In my feminisms class a few weeks ago we read an article by Chandra Talpade Mohanty concerning the ways that the western feminist discourse address and comments on the "third world." Basically it commented on the Hegemony of western feminism as it determines who and what is oppressive for third world women, and thus constructs third world women, as uneducated, unaware, and ignorant of feminism. This is problematic and oppressive in of itself as western feminists use these perceptions as a way of reasserting imperialistic attitudes on the third world.
Connected to Mohanty's argument is a discussion of the veil as worn by Islamic women. Many western feminists view the veil as an oppressive tool. And there are Islamic feminists who want to wear the hijab, who feel victimized by those western women who wish to abolish the veiling customs.
I went to a speech by one of classmates yesterday which talked about the hijab and other forms of female veiling in the Islamic world. The speaker made the point that the hijab represented tradition, faith, and invoked a kind of reverence that was very cultural. One of the audience members (from Cairo) who wore the hijab, said that her mother had gone back and forth on the veil and had worn it for a time, and then not worn it. While another audience member brought up the idea that there wasn't always the choice to wear the veil, the argument that most women have some sort of choice in many Islamic countries was very present.
Which leaves me with an almost icky feeling in my stomach. I like cultural traditions, and the modernist in me has found a lot of really appealing things about Islam as I've learned a bit about it this semester (which I think is because it's so jewish like). As a result of this, and just on general principal, I'm inclined to think that non-western feminists should be able to practice their cultures how ever they wish to. If this means wearing the hijab, so be it, and as westerners we need to listen to, and respect feminists from the so-called third world even if they wear a veil.
At the same time it's an artifact of religion. R-E-L-I-G-I-O-N. I tend to think that the major so called monotheisms (Islam is way closer to monotheism than just about anything I can think of, but it's of no matter). I'm wary of any religion that takes power away from people rather than empowers the people that follow it. Islam is all about submission to god. This isn't an anti-Islam sentiment, it's an unabashed anti-religion sentiment.
On a theoretical level I think the veil (as a product of Islam) should not be used as a method for liberation, at the same time on a practical level I can completely recognize the way in which a veil could be used as a way of maintaining a cultural identity. But I think this issue is complex and we can't easily define in terms of a good bad dualism.