges are women. These figures may change rapidly, but if someone wanted to do some research, to how many women serve in the Egyptian parliament, for example, that has been sometimes more than are serving in our legislatures here.

Johanna Sellman 
Right. And I think that there's a lot to say about this, I'm thinking of the example of women not driving in Saudi Arabia, I mean, the Gulf countries are often held up as the countries with the area of where women maybe face perhaps the most challenges, but in terms of segregation and access to public life, at the same time, the fact that there has been relatively strict segregation between men and women has meant that there have been a lot of opportunities for employment for women within women's spaces as teachers or doctors or various professions, and I should say outside of those professions as well. If we look at the past 30, 40 years or so, and think about why has Islam played such a central role now. I think it's really important to look at the perception of the failure of the secular state projects, especially in the Arab world, and the resurgence of Islamist movements. And Islamism, in all its forms, is kind of a remedy for society, a way to move forward after seeing that many of these Arab nationalism and many of these regimes have failed to provide economic development and democracy. And so if we look at the past 30 years or so, certainly after 1967, in the Arab world, and the expansion of Islamists movements, that's the way that we're looking at...talking about women in Islam these days has a lot to do with the perception that the secular state has failed.

Gulsah Toronoglu 
Right now, it's very difficult to define what Islam is. I mean, you're talking about Islamic religion, Islamic feminism, Islamic activism, radical Islam, and all of that, but we cannot define what Islam is. So I think, first, we need to be clear about these terms, how we use these terms, because at the core of this debate is Islamic law, which is Shari'a, which is more of a reference system for law than a complete and closed system of commandments. So there are a lot of room for interpretation of religious knowledge, there's a lot of room for interpretation of personal status laws. And this directly affects women's status in society.

Sabra Webber 
Just in terms of the Shari'a law, how much of it is applied in different places, in different countries, is really something that people should look at too, because, for example, Tunisia and Turkey, and to a certain extent, Morocco, they've done a lot of revisions in the area of family law. So things that have to do with divorce, that have to do with child custody, I don't think really, they're any more positive or negative or complex than the kinds of laws that people here go through, or have to navigate when they're getting a divorce or worried about child custody. I think it's in both cases, I don't think that anybody could come up with a good solution, really.

Johanna Sellman 
And I just wanted to mention too that in different countries in the Middle East, states have often used family codes and laws pertaining to women in order to bolster their own legitimacy. And if we look at Iraq, for example, Iraq in the 1950s had a very progressive family code and laws relating to marriage and divorce and inheritance and so on for women. And in 1991, of course, after the Gulf War, when Iraq lost the war trying to get with Kuwait, there was a crisis of legitimacy. And one of the things that the Iraqi government did then was drastically change the family code in order to appease Islamist movements within Iraq.

Mark Sokolsky 
Now, did the women's movement play a major role in the secularism of the middle of the twentieth century in the Arab states or in Turkey? Or was it something, as you say, something that leaders use to sort of buttress legitimacy?

Johanna Sellman 
So I think it's a very, very complex question. I think yes and no. One of the challenges that women's movements have, and women in general, I think, have faced in the Middle East, has been the kind of state coaptation of women's movements, what you might call state feminism. Ellen Fleischmann, who's at Dayton University, talks about this in her book, where she kind of categorizes three stages of a women's movement in the Middle East, kind of early twentieth century beginning with what she calls an awakening, which is kind of both women and men starting to question the role of women, traditional roles of women in society. And then that moves into more of a nationalist discourse, where the liberation of women is connected to the liberation of the nation. And then she defines the third stage as basically a coaptation of the state of women's movement in the formation of different kinds of states. State feminism's kind of in the mid-twentieth century, there is also this history of, say in Iraq and Syria, for example, and the Maghreb, of the states appropriating women's movements and making them only accessible to certain women, maybe upper-class women, and also affiliating them with these more or less autocratic regimes.

Gulsah Toronoglu 
Just to give an example from Egypt, feminism in Egypt, Nasser encouraged females working outside the home for ages and offered them great educational opportunities. Literally, the number of girls enrolled in primary and high schools rose rapidly and numerous literacy rates increased. And at the same time, you can see that the regime promulgated new progressive labor laws, getting legal rights and special protections working with them, including health care, paid maternity leave, and childcare services. Atatürk's, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's feminism is also adopted as state feminism in Turkey, and it's criticized, because they were autocratic. But I mean I think state feminism worked for both Egypt and Turkey. I mean you can see the fruits. We can see, I mean, this present day, status of women in both countries are a great example to that.

