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Tasnim El Gatit

Further information

About the author

Tasnim El Gatit has a Diploma and a BA degree in English from Goldsmiths College, University of London, and is currently a Masters student at Uppsala University.

Publication details

Volume 21, November 2009

Westernised Women & Silenced Ciphers:
Postcolonial And Diasporic Representations Of Muslim Women

"The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women."
Laura Bush

On August 26, 2000 the New York Times reported on Asiyah Andrabi, a "conservative Muslim and radical feminist" who "makes her demands for equal rights for women from behind the all-enveloping burqa." Andrabi, who is also described as a militant fighting for the liberation of Kashmir, seems to compound what the writer evidently sees as the irreconcilable contradiction between feminism and Islam, women’s rights and the veil, Muslim women and militancy. The representation of Muslim women as militant or potentially violent is rare. The idea of Islam as threatening is usually reserved for Muslim men, while women are perceived as an object of pity or empathy. Underlying Laura Bush’s statement is this more familiar paradigm of women as victims of fundamentalist Islamic tradition, implicitly brown women in need of rescue by civilized people throughout the world.

This paper examines representations of Muslim women, looking at the way interpretations of the Muslim woman are often limited to what is seen as the symbolic and ideological aspect of their presence in the texts, and examining the wider question of the veil, which unavoidably enters the realms of religious debate, cultural theory and literary criticism. It will focus primarily on two texts which can be classified as postcolonial: Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album (BA) and Ama Ata Aidoo’s Changes: A Love Story. In studying these texts and their representation of Muslim women, I am concerned not so much with the concept of "writing back" which is often a common theme in post-colonial discourse but with the way both writers speak out of and to their respective audiences.

On the one hand, Aidoo’s ironically titled novel, as has often been noted, is in fact a discourse on the complexities of the positions and lives of members of the Ghana’s neo-colonial elite, (Odamtten: 1994: 161) while Kureishi writes not as a postcolonial subject displaced in Britain but "as a British subject in a post-colonial world trying to contest and displace the dominant narrative of the nation." (Williams: 1999: 10) I have chosen to focus on two Muslim female characters represented in these two very different texts who both play a secondary part in the plot, yet whose presence in the text is nevertheless central to both novels.

Political Texts

Hanif Kureishi's The Black Album is a bildungsroman set during the Rushdie Affair, following the protagonist Shahid as he struggles with conflicting personal, familial and cultural allegiances. Upon moving to London, Shahid is taken up by Riaz and his circle, a Muslim group which expresses a desire to help the marginalized sections of British Asian society, but who are also seen as attempting to impose a narrow ideological understanding of what it is to be Muslim upon its members. Initially impressed by the group's commitment, Shahid becomes increasingly disenchanted with their black and white view of the world, and his loyalties are further complicated by his involvement with college lecturer and Left-wing liberal feminist Deedee Osgood. Shahid eventually realizes that the cost of a common mode of identification is often blindness to a more subtle world. In choosing to leave with Deedee he makes a commitment to a different way of life "until it stops being fun" (BA, 276). Yet this is a choice that, as critics have noted, seems to be undermined to some extent by its ephemerality.

Aidoo's Changes: A Love Story traces the protagonist Esi's path to independence, as she separates from her husband after an incident of marital rape. Esi then meets and is attracted to Ali, who asks her to be his second wife. This arrangement initially appeals to Esi, who she feels that by escaping what she sees as a stifling monogamous marriage, she can make her career her priority. Eventually however she realizes that little has changed, that she has given up her daughter and failed to attain the freedom she sought. By the end of the novel she feels that her home has become a cemetery.

In both novels, Tahira and Fusena symbolize a certain way of life which is presented in contrast to the main character's choices, thus defining their quest for independence as positive, despite the disillusionment of the endings. There is no transcendental resolution to any of the characters’ search for identity in these novels. Yet while none of the main characters "find themselves" through their quest, the point both novels seem to make is the importance of that quest, and the focus is not so much on their choices, as on their freedom to make such choices.

