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.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.
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.
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.