Groundviews

Should a Muslim eat wedding cake? A note on interpellation and agency

Photo courtesy The Agenda

A few days ago, at the wedding of two Sri Lankan Muslims, both of whose families hail from Mannar, families forcibly evicted from their homes by the LTTE in 1990, a married Sri Lankan Muslim woman, a doctor by profession, cut a slice from the wedding cake after the bride and groom had formally done so. As she was about to eat the piece, her husband  snatched it from her hand and threw it away. Those around, female and male, many also hailing from Mannar, also evicted, were aghast. What on earth was this man doing? He explained, in all self-righteousness, that wine was an ingredient in wedding cake and Muslims should not eat it. As it turned out, the cake in question was made by a Muslim and contained no alcohol. The husband could have cautioned his wife, ascertained the cake’s contents, then suggested, repeat suggested, a specific course of action accordingly. (Not the ideal scenario; ideally, he does nothing. Lets her do her thing. Or, perhaps, just says: let her eat cake.) He did not. He presumed he could police, regulate her behavior. (His parents, by the way, cut her another slice. They assumed they should police his behavior.)

How does one read this presumption, action? Is it a trivial, forgettable incident unworthy of analysis in a forum like Groundviews, being the work of an individual jerk – or is there more at play? Did the policeman reach that conclusion by himself, making it an assertion of autonomous, individual agency, or was he shaped by larger social, political, intellectual forces? The Althusserian concept of ideology helps us address these questions. But, first, another story, this time of perhaps greater consequence, again of a Muslim whose family hails from Mannar. (Perhaps, because who can tell the impact of such an apparently trivial incident, and maybe other equally “trivial” incidents, on a relationship? If this husband prevented his wife from eating wedding cake, in public, what more behavior might he order? In any case, what’s trivial, minor to one frame could be of immense significance to another.)

Readers of Goundviews are undoubtedly familiar with the recent essay by Fathima Sahar, “one of three students…affected by the ban on the niqab” by the University of Moratuwa. (It generated over one hundred comments. In another forum, MuslimWatch, a male supporter asked her to abandon architecture as a career because the profession would require her to interact with “strange men.” By this logic, Muslim women should neither be educated nor employed – for in what line of work would people not have to interact with unknown men? With allies like these…) An intelligent, thoughtful, courageous, extremely articulate essay – if only all our budding architects, not to mention some of our academics and journalists, could write like her! She strikes an eminently reasonable tone where another might have been compelled by anger. After all, her studies, her very future has been placed at stake by the goons at the University. Ms Sahar feels compelled to tell her story since neither the University nor the media bothered to consult her. In a delightful, cutting turn of phrase, she points out that the “University so eager to see our faces did not want to hear our voices.” A situation from which she generalizes, staging her predicament as ubiquitous, not unique: “the way we have been treated is no different to the way many of our sisters in many other contexts are treated. Women and their voices are hardly allowed to be heard but kept muted and suppressed.”

That formulation doesn’t make it clear whether the “sisters” alluded to are women universally, Muslim women particularly or just niqabis. The reference to “other contexts,” together with the unqualified deployment of “women and their voices” in the next sentence suggests Ms Sahar holds that, in general, women are dominated, subordinated – everywhere; including, perhaps, Saudi Arabia. She does not call herself a feminist, but that is certainly a feminist statement; as, indeed, this concept of sisterhood, of women related by oppression, rather than family. Now the question follows: what – not who – suppresses women? (If one asks who, the answer would be men, of course. Which begs the question: could women suppress other women?) Later in the essay, Ms Sahar suggests sexism, a phenomenon she locates “all over the world.” I prefer patriarchy, a problem to which I’ll return.

Born in a refugee camp, effectively a victim of the LTTE, Ms Sahar sees education as both “a passport to a better future” and “a means for empowerment to fight against the type of injustices that my parents suffered.” If this statement sounds unexceptionable, applaudable even, it nevertheless bears examination. Over the past few decades, hundreds, if not thousands, of Sri Lankans without university degrees, some with barely any schooling, have resisted oppression all over the country. Included here would be many Muslim women expelled at gunpoint from the north by the LTTE. Jensila Majeed, to cite just a single instance, born in Mullaitivu, excelled in her studies and received a scholarship to a leading Jaffna school when she and her family found themselves driven out of their home and into a refugee camp in Puttalam. Her father fell sick as a consequence and Ms Majeed, the eldest child in a family of ten, was forced to find employment, give up her own education, so that her sisters could have one. Since then, she has worked tirelessly to improve the conditions of northern Muslims, subaltern women in particular; more recently, she extended her brief to reconciliation with northern Tamils. Today Ms Majeed – who, with exemplary selflessness, gave up her metaphorical passport to help others – is, arguably, one of Sri Lanka’s most admirable feminist activists, if also relatively unknown in elite circles. The point being that one does not need an education to “fight injustice.”