These texts are clearly very different, but both writers can be said to approach their subjects from a political post-colonial perspective. BA insightfully probes issues of faith, identity and individualism, while Changes tackles issues such as divorce, marital rape, and the alienation of single women, and is a novel which, in Wilentz's words "treat[s] politics on the bedrock of human relationships." (1999: 6)

First, it is important to contextualize the treatment of Islam in these two novels in relation to post-colonialism and gender politics. Like many of his works, Kureishi’s novel depicts the tensions experienced in the Asian Diaspora, however in BA this is specifically placed in relation to the Rushdie Affair and the rise of so-called Islamic fundamentalism. Aidoo’s treatment of Islam on the other hand, needs to be read in light of varying interpretations of African authenticity in regards to the Islamic factor, with writers such as Wole Soyinka seeing Islam as an alien, seductive superstition imposed through the sword (1988: 82-85), while commentators such as Ahmed Bangura have seen this image of Islam’s role in Africa as partaking in an Orientalist intellectual current.

This paper will argue that interpretations of these two texts often elide the specificity of these historical and cultural contexts to borrow from the Manichean notion of "Islam and the West" privileged by those who support the global theory of a clash of civilization, a theory often informed by an essentialist view describing "the Muslim world" as a closed universe, whose backwardness tends to be interpreted not in the context of political, social or economic situations, but simply as a result of Islam.

Problems of Terminology

One of the first questions raised by any exploration of the binaries involved in the "Islam and the West" debate is that of terminology, references to "the West" or "Western culture" carrying the suggestion that to speak of the West is to speak of a stable monolithic entity, always exclusive of Islam. However, although simplistic and problematic, these terms have in a sense become a useful shorthand "providing descriptive access to an unhappy reality: the asymmetric relationship between a self-defined West and a Western-defined Other (Islam, non-West)." (Barlas: 2002: xiii)

Like "the West" the term "Muslim woman" can be nebulous and ahistorical. From a sociological perspective, it might be more useful to speak, for example, of Arab women, Asian women and African women. In this context, comparing Kureishi's BA to novels by British Asian writers such as Monica Ali or Meera Syal would be a more logical starting point for a context-specific examination of the representation of Muslim women, in this case in British Asian literature.

However, my aim in looking at two such different texts is not to attempt such an examination, but rather to try to differentiate between the Muslim woman as the object of literary representation and the ‘real’ Muslim woman who is objectified by the terms of the discourse imposed equally on Arab, Asian or African women who are Muslim. The diversity of of the group "Muslim women" which includes within it a wide variety of ethnicities, professions, backgrounds, cultures, and sects, is an aspect of reality, the literary paradigm of "the Muslim woman" is am aspect of representation.

In this sense, it would be more useful to compare writers from different backgrounds, identifying trends in both the representation of female Muslim characters and in the critical readings of these characters.

In Orientalism (1979), Edward Said maintains that in examining renderings of culture or religion, the focus should be on "style, figures of speech, setting, narrative devices, historical and social circumstances, not the correctness of representation" (21). With this approach in mind, this paper will look at the way some critics have read these two very different characters to fit the paradigm of the generic Muslim woman, as well as the way the texts themselves draw on the audiences familiarity with a certain type to fill in the blanks of the characters backgrounds. The paper will also look at the ways the authors have challenged and departed from the stereotype, and at the critical reception to these departures.

Unveiling Rhetoric

As Kanneh has argued, "women and their bodies function both biologically and symbolically as the boundaries of ethnic groups and/or the nation." (Ashcroft, Griffiths, Tiffin: 1995: 349) In this sense, Muslim women as ethnicised objects become a metonym for Islam, and the veil is placed under the category of ethnic dress. In this context, its symbolic aspect becomes irresistible, as is the potential for word-play and "veiled meanings." To quote Kanneh again: "Ethnic dress becomes interchangeable with tradition and essentialism and the female body enters an unstable area of scrutiny and meaning." (1995: 349) The instability of this connection is reflected in the way the colonialist offensive against the veil in countries such as Algeria, for example, parallels the missionary offensive against the exposure of the female body in West Africa, something underlined in Leila Ahmed’s ironic and often cited words: "a hundred years ago, with imperialism, Arab women were told to take off their veils, African women were told to put on more clothes, while Western women were fainting in corsets."(4)

The rhetoric of liberty, unveiling and imperialism are in many ways inextricably intertwined. As Kahf (1999) points out, the question of the liberty of the Muslim woman in literature appears as early as the seventeenth century, with the beginning of the question of liberty in Western political discourse. One example is in Massinger's The Renegado (1624) where a female Muslim character says "I have heard that Christian ladies live with much more freedom than such as are born here." In Don Quixote, Dorotea asks the Captive, "Tell me, sir, if this lady is a Christian or a Moor? Because by her clothing and her silence we have been led to believe that she is, in fact, what we wish she were not" (I, 37; 251).

