anjum has been writing about agency with respect to Muslim women in particular, but also in respect of all women in minority ethnic groups: We’re quite capable of speaking for ourselves, imperial feminism, dodging bullets. Apropos of that, here is a challenge I’ve given my students, something which seems to have rattled some of them a little, especially those of them who felt that we (whoever “we” is) ought to be very worried about the various forms of veiling that many Muslim women wear, and should be doing something about it.
Turn it around, I say to them. Imagine what a newcomer to Australia or New Zealand, or indeed any other Western nation, might say about the practices we force on women here. Women have to get the hair waxed off their legs, they must wear make-up and straighten their hair, when they’re at work they have to wear shoes that make their feet ache and can result in long term damage to their legs and hips, and there are some foods they’re not supposed to eat, so that they can keep their weight down. Sure, they can “choose” not to do these things, but if they don’t, then they will be criticised, sometimes quite severely. There are no formal rules about these practices, but all the women understand that this is what they must do, and if they don’t, they will pay the price.
Then I say to them, how would you feel if the newcomer decides that she will do her best to rescue Western women, to work hard to liberate Western women from these practices, because it’s clear that they need rescuing.
I’ve had a few stunned silences in my tutorials when I’ve put it that way. And in other places. Including in myself.