Monday, July 6, 2015

Empowerment and the Veil

T.M. Luhrman looks into the appeal of choosing submission for religious women:
The act of submission, when consciously chosen, can feel empowering, and even politically empowering. Anthropologists have seen these dynamics among Muslim women. In the 1990s, when young women in Java increasingly chose to wear veils, despite the harassment and mockery of others, the anthropologist Suzanne A. Brenner set out to understand why. She found that they saw themselves as activists: as people who were creating a new social order, free of the corruption of the West. They saw themselves as modern but godly. Choosing to submit to Islamic law made them feel powerful, independent and effective. It gave them a sense of control.

The anthropologist Saba Mahmood made a similar argument about newly observant women in Cairo. Their decision to wear the veil and become more observant, in a religion in which some women appeared to be subordinate, made them feel that they were involved with creating a new society, transforming it from within.
One of the checkers in my grocery store is a Turkish immigrant about my own age. During Ramadan a couple of years ago she started wearing a headscarf to work, and I asked her, "Is that for Ramadan?" She said, "No. it's for life. One day I just decided to do it and it feels right." She is still wearing it every day.

To the Enlightenment mind this is illogical mush -- in the Enlightened tradition freedom means casting away rules imposed by others, and western feminism is very much a part of the Enlightenment. But choosing to give up freedom is an ancient idea much praised by many spiritual thinkers across the world's traditions, from Confucius to crazy ascetic monks. The problem with the Enlightenment's pursuit of self-actualization has always been that it just doesn't work for many people. For them, the call to cast off all arbitrary limits leads to anxiety and hopelessness. Advocates of radical freedom have long blamed this anxiety on some particular problem, especially bringing up children in the wrong way. (E.g., with "conditional" rather than "unconditional" love, or without sufficient freedom to explore.) But evidence for such theories is weak at best. The desire to belong, to be enfolded in something powerful and meaningful, to be assigned a role within a great cosmic or societal drama, is for many something far more powerful and real than just being yourself.

8 comments:

David said...

And yet Luhrman's point and the point of the women she's talking about seems to be that veiling and suchlike entail an assertion of self and individuality, not their suppression. Nor is the assertion of self in these cases merely a curious sort of freedom-in-submission. It seems rather to involve rebellion against social pressure and assertion of self over against other people. In fact, religious enthusiasm has often been an expression, not of conformity, but of rebellion: St. Francis and St. Clare, and similar medieval saints, are classic examples. Yes, Francis and others submitted to church discipline (agreeing to rules for their orders, and so forth), but the submission was basically conditional on the maintenance of the purity of the religious vision, which owed little to authority and had a lot to do with a vivid and rather literal-minded connection between the individual self and God.

Perhaps it is worth remembering also that Enlightenment thinkers, when they talked about individuality, often had in mind the theory that people would all choose more or less the same things--and that that these things would, in fact, be precisely the things that Enlightenment thinkers wanted them to choose--if you gave them the opportunity.

David said...

Thinking further, one could add that the Enlightenment, to the extent that it is expressed in the institutional forms of modern western education, also implies its own freedom-in-submission: you submit to the instructor and do the work they tell you, and this is supposed to lead to a greater expression of self in the form of articulate written arguments, laboratory experiment reports, and so on. This is one of the many basically monastic aspects of the current educational and professional system.

John said...

I agree absolutely that the work of someone like John Stuart Mill is based on the notion that free, empowered people would choose to be middle class Victorians -- that they might want to become gangsters or Nazis or monks seems not to have occurred to him.

John said...

Education creates strong paradoxes that I have struggled over with my sons. I think that going to a good college greatly freed my own mind, but it did require years of subjection to the educational system. I suppose that is exactly parallel to what some monastic traditions teach. My sons don't see any reward at the end worth the short-term subjection to school, so they reject that route.

John said...

The great critique of freedom made ever since the 18th century has been that if people were truly free they would be drunken layabouts convinced that someone else ought to feed them, house them, and solve the world's problems. Only the discipline imposed by rigorous, demanding institutions, starting with the patriarchal family, can create the citizens society needs to flourish. Sometimes I worry that there is some truth in this.

Meanwhile I note that some of our contemporaries, especially conservative Catholics, are worried that the freedom not to have children will lead to the slow disappearance of the species. Which strikes me as a very distant prospect, but anyway that's what they say.

David said...

I would agree there is "some truth" in the arguments of the stern-path-of-duty types who advocate discipline imposed by institutions. A problem with it is that it seems quite possible that, while freedom leads some to be layabouts, others find hard work, at least in the service of aspiration and ladder-climbing, quite congenial. The result is that it often seems that discipline-imposing institutions exist less to supply society's straightforward material needs, than to provide a lightening rod for the resentment between the aggressive and insistent, on the one hand, and the drunken layabouts, on the other.

G. Verloren said...

It's an old psychological response - the truly powerless crave any scrap of control, and so even the act of submitting to the will of others can feel empowering, because it is chosen "willingly".

In my youth, I was quite familiar with the notion, as I was always being made to conform in ways that struck my precocious mind as logically absurd or simply unfair. When forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in school, I at first would simply stand, place my hand on my collar bone, and not speak. Among the crowd, I went unnoticed.

Eventually this was discovered and I was punished, with the promise of more if I did not comply. So I took it upon myself to learn the pledge in German over the weekend, and when made to recite it, took great joy in the shock and confusion it sparked. Unsurprisingly this choice of language was deemed unacceptable, as "This is not Germany", to which I glibly responded that "Yes, unlike Germany we don't have an official language." Predictably I was punished again.

This sort of thing went on for awhile - I kept coming up with different ways to comform to the letter of the law while flaunting the spirit, finding new subtle ways to adapt every time the goalposts were moved and the rules made more specific and exacting.

I tried explaining my situation through reason - that I was not a patriot or a nationalist, and I did not offer my allegiance to any flag; that I was attending a school in order to learn, not a political rally in order to help create propaganda; that it is inherently absurd to forcibly exact a pledge of allegiance which is meant to be voluntary; - my arguments were, naturally, ignored.

All that mattered in the end was that I comply to the demand of creating the correct series of movements and vocalizations. The meaning behind them didn't matter. My intention didn't matter. And so eventually, tired of the whole ridiculous farce dragging on despite all logic, I just started muttering the proper sounds while internally shouting my defiance in the expanses of my mind. The school year ended after awhile, and the next year we were no longer required to perform the pledge, and I haven't spoken the words since.

In the end, I suppose they won - they got me to submit, despite my wishes not to, and that was all they really wanted. Their punishments got too taxing to bear; they made resisting too difficult to be worth it. It came to a point where it was simply easier for me to resist silently than vocally - to give the appearance of acceptance when all they had truly earned was my obedience.

But when you are powerless, what other options do you have? You can't win, so it comes down to three choices. Submit willingly, resist openly, or straddle the line.

pootrsox said...

"G. Verloren said...

It's an old psychological response - the truly powerless crave any scrap of control, and so even the act of submitting to the will of others can feel empowering, because it is chosen "willingly"."

Perhaps because I cannot imagine voluntarily accepting the assorted limitations on women that are part of Islamic practice-- but I find this explanation far more satisfying than "it frees me."

Also, your story re the Pledge is brilliant!