Women’s Agency and False Consciousness

A question that is often addressed to feminists on either side (secular and Islamic) is where would we draw the line between a woman’s agency (which assumes that she has the right, as an autonomous human being, to make her decision and indeed decide to put on the veil or not), and her false consciousness (which assumes that such sense of agency is in fact a reflection of deceitful awareness). Under the later situation, forces of patriarchy, socialization, and powerful institutional arrangements strip women from genuine autonomy. Under a false consciousness context, women are argued to make decisions that are against their own self-interest.

Commenting on such arguments, Charusheela discusses a tension between two values, one of autonomy and the other of equality.36 Equality between men and women is a desired outcome. Yet what would happen when women choose to make decisions or display behaviors that make them unequal to men?

What do we do when women, in asserting their right to autonomy of cultural identity and national self-determination, do not attack a social construction of gender we deem patriarchal, nor seek to replace it with notions of human autonomy or choice that we consider marks of female emancipation?37 (p. 199)

According to certain strands in Western feminism, including some aligned with Arab secular feminism, women are sorted into two groups: those who suffer from “internalized oppression,” “false consciousness,” or “deceitful awareness,” and those who have “genuine autonomy.” Under this categorization, there is no real world where women can genuinely make choices that lead to unequal outcomes with men. When women make such choices, they are not being authentically agentic or autonomous. They would be suffering from the effect of outside forces that alter their consciousness about what they need to do as autonomous human beings. Such women end up suffering from “internalized oppression.”

Under this perspective, all third-world feminisms (including Islamic feminism for that matter) would have a problem of legitimacy if they do not challenge the status quo of their societies in a manner that aligns with Western conceptions offemale emancipation. Under such an understanding “non-Western feminism is an oxymoron... One cannot be both a feminist and a critic of Western ethnocentrism and orientalism.”38

In invoking the false consciousness argument, as far as Muslim women are concerned, critics may end up enslaving the same women they aim to emancipate. Real freedom becomes the one configured for oriental women by Western feminists. “Those veiled oriental women have no agency of their own, and when they declare they are choosing, they are not in fact choosing,” so goes the argument. Women are perceived to be reflecting external imposed powers of patriarchy and male domination.

Many Islamic feminists counter the false consciousness standpoint by arguing that female agency is actually compromised when her decision to put on a specific dress is not respected. A woman’s decision to dress in a certain manner—that is not in harmony with external standards—should not be interpreted as her being subjugated and oppressed. By choosing a form of dress, she is in fact sending a message that she wants to be treated as a human being rather than just being a female.

The false consciousness argument has been recently brought to life in the wake of the veil controversy in some European countries. Much of the discourse that occurred over the dress revolved around whether Muslim school girls were brain-washed by their families into wearing the veil.

Accordingly, critics argue, they develop a preference for the headscarf that is based on a false awareness. Analyzing how the French media covered the issue, Michela Ardizzoni reported how various critics of the veil declared how it “positions the young Muslim women as completely subjected to their male family members”39 and the headscarf thus becomes to those critics a symbol of subjugation irrespective of whether the person wearing it has done it out of her free will or not.

This argument that has been brought forward by several Western feminists, has also been embraced by many Arab feminists. El-Saadawi is the most notable example of an advocate of the position that Arab women have fallen into the false consciousness trap. Either by putting on the veil or by succumbing to Western models of how a woman should look like, the Arab woman has fallen victim to her own thinking:

... that’s why we see a female university professor.. who is revolting against [male] despotism and harassment, yet she carries within her, the [male] despotism and harassment virus without realizing it. She carries the blind belief in the absolute power of the state, religion, and family... she then gives birth again to this seed or virus through her children, male and female.40 (p. 245)

This theme is repeated within el-Saadawi’s rhetoric, effectively ascribing lack of real consciousness to some women as to what are their priorities, how they need to live their lives, and how best to tackle their problems.

In specifically addressing the issue of “choice” in wearing the veil, Ghadeer Ahmad, an Egyptian activist, notes that wearing the veil does not spring from real choice by women due to two reasons. First, the veil is engulfed in an aura of sacredness. Although it is not one of the pillars of the Muslim faith, she affirms, it has always been surrounded with significant societal interest due to an obsession with women’s bodies. The second reason, according to Ahmad, is that the society provides reinforcement mechanisms and reward structures associated with wearing the veil. All of this leads the woman to “deceive herself” into thinking that she is making a free choice in putting on the hijab while she is in reality making this choice “consciously and sub-consciously at the same time.”41

One problem with the above arguments is that they fail to note that a degree of socialization involves all types of dress. People “choose” what to dress to attend a wedding, a funeral, or a church or mosque, or to go the beach. Their decisions reflect a combination of free choice and responsiveness to societal expectations. Stripping veiled women of all agency because of their choices, becomes the other side of stripping other women, with different socially sanctioned dress choices, of all agency.

The false consciousness argument also disseminates the notion that Muslim women make choices on what they wear based on conditioning by powerful, often male, family members and religious institutions.42 In such instances, the perspectives, ideologies, and opinions of those women become irrelevant:

the perspectives of those who wear the burqa are delegitimized in favour of

those who are (self) represented as emancipated.....false consciousness has

effectively reintroduced through the back door a way in which Western women can reclaim legitimacy in speaking for women of other cultures and races. Thus, just as under colonialism, Western women claim the ability to speak for those who are so victimized and hapless that they have no voice which is their own.43 (p. 389)

The false consciousness charge again divides the world of Muslim women into two camps, those with legitimate views who embrace “our” Western modes of liberation, and the other misguided ones who are under an illusion of agency and autonomy.

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