However the rise of the narrative of the subjugated Muslim woman can be said to have "only emerged as the centerpiece of the Western narrative of Islam ... as Europeans established themselves as colonial powers in Muslim countries" (Ahmed: 1992: 150). Malti-Douglas, in her account of gender and discourse in Arabo-Islamic writing, argues that the veil and its meaning was often a source of fascination for Western ethnographers, as "women and their role become astick with which the West can beat the East." (1991: 3) For example, in a book published by women missionaries in 1906 and entitled Our Moslem Sisters, A Cry of Need from Lands of Darkness, the veil is described as lying "at the root of all the most important features that differentiate progress from stagnation." (1907:6) In the introduction, Annie Van Sommer points to the story of wrong and oppression in the book as "an indictment and an appeal [...] to Christian womanhood to right these wrongs and enlighten this darkness by sacrifice and service [...] to seek and save the suffering sinful needy women of Islam." (1907:16 The civilizing mission of these women missionaries, who inform the reader that: "You cannot know how great the need unless you are told; you will never go and find them until you hear their cry" (1907:16) in many ways echoes the language of the masculine colonial resolve which Fanon characterizes in the phrase "we must first of all conquer the women, we must go and find them behind the veil." (1965: 38) Both these approaches posit the veil as both a metaphorical and a literal obstacle, which makes it impossible to ‘find’ the woman, who is the enigma behind the veil. Here unveiling/revealing is seen as a way of ending resistance, sin, darkness or need, "confused with a mission of female liberation and a paternalistic notion of empowerment which in practice …is a politics of ownership and control". (Ashcroft, Griffiths, Tiffin: 1995: 347)

A similar dynamic is often in play when liberal feminism takes up the cause of liberating oppressed women, an attitude implicit in Susan Moller Okin’s essay "Is multiculturalism bad for women?" (1999) which suggests that women in "patriarchal" minority cultures "might be much better off if the culture into which they were born were either to become extinct (so that its members would become integrated into the less sexist surrounding culture) or ... were encouraged to alter itself so as to reinforce the equality of women." (1999:23)

The Imperialist Idea Hasn’t Died

When Anglo-American feminist studies turned to Third World countries, it often produced a discourse emphasizing the situation of the ‘native’ woman as deprived of the opportunities available to the Western woman, a discourse sustained by comparison between developing countries and the West, propagating theories which reinforce the idea of the West as normative. Implicit in these comparisons is the idea that Western values constitute a universal paradigm and that the right to choose and the capability of transcending immediate circumstances are "prerogatives available solely to women in the Western world" (Nnoromele: 2002: 178)

Both Kureishi and Aidoo, in their portrayal of Asian and African women respectively, offer a rebuttal of the stereotype of the silent, passive native woman whose fate is to be saved, and in this sense their depictions differ from both the position of the native informant giving the Western reader an insider’s perspective on an alien culture, and from "the cultural representation of the West to itself by way of a detour through the other." (Yegenoglu: 1998: 1)

In Aidoo’s work, female characters fight against oppression and patriarchy without waiting for surrogates to do it for them. Aidoo herself strongly refutes the idea that feminism came from outside, arguing that "African women struggling on behalf of themselves and their community is nothing new." In pointing out that the women who rioted against the colonial regime in Nigeria in 1920’s "didn’t seek permission from Woolf," Aidoo’s remarks on this topic looks back to the "exclusionary" inception of feminism as a term designed and defined by white women. (Maja-Pearce: 1990: 17) As Trinh T. Minh-ha argues, "to simply denounce Third World women's oppression with notions and terms made to reflect or fit into Euro-American women's criteria of equality is to abide by ethnographic ideology . . . which depends on the representation of a coherent cultural subject as source of scientific knowledge to explain a native culture and reduces every gendered activity to a sex-role stereotype. Feminism in such a context may well mean "westernization." (1989: 106)