Mark Sokolsky 
How does the role of women in nationalism, in Arab or Turkish nationalism, compare to their role during the Arab Spring over the past five years or so?

Sabra Webber 
Well, depending on their age, they're involved in different ways, okay, so that the older generation tends to concentrate more on chants or songs or poetry and so forth, whereas the younger generation is much more able to use YouTube and actually expose different kinds of things that are going on to the world through YouTube and also through various kinds of blogs online. For example, during the invasion of Iraq by the United States, there was a woman blogging, an Iraqi woman blogging, her blog name was River Band, if anybody wants to look up her blog. I just want to emphasize that women sometimes join up with people who are of the same political mind as they are, and cleverly resist in ways that are not necessarily at all violent, that are actually more expressive and cultural. As a folklorist, I guess I can bring in some of the ways that women forever have resisted taking a certain place in their culture than they are supposed to inhabit. Look at any women folk tales, any Arab world folk tales, but look at the women are strong. The women travel everywhere, the women choose their husbands, the women are oftentimes smarter than the men. And this is nothing new. I mean, I think that's why, when the young girls started being able to go to school, why they were ready already.

Mark Sokolsky 
Looking forward, in what ways do you think women's roles are changing in the Middle East right now, in the wake of the Arab Spring, the proliferation of social media, and so on? Johanna, maybe I could throw this to you?

Johanna Sellman 
I think, especially if we look at the Arab world right now, obviously, post the Arab Spring, there's a lot of conflict. And we know whenever you have violent conflict and war, anywhere that takes place, that poses particular challenges for women, as often not being the main combatants, but usually being profoundly affected by the war and the wars and the violence. Also, on the one hand, right now, it's a very challenging time for a lot of women. And on the other hand, I think it's also a time where we're seeing a really interesting thing happening in terms of women's expression and women's movements. Looking at Arabic literature, for example, right now, this is the time of like flourishing of women's literature right now, especially from the 1990s and onward. And then the access to information that we have and the access to putting ideas out there is just kind of unprecedented right now. So I think it's a very interesting time for women connecting with each other and getting their ideas out, either in the forms of literature or art.

Sabra Webber 
I think Johanna said it very well, I just think I'd like to emphasize, because we talked earlier a little bit, or Johanna did about class, I think that this new access to the new media is really important for allowing in a very, very widespread access to autonomous voice, that people now have a voice who did not have a voice before, that either had to speak through someone like me, as a cultural anthropologist, and I say what they said, Now, they're right there in front and center. They can do a YouTube; they can do a blog.

Gulsah Toronoglu 
Yeah, just to add to that last question, during the revolution, they have new forms of women's rights activism that emerged. And we see that there are new alliances that are formed among different women's rights groups. So one of them is called the Coalition of Feminist Organizations in Egypt, which was established in 2011. And this is composed of 16 feminist groups at the beginning, and then the number rose at different occasions. So the Coalition of Feminist Organizations, composed of 16 groups, and this is a really remarkable and very exciting thing that happened during the Iraqi revolution, because we see that different feminist groups are coming together, and they sit together to discuss their problems. It provided a platform to them, but at the same time, it just made their differences more clear. For example, then they discuss the personal status law or how are we going to reform the personal status law, they cannot always agree. So they sometimes say, "Do we take human rights and/or non-religious humanism as a point of reference, then maybe follow the personal status law. Or do we take Islam as a potential difference?" So the quote from wives is usually a combination of human rights and enlightened interpretation of religion. So, I mean, there's some exciting things that are happening among the women's rights organizations, new alliances, new forms of women's rights activism, but at the same time, we see that some old debates about religion, it just comes to surface again.

Mark Sokolsky 
But we better wrap it up there. Our guests today have been Johanna Sellman, assistant professor and Middle East librarian at Ohio State University, Gulsah Toronoglu, PhD candidate in Middle Eastern Islamic history at OSU, and Sabra Webber, professor of cultural anthropology and folklore here at OSU. Thanks, everyone.

Sabra Webber 
Thank you.

Johanna Sellman 
Thank you.

Patrick Potyondy 
This edition of the Origins podcast, History Talk, was brought to you by the Public History Initiative and the Goldberg Center and history department at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Our main editors are Steven Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our executive producer is David Staley. Our audio technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer. Our audio producers and hosts are Patrick Potyondy and Mark Sokolsky. Song and band information can be found on our website. You can find our podcasts and more at origins.osu.edu, on iTunes, and on SoundCloud, and as always, you can find us on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. Thank you for listening.