Mad Woman in the Burqa’: Muslim women as exemplar feminists

Full access through academic libraries. This article challenges readers to consider Muslim women to be exemplar feminists.

From: Hecate (Vol. 32, Issue 1)
Publisher: Hecate Press
May 2006



No letters please from British women who have taken the veil and claim it’s liberating. It is their right in a tolerant society to wear anything, including rubber fetishes…. (1)


By way of introduction I would like to pose a (somewhat longwinded) dilemma. (2)

There is a constituency of Muslim women that, as Polly Toynbee notes, state that Islam and in particular the adoption of Islamic dress, is liberating for women. Whether expressed as adherence to an immutable scriptural code or dubbed ‘Islamic feminism’, these ideas, held by Muslim women, exist.

This jars against conventional depictions of Muslim women as oppressed and as, in fact, the very constituency that can and needs to benefit from universalizing (hitherto read as Western) forms of feminism, be they empirical or standpoint. Put simply, how can Muslim women say such things?

The dilemma then is this: in expressing their belief that the veil is liberating, can Muslim women be deemed enlightened? Perhaps we’re just mediaeval and (not) happy? Or are we simply mad?

As a human fights activist whose educational background covers English Literature, Law and International Relations, three feminist theoretical currents apply in my experience very distinctly to the idea of Muslim women. Feminist empiricism, standpoint theory and post-modern critique all set benchmarks for criteria that Muslim women in various incarnations fail. And when they fail they are often represented as failing on behalf of a generalised, immutable constituency.

So, for example, the Afghan woman fails every empirical enquiry into equal fights. The revolutionary Iranian woman returns to scriptural values and loses with this the ability to think in any Cartesian sense. Finally the veiled Turkish woman in emulating her Iranian sister, fails the secular state’s attempt to liberate her from her Islamic values by way of a post-modern coup. (3)

When Muslim women claim liberation through the veil, are they obdurately and stupidly replicating a masculine agenda, or is there scope to argue that Muslim women, by their praxis, are subverting patriarchy? If the latter is the case, then do they do so simply as a particularised response to differently cultured patriarchies or (more radically) are they reformulating the foundations for an all-inclusive form of feminist theory?

In short–are Muslim women exemplary feminists?

Who is the Muslim woman? Stereotype or prototype?

The treatment of women under the Taliban regime of Afghanistan is often described as ‘mediaeval’, but I’m not sure if the adjective is apposite. Even in mediaeval times women in most cultures, though perhaps this depended on their class, had some power … (4)

In justifying my contention that Muslim women have not only positive agency but transformative agency, I will have to deal (in an inadequate and generalised manner) with the stereotypes that characterise popular as well as academic and politi…