Ms Sahar is or, rather, was “proud and happy” to be in the diverse environment of the University of Moratuwa (a campus dominated, as HappyHeathen points out, by a large Buddha statue). One in which, as she argues, a Muslim student had worn the niqab for two years, from 2011, without complaint or consequence. Another had even graduated not too long ago. What changed in mid 2013 to warrant her effective suspension? In her account, the deciding, decisive factor is the campaign of the Bodu Bala Sena against “the hijab and the niqab.”

Put differently, with striking intellectual acumen, Ms Sahar historicizes her predicament, explains its context. Without the BBS’s crusade to police Sri Lankan Muslim women’s attire, nothing might have happened to her and the two other students. (And the BBS, let us not forget, gains its force in part from being sponsored by Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, perhaps the most powerful goon in the country.) Now consistency alone might have led Ms Sahar to historicize the emergence of the hijab and niqab in Sri Lanka, too. Ask why, two decades or so ago – the exact date doesn’t really matter – Sri Lankan Muslim women began adopting it in large numbers. What is the context that accounts for that? Is she not curious? Indeed, she might have wondered if, before their eviction, Mannar – or other northern – Muslim women routinely wore such garb. At that wedding mentioned above, most of the Mannar Muslim women of an older generation were, as it were, uncovered. Most of the younger women wore headscarves, some an abaya. What accounts for the difference? Are the latter interpellated, a term that will be explained below, by a different, more dogmatic interpretation of Islam than their more or less secular parents? Where did that Islam come from? Saudi Arabia, the only country on earth named after a family (the house of Ibn Saud)? Much turns on these questions – and their repression. Though it does not follow that Sri Lankan Muslim women should not therefore adopt “foreign” dress. As Khalid Muhaimin points out, in The Colombo Telegraph, most Sri Lankans wear clothes that originated elsewhere, whether dress, sari and shalwar khamize, or shirt and pants.

But my disagreement with Ms Sahar – and everybody else working within the categories of the modern episteme – pivots around the question of agency. Before getting to which, let me state my position on the niqab and associated garments. I consider them a patriarchal imposition; Muslim men do not find their attire similarly regulated when in the public sphere. Nevertheless, I hold that if a woman – or a man, for that matter – desires to wear it, anywhere, that should be permitted. The University of Moratuwa, or any other institution, including the French state, should not be in the business of regulating dress. The University should apologize, rescind its order and allow the three women to resume their studies. No university, an institution grounded upon the freedom of expression, debate, disagreement, should ban any form of expression. The Vice-Chancellor’s argument to the BBC, that three niqabis pose a security threat to his university, is ludicrous. One could ask him to resign his post on intellectual grounds alone.

Ms Sahar concludes by returning to the question of gender: “Finally I don’t wear the niqab because some dominant male has forced me to. In fact ever since this issue started most of the males in my family and neighborhood have asked me to give this up for my studies. The niqab is not an act of subjugation or subordination. Certainly not for me.”

A double victim – of extremist Sinhala (BBS) and Tamil nationalism (LTTE) – Ms Sahar here strongly asserts her agency as a woman, a Muslim woman. She is not the object of patriarchal Islam but a subject, a free, autonomous female agent making her own decisions. Indeed, she does so in the face of considerable male opposition. She might not call herself a feminist but, she implies, feminists must, at the very least, empathize with her. Having already told us that she can recognize patriarchy or, rather, sexism when she sees it – women, in general, are suppressed all over the world – she knows the niqab is not an instance of it. This interpretation of Islam may only police women’s dress, but that doesn’t make it sexist, leave alone patriarchal. Which produces a self-contradictory understanding of sexism: it might happen everywhere, but only as the consequence of acts of individual males working independently; most men maybe sexist, but such practice does not constitute a system or structure.

However, patriarchy – thus my preference for the term – may not quite work (only) at the level of the individual, which brings me (back) to Louis Althusser’s conceptualization of ideology. In his famous essay, Althusser, a Marxist, seeks to address a problem specific to Marxism: why does the working class, another subordinated group, not recognize itself as exploited by capital? How does it come to accept, internalize, capitalism’s account of itself: that the individual worker’s predicament is a consequence of his or her indolence, which could be improved by hard work, the (only) passport to a better future; rather than, as Marxism would have it, the consequence of a structure of exploitation? How does capitalism transform a relation of exploitation into one of indolence? How does it successfully produce a social phenomenon as an individual one: you are poor because you are lazy, not because the system is stacked against you and everyone else in your position.

