Gender, Civilization, and Society in Battles for Dominance

The Headscarf Debates/Leila Ahmed/Emile Durkheim

Gender, Civilization, and Society in Battles for Dominance

Drawing on Leila Ahmed’s article, “The Veil Debate—Again” (2005), Korteweg and Yurdakul’s The Headscarf Debates (2014), Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization (2008), and Emile Durkheim’s concepts of solidarity and society, I am formulating a rudimentary understanding of the ways gender and women’s bodies are used to further various agendas, and the ways colonial and postcolonial discourse continue to have widespread effects.  I address these intertwined issues in a series.  Bear in mind that I am still learning how to write articulately using an intersectional approach; it is difficult to parse out what belongs more firmly in one arena over another. 

Part 1:  Introduction

Gender is a major ground on which battles for dominance are fought.  This is not a new idea, nor a particularly radical one.  Lata Mani references it in “Contentious Traditions,” her essay on sati, or “widow burning” in India.  Mani argues that the controversy in question was between British and Indians fighting for domination, definitions over Hindu practices and tradition, and the role of colonial settlers in ‘civilizing’ the Other.  The actual welfare of these women was only marginally important to the conversation and was used as a tool to further colonial agendas.

A similar debate continues over Muslim women and the headscarf—whether they should be allowed to wear it, where they should be allowed to wear it, whether it’s oppressive, liberating, feminist, anti-feminist.…The Headscarf Debates (Korteweg and Yurdakul 2014) sidesteps the questions of Islam and gender and instead asks, what does how a nation thinks about the headscarf say about the nation?  As Ahmed says, “…meanings of the hijab, then, are intensely local”, yet these differing meanings share commonalities in the ways gender, class, race (et. al.) are used in political and social discourses, and also show how nations form particular ideas of “nationhood” and understanding.  And the ways nations form understanding influences laws, and socio-cultural discourses.   

Regardless of the stated goal versus the actual goal, gender can be used as proof of superiority.  Ideas and attitudes about gender, race, and nationhood can be (and are) weaponized to create an Other and deem the Other inferior.  British Colonial attitudes toward sati were not from some desire to protect Indian women from violence, but from a desire to subdue India [1].  That’s not to say that sati is somehow a religiously sacred or sanctioned practice, or that it is not a violent, agonizing, and terrible practice.  Sati arose more from systemic undervaluing of women than from Hinduism.  Nevertheless, British attempts to remedy the situation took place without a deeper understanding of the context they took place, and with more of an eye to the uncivilized/barbaric nature of the culture in which they arose. 

[1]  Documented British reaction to the practice of sati actually varies quite wildly; some men were in awe of the women and their devotion, others were aghast at the sight before them.  While the British sought to control the practice, some of their efforts had the unintended effect of prolonging the suffering of the woman.


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