I was thinking recently about what it was that could be moving Muslim feminists (and feminists from Muslim backgrounds) to support a ban on wearing the veil. It makes little sense to me, since doing so won’t actually change much, other than forcing those women who actually wear that thing voluntarily to basically run around more exposed than they’re comfortable with.
And then I started reading a bit about the Temperance Movement in the 19th century. It was pretty strong at first, mostly made up of various Christian ministers, but it usually faded out eventually. Except in the States, where it actually led to the 18th Amendment. A major role in this played the WCTU (Women’s Christian Temperance Union). Many feminists and women’s rights advocates, for example Susan B. Anthony, were part of that temperance movement, because alcohol abuse led to women abuse in many cases.
Now I’m thinking that the two might be very much related. The temperance movement basically latched onto alcohol as the visible manifestation of many societal problems of the 19th century. Temperance advocates saw people drinking themselves into poverty, people committing crimes when drunk, men abusing their wives and children when drunk, etc., and decided that alcohol needed to go. However, the alcohol abuse was for the most part a symptom of other systemic problems, ones not nearly as easily identifiable or fixable, because they usually didn’t have single-point causes. To truly get what they wanted, the members of the Temperance Movement would have to lobby for a total overhaul of society as it existed at the time, with greatly improved working conditions, social welfare, laws protecting women from their own husbands, etc. And certainly, many of them did so; but Prohibition was a neater, easier defined, and evidently more easily achievable goal, maybe a sort of symbol of being able to achieve what they were fighting for.
It seems to me that this battle to ban the veil might come out of similar dynamics: it certainly is a very clear and visible symbol of what’s wrong with the strongly patriarchal Muslim culture, and just like alcohol wasn’t the cause of poverty and abuse, so the veil isn’t the cause of the suppression of women. But it’s a part of it, and making such a boldly visible step to make it go away might well be a symbol for the much more complex, difficult and long-term fights over actual, structural changes in Muslim society that will be necessary to end the horrible mistreatment of women.
And I’m afraid that another parallel is that it will be similarly useless. Banning symptoms doesn’t achieve anything at all, and merely drives it underground where it cannot be addressed at all, and where it may create even more problems.
But I can understand the need for visible, symbolic victories for the morale and motivation of those fighting the long battles. I’m still opposed to these bans (especially since feminism isn’t the only motivation for them: racism and xenophobia play a far more significant role in getting these bans passed!), but I think I’m starting to understand where this irrational desire for them may be coming from. I wish they’d find a better symbol of their fight, though…