In a word, through ideology, which Althusser does not understand as a set of political beliefs. Rather, the process that constitutes our subjectivity – unconsciously. Working through institutions – schools, the family, religion, media – not individuals, ideology shapes our subjectivity without us being quite aware of its efforts. It produces us as having a choice when in fact we may not, or not quite. An excellent example of this, I tell my students in the United States, where I teach, is their winter clothing. Every year as the weather turns cold, most students at the University of Minnesota, male and female, start wearing blue jeans. Not any color of jeans, blue jeans – including Muslim women in headscarves. (As for the niqabis – yes we have some, and no, they are not perceived as a security threat – they may too, for all I know.)

I tell my students that most people in the U.S. understand themselves as enjoying freedom of choice. When they visit the store to buy clothing, they see themselves as exercising such choice, asserting their agency, freely, with no dominant person instructing them. And yet, in choosing blue jeans, every single one of these individuals, acting autonomously, repeats the behavior of everyone else. How does one account for this? The concept of interpellation, which means summons (poorly translated from the French as hailing) – an offer you cannot refuse, as Don Vito Corleone memorably put it – suggests that their choice has been shaped for them. What they experience, understand as individual choice gets determined, constrained, not by another, powerful individual, but by larger social forces. Blue jeans don’t just keep people warm; ideology produces them as cool – which might account for their counter-intuitive popularity in humid, tropical places like Sri Lanka!

Likewise, Ms Sahar might have asked herself: how did she reach that conclusion about the niqab? Did she read something on the topic? Watch a video? Listen to a sermon? Did she discuss the question with her women friends? All these texts are produced by other people, and if her decision was shaped in the slightest by them, then she cannot be understood as acting alone. The force of ideology, unlike the force of a “dominant male,” works thus, unconsciously. You don’t have to have someone tell you something, directly, to be influenced by an argument.

If one person does something unique, it could be read as an act of agency. (Although the concept of uniqueness, a thing different from everything else, could also be put to question.) If many people, who don’t necessarily know each other, do the same thing at more or less the same time, without planning or conspiring to, something else, a social force, is at work.

To come at this question from another direction: it may seem self-evidently true that I am the author of this essay. It certainly bears my name, signature. But, quite apart from the problems with the concept author, which cannot be addressed here, this essay is shaped by Muhaimin, HappyHeathen, MuslimWatch and of course Althusser and Ms Sahar, not to mention lots of other texts I’ve read over the years. In that most strict sense, I am at best a co-author of this piece, not an entirely free agent.

I have no doubt that Ms Sahar sincerely believes herself to be acting autonomously, on her own agency, in wearing the niqab, just like the Minnesota students do when wearing blue jeans. But niqab cannot be understood outside a structured network of associated practices, laws and regulations, one that enables that presumptuous man to give her career advice; does he not seek to suppress a woman’s voice,  quash what could be a most promising architectural career? One that enables a Muslim man to have four wives, a Muslim husband, with Quranic sanction, to even beat his wife, or deny her a piece of cake. The magic of interpellation, if I could put it thus, lies in its ability to produce constraint as choice, a social process as individual.

The niqab cannot be understood outside statements like this, again from MuslimWatch, in response to this particular debate, which lays down the law, finds it mandatory for Muslim women: “the reason for this ruling is that men maybe tempted by the woman and fall in love with her. Undoubtedly the face is the site of beauty and attraction, so concealing it is obligatory lest men who do feel desire be attracted and tempted by her.” Similar comments abound on MuslimWatch, every single one the writing of an individual; but when so many Muslim men, and some women, iterate, affirm each other, do we not see a social force at work?

Not incidentally, these statements produce Muslim men as pathetic, if not also priapic. (Check that last word out in the dictionary, if you don’t know it.) They cannot control their desire. If this is the case, surely, we should be policing Muslim men, keeping them indoors, incarcerated in a harim perhaps, away from strange women, whom they will prey upon given the slightest opportunity. If uncontrollable male desire is the problem, by what logic is the solution restrictions on women? In a word, the patriarchal. Just like capitalism produces exploitation as indolence, blames the working class for a predicament not of its making, patriarchy produces subordination as choice, blames, polices women for a problem with men. The astounding magic of interpellation is that (some) women, too, have internalized this.

One last thing. What about my question, you may wonder: should Muslims eat wedding cake? But you know the answer: I am not in the business of policing behavior. By the way, my mother-in-law, another Mannar Muslim evicted by the LTTE, makes excellent wedding cake. There’s some in the fridge. As soon as I send this off to the editor, I plan to cut myself a slice. I will, though, make sure to leave some for that doctor, in case she drops by.