Gender Studies

Rethinking Muslim Women and the Veil: Challenging Historical and Modern Stereotypes

Katherine Bullock, London: IIIT, 2002. 320 pages.

Much has been written about Muslim women, dress, hijabs, veils, and, more recently, burqas. Bullock’s book, based on her doctoral work with 16 Muslim women in Canada, critically examines the western media’s representations and perceptions of the veil. What perhaps marks this book as different from many others focusing on the “ubiquitous veil” is not just that Bullock converted to Islam during the course of her study, but her embeddedness in the material as she describes her conversion and adoption of the hijab. Her personal responses to much western journalistic writing is reflected in her clear frustration at the almost overwhelming refusal of western commentators to acknowledge and respect the concept of choice Muslim women make when regarding dress. As Algerian sociologist Marnia Lazreg noted in 1988, Muslim women are denied the authority to define their own lives by having to satisfy frames of reference dictated and inserted by “Outsiders.”

This theme surfaces throughout the book, which seeks to challenge “the popular western stereotype that the veil is oppressive” and to stress the multiple meanings and heterogeneity behind Muslim women’s choices in covering. Bullock argues that such misconceptions are social constructions that do not necessarily reflect the lives of those under discussion. She carefully avoids generalizing and presenting an overly positive angle on Muslim women’s lived experiences. She acknowledges that for some Muslim women, in certain sociopolitical and historical contexts, enforced veiling is a reality. Thus marked by an absence of choice and the denial of basic rights, the veil can symbolize oppression. The Taliban’s restrictions on women are presented as a prime example.

Bullock differentiates between populist views on Muslim women and clothing practices and those of western or westernized feminists. She argues two main schools of thought. The first comprises feminists who believe and stress that religions like Islam are patriarchal, and therefore are inherently oppressive toward women and deny them opportunities for “true” liberation. This school of thought, which Bullock calls “liberal feminism,” remains suspicious of arguments advanced by Muslim women who speak positively of their faith and their choices to cover, believing them to be inflicted with a form of “false consciousness.”

In contrast, the “contextual approach,” based in historical and anthropological methodologies, focuses on seeking to understand social practices from the subject’s point of view and considering localized cultures, practices, and socioeconomic factors. This perspective, advocated by Bullock, tries to avoid imposing western explanatory categories onto the lives of nonwestern women and presenting religion as an overly deterministic feature in Muslim women’s lives. Bullock argues that some committed Muslims also reproduce this feature at the expense of recognizing the distinction between the real oppression experienced by some women and the emancipatory spirit within the Islamic texts. This acknowledged distinction between Islam as the faith and Muslims as the flawed practitioners of that faith marks Bullock’s contribution to the literature.

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