In BA, the treatment of westernization and feminist liberalism has been described as ambivalent as the liberal discourse of multiculturalism is placed under scrutiny. In one scene the students discuss two young British Asian women who were lodgers in Deedee's home, and whom Deedee sees herself as having "liberated" from a patriarchal upbringing. Shahid's reaction is particularly interesting, as he wrongly, and tellingly, assumes that one of the "liberated" young women was murdered by her family. In this scene both Deedee and Shahid’s reactions can be seen as vulnerable to the charge of ethnocentrism brought by Chad (Moore-Gilbert: 2001: 141), who asks rhetorically "would I dare to hide a member of Osgood’s family in my house and fill her with propaganda? If I did, what accusations? Terrorist! Fanatic! Lunatic! We can never win. The imperialist idea hasn’t died." (1995:191)

The desire to challenge perceptions of British Asian women as victims is reflected in Kureishi’s earlier novel, The Buddha of Suburbia, in particular in the central female character’s political radicalism. Yet faith has no place in Jamila’s politics, and her views are represented in direct conflict with her father’s hypocritical and absolutist utilization of Islam as a method of control. In this conflict, Islam is either extreme and aggressive or irrelevant, in a way which arguably opens the way for readings focusing rather reductively on the secular female liberating herself from Islam and becoming Westernized, a reading which inevitably places the woman back in the victim role.

Westernized Women

In BA, Zulma offers another, less sympathetic version of Jamila. Zulma is both secular, and Westernised, yet also often satirically represented. Her statements on Muslims and extremism, such as "they will slaughter us soon, for thinking" cannot be simplistically interpreted. For one thing, her divisive rhetoric of they and us is conflicted, as can be seen in her comment: "they see us on TV behaving like fools and they think we’re deranged" – where the ‘they’ in this case refers to Westerners rather than to Muslims. In part her comments link her to Jump, whose Islamophobia is caricatured in the same chapter:

You have joined the militant Mohammedans … you will slit the throats of us infidels as we sleep. Or convert us. Soon books and … and … and bacon will be banned. (159)

However Zulma’s stance also suggests a familiar binary polarity between rational/western liberal thought and what in modern neo-Orientalism is portrayed as a peculiarly Islamic brand of anti-intellectualism. "They" slaughtering "us" for thinking reveals her identification with the Western, liberal, free-thinking world. The contrast between Zulma and Tahira, a member of an Islamic group, is symbolically illustrated in the difference between Zulma’s driving around Karachi in "a red fiat Uno, a Hermes scarf knotted around her head" (85) and Tahira’s adjusting her scarf while speaking of Muslim modesty.

Some have criticized the fact that in BA the only practicing Muslims are presented as "fundamentalists," arguing that this presents a monolithic portrait of Islam (Ruvani: 2002, 85). However it is clear that the novel goes some way to illustrate the diversity of the British Asian community, exploring both generational and gendered differences. This disrupts the notion that any one person could act as adequate cultural spokesman for this community, and refutes the assumption that "every minority subject is effectively the same." (Mercer: 1990: 61-78)

Similarly, an important aspect of Changes is its reference to the North/South religious divide in Ghana. Like the author herself, Esi is Christian; however she is mostly presented in a secular context as the professional westernized woman, a militant, feminist figure who decides to become the agent of change in her life, ironically choosing a traditional institution (polygamy) as an alternative lifestyle to achieve full devotion to her career.

Fusena’s struggles with polygamy in many ways parallel her co-wife Esi’s, yet the critical focus in her case is more often on the challenges she has to face as a Muslim married woman, with Islamic ideology becoming the centre of any critical analysis.

This can be seen as an indication of the way responses to representations of the Muslim woman "have tended to ignore the "representation" part and instead contest the realities of "the Muslim woman." (Kahf: 1999: 2) The danger here lies in the fact that, as Edward Said pointed out in Orientalism, the often citationary nature of representations of Islam means that later works often gain authority by citing earlier representations, forming a chain that has no need to return to actualities.

Unappealing Alternatives

Characters such as Zulma and Esi, who are partly identified with the West, represent the modern, career-oriented woman who is also a refutation of the stereotype of the ‘third world’ woman. On the other hand, characters such as Tahira and Fusena, once placed in a religious framework, become veiled symbolic signifiers of the "third world", their life representing an unappealing alternative to their westernized counterparts.

