Farzaneh Milani, professor of Persian literature and women’s studies at the University of Virginia, is also a Carnegie Fellow.
On Women’s Captivity in the Islamic World
In the unprecedented flourishing of writings about Islam in the United States in recent years, one category of books—life stories of women—has been the most popular, attracting the attention of politicians, publishers, the media and the reading public alike. In an old narrative frame of captivity recast for the present-day reader, some of these memoirs and autobiographies portray the Muslim woman as a virtual prisoner. She is the victim of an immobilizing faith, locked up inside her mandatory veil—a mobile prison shrunk to the size of her body. She has no real voice or visibility, nowhere to escape to, no protection, no shelter, no freedom of movement. Captivity is her destiny.Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the bestselling author of Infidel and The Caged Virgin who was named by Time in 2005 as one of the 100 people who shape our lives, sums up this mindset when she describes Islam as “a mental cage,” a set of “mental bars,” and Muslim women as “trapped in that cage.”
The recent spate of memoirs and autobiographies involving Muslim captors and their native or non-Muslim victims, a mutant category I call “hostage narratives,” puts a new and fascinating twist on the familiar theme of women’s captivity in the Islamic world. It is no longer mainly Western men who recount the tales of confinement, but women who recount them firsthand. This is no longer an image foisted upon women; rather, it is self-perception. It is authentic. It is women’s own longing to escape, their own urgent plea to be liberated. The hostage narrative relies on the authority of personal experience, shares an insider’s perspective and commands more trust and legitimacy. Written in English, addressing Americans directly and concerned with national and international security for good measure, this category of literature fetishizes the veil.
The Turban, the Veil, and the Sword
The image of a victimized Muslim woman, trapped in her veil a prison shrunk to the size of her body is a byproduct of the last four centuries. Languishing in her segregated space, she began to appear over and over again in Western novels, paintings, postcards, advertisements, and movies. She became an object of pity, but also of desire, in the West.
Worn and respected by many Muslim women, the veil also has served diverse political ideologies within the Islamic community in the past century. Its elimination or reinstatement has been used as a shortcut toward or away from modernity, an attempt to restore a lost order or to symbolize relationships with the West. It has been an emblem of progress or backwardness, a badge of nationalism or domination, a symbol of secularism or Islamism.
Listen to F. Milani on Drawing the Line Between Public and Private