As veiled Muslim women both Tahira and Fusena automatically constitute a "cultural imaginary" linked to Islam, opposed against a West equated with modernity and the aspirations of the ‘developing world’, an equation which renders the terms underlying the conflict between Islam and the West applicable worldwide. Meyda Yegenoglu makes the point that:

One becomes and is made a western subject by being subjected to a process called westernizing and by imagining oneself in the fantasy frame of belonging to a specific culture called the West. (1998: 4)

In this sense, the marginal Muslim woman character, called upon to illustrate a predefined cultural landscape that endorses an agreed upon paradigm of Islam, seems to perform the function of being a silenced reminder of the oppression of women in different corners of the world. As Algerian journalist Salima Ghezali put it: ‘The foreign observer tends too often to consider the "modern" women as the sole expression of female emancipation whose message is understood in the West.’

Silenced Ciphers

In Changes Fusena’s life is often described as circumscribed by silence and, as Nfah-Abbenyi points out, she is marginalized on several levels: by the text, by her husband and finally by her co-wife, all of which is conjoined to the condition or challenge of being a Muslim married woman. One of the most frequently cited of the very limited number of statements attributed to Fusena is: "So Allah, what was she supposed to say?"

The silence surrounding Fusena ‘veils’ her from the reader, who is not invited to share her thought processes as often as with Esi or Opukuya. In McWilliam’s reading, both these women are portrayed as active questioners of society while Fusena remains essentially a "question mark." (1999: 333-62) The text gives us only brief glimpses of her thoughts and her life, and she is most often presented in contrast with Esi, the westernized, educated African woman.

In BA Tahira’s position is similarly anomalous. More often than not, her role in the novel is ignored. She is a virtual cipher in critical discussion of the "Islamic brothers" in Riaz’s group. The very term "Islamic brothers" excludes her, despite her political activity and religious views. On the other hand, at various points in the novel there are descriptions of Tahira’s clothing and scenes where she is represented in a more conventional, feminine role. She is, for example, first described in relation to hijab and skin-colour, as "a young woman wearing the hijab, with skin the colour of a melon". (45) Later she is described wearing "a crisp long white shirt black trousers and gray and white checked scarf." (192) She dispenses painkillers, and is ‘helpful’ in a feminine capacity, mothering Hat and admiring Riaz. At one point, she is infantilised, ‘Tahira clapped her hands, "a sign, we are so lucky!" (180), at another, she is orientalised, "Tahira’s dark eyes, practically all Shahid could see of her, smiled encouragingly at him." (92)

As veiled Muslim women, Tahira and Fusena cannot be extricated from the ideological and symbolical connotations attached to the Muslim woman, and from the veil, whether as a sign of mystery, as a political choice, or as the identifying mark of a woman subjugated by religious obligation.

Veiling as Obstacle/Resistance

The idea of the veil as an obstacle to modernization emerged in colonial times, with elites often accepting the Western version of the meaning of the veil and seeing its removal as essential to development. For example, in 1928 Nazira Zain Al Din wrote: "I have noticed that the nations that have given up the veil are the nations that have advanced in intellectual and material life." (Badran and Cooke: 1990: 272)

On the other hand the veil as a symbol of resistance, as a choice made be the Muslim woman, has often been described as a move inextricably linked to political motivation, as an anti-westernization stance, an anti-modernization stance or even as a way of finding an authentic identity. Haleh Afshar argues that "the twentieth century marked the apex of Muslim women’s intellectual engagement with their religion, first to denounce and to disengage it from its gender specific prescriptions and then to return to the texts and to reclaim their Islamic rights." (1991: 315) The second part of this paper looks at the symbolism of the veil in relation to the texts I examine.

Obstacles and Rebellions

In Changes, Fusena’s first words and last words in the novel "represent nodding approval of patriarchal authority" as Tuzyline Allan put it (1993: 181), a yes to Ali’s marriage proposal and a triple yes to the "battle-weary wives" who attempt to console her on her husband taking a second wife. Yet this seemingly stereotypical submissiveness is itself a ‘veil’ according to Allan, hiding Fusena’s suppressed rebellious feelings: "judging from the reckless manner in which she drives out of house, her rage is tremendous". (181):

She picked up her handbag and her basket, left the bedroom, issued instructions in very quick succession to her house-help … and then she left the house. Before starting her car …she removed her veil completely and put it together with the handbag on the passenger seat next to her. The car screeched into life and Fusena backed out so roughly she nearly scraped one side of her husband’s rather elegant and capacious chariot … Fusena’s movements were … out of gear. Normally Ali left the house first. (20)

The symbolism of this passage is highly evocative, not only in Fusena’s removing her veil, but in the description of her driving, nearly scraping her husband’s car, in a novel where cars, and their symbolic associations of freedom and movement are deeply resonant. Significantly, her movements are "out of gear" because she leaves the house before her husband. This scene is inevitably read as a sign of progress, of Fusena’s taking steps in the right direction. She is, the passage seems to tell us, no longer the submissive, quiet wife. Yet, while the removal of the veil is what is most often cited in references to this passage, in the actual text it seems curiously parenthetical, especially in the usual context of the archetypical unveiling passage.

That the moment of unveiling is often something which is epiphanic is rooted in literary history. In Shelley’s Frankenstein for example, Felix’s "sweet Arabian" Safie, arrives complete with dark suit and thick black veil, despite the fact that she does not believe in the values of her father "the Turk" and identifies instead with her Christian Arab mother. Having broken with her father’s faith and escaped his control, she nevertheless continues to wear the veil. This seeming contradiction serves a central purpose: her unveiling and moment of liberation is simultaneous and can only happen in front of her true love Felix, as she throws up her veil to reveal "a countenance of angelic beauty and expression," her "hair of a shining raven black," her "eyes dark, but gentle," and a "complexion wondrously fair." (1998: 116)

Veils and veiling are, in literature, often strongly linked to mystery, to religious symbolism and to transcendence. Given this symbolism, unveiling often provides a symbolic and resonant impact to a scene. In Changes, the moment has more of the effect of bathos rather than of epiphany. Fusena puts the veil in her handbag, she returns to talk to Ali without putting the veil back on, and there is no further reference to the veil or to Fusena’s feelings about unveiling. The removal of this obstacle has evidently provided Fusena with no more freedom than she had before, nor does it seem to have significantly altered her view of her situation towards the end of the novel. She goes to Ali’s family to "complain and weep." (106)

Resistance and Temptations

In BA, rather than having Islam imposed upon them, the Muslim sisters join in anti-racist vigils and go out of their way, against the wishes of some of the Muslim brothers, to be members of the "Islamic group."

Chad didn’t like the sisters accompanying them, though it was they being devoted to the cause who insisted, it was they encouraged by Riaz who had to make excuses to their parents. (223)

Tahira's loyalty to the Islamic group vies with her fascination with Shahid, a conflict which culminates in another scene where revealing is symbolic:

Tahira ran up behind him. Her scarf had slipped; wisps of hair broke the oval of her face, which she replaced carefully…she wanted to say something more but found it difficult. "From the beginning I’ve liked you ….you are broader than the others." (230)

That Tahira finds Shahid fascinating because he is "broader than the others", again recalls the terms of the ‘cultural clash’ between a narrow anti-intellectual Islam and a broad-minded open-minded liberal western ideology. Tahira’s attraction to this ‘broadmindedness’ and to forbidden freedoms is symbolically represented by the wisps of hair escaping her scarf. However, while some aspects of her relationship with Shahid and her apparent jealousy of Deedee evoke familiar stereotypes of the naïve/misguided Muslim woman, Tahira, as will be seen later, is on the whole represented as an articulate, strong character who knows her own mind, is aware of the failings of the group and works to correct them.

The complexities of Tahira’s character, and the fact that she is a devoted member of an Islamic group, underlines an implicit contradiction in the representation of Muslim women’s militancy, and their religiously sanctioned submissiveness. Clearly, women who voluntarily opt to adopt Islamic doctrine and demand to wear the veil show that they can constitute their own individuality while wearing a veil, something which contradicts and cuts across the confusion between veiling and the Muslim woman’s lack of agency.

Readings of BA often avoid engagement with the reasons for Tahira’s "devotion" to Islam, working on the superficial assumption that for all the members, turning to Islam is a form of cultural self-affirmation or compensation. Like Kureishi’s film My Son the Fanatic, BA shows that the rise of fundamentalism can be seen in part as a reaction against the threat which the homogenizing tendencies of globalization may represent. In some readings of the text, this is accompanied by the suggestion that this turn to faith is a form of naivety or desperation, an attempt to abandon questions and "just believe" as Riaz exhorts. (186) However, functionalist explanations of Muslim women’s choosing to wear the veil, including the suggestion that this is in some way a form of compensation, ironically silences the voices of these women, as Saba Mahmood points out in The Politics of Piety (2005) where she argues that we should consider this in the terms of the women themselves. To imply veiling equals resistance to western influence, for example, is to impose an interpretation on something which is often more complexly motivated than such a simplistic equation would allow.

Restrictive Readings

In both these texts the Muslim women characters are marginal, and religion itself, in a theological or spiritual sense, is not a central topic. As Kureishi puts it:

I'm not interested in the spiritual, but in religion as ideology, as a system of authority, a kind of business. (Kureishi, 16)

Similarly, Aidoo’s text is less concerned with the theological aspects of Islam and Christianity than with feminist and postcolonial themes.

Significantly, however, the critical reception of these texts often do focus on the theological, on the way Islam works in the ‘real world’. Sally McWilliam, for example, has commented that Aidoo doesn’t elaborate on how Fusena’s "Islamic faith affects her political perceptions of the gender disparity she inhabits" yet she concludes that despite the lack of focus on this aspect of the character, the reader sees that "she finds


Both BA and Changes cannot be simplistically interpreted, and the endings are especially ambivalent. In BA, Shahid initially believes in what Tahira and the other members of the group are doing, but gradually becomes disillusioned with their ideas and instead leaves with Deedee. In Changes, Esi makes the choice to become a second wife in an effort to escape the control of a husband, yet by the end is disillusioned with her choice. As BA and Changes follow Esi and Shahid’s quest for independence, Tahira and Fusena seem on the most obvious level to provide both a contrast to and a potential storyline for the main characters. In this capacity, they have a somewhat anomalous position. They are "question marks" to some extent, veiled from the reader, who seems to be expected to fill in the blanks of their characterisation.

On the other hand, the fact that both characters are represented as educated, articulate women could be said to provide a corrective this simplistic conceptualization of the Muslim woman, yet it is precisely these aspects of their characterization which are elided when it comes to the critical response. In readings of both texts, the "Muslim woman character" seems to be seen not so much a character as a motif whose existence allows a short-hand way of referring to issues of the veil, reclusion and marginalization. The areas of the texts that seem conducive to such readings are amplified at the expense of others which do not as easily fit into the preconceived universal framework governing the rhetoric of Islam and the West. In this framework, freedom is registered exclusively as a Western attribute and liberation and modernization are earned by moving away from traditionalism and religion, following the ideas flowing from the West to the East to move from East to West.

In both post-colonial texts I have examined, the Muslim woman characters are given some degree of breadth and scope which differentiate them from the tired stereotypes of the subjugated Muslim wife and daughter. However, despite this, and despite the obvious differences in characterization between the two, critical readings of Tahira and Fusena are inevitably reduced to one facet, and embedded in value judgments about restrictive Muslim culture, or the link between veiling and oppression. While the symbolic aspect of the veil in both texts includes the connotations of unveiling as removing an obstacle to freedom, both novelists show that liberation for Tahira and Fusena does not begin with removing the veil, nor in an admiration of and desire to emulate Western freedom. As Yegenoglu notes, the desire to lift the veil which is often seen as a form of liberation unthinkingly linked to uncovering is in fact a re-inscription, as "the discourse of unveiling is no less incorporated in the existential or embodied being of the Muslim woman than the discourse of veiling." (1998:12)

Interpositions of the question of the veil which reduce Muslim women to watching "dark eyes" on the margins is a familiar trope, and one which is too easily applied to a wide variety of representations of Muslim women in both Western and non-Western texts, in restrictive readings which leave out all complexities that confuse the unveiling of the veiled woman to the reader. What is left, the only scene of importance, is the central moment where the female character consciously or unconsciously signals her awareness of the lack of freedom in her restrictive society, and moves to lift the veil.


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