What Feminists—and Islamists—Don't Get About Burqas: Podcast

Rafia Zakaria talks about veils, Islamic politics, and feminism.



Hijabs, niqabs, and burqas—different sorts of coverings worn by Islamic women—are divisive apparel in the West, associated with patriarchal oppression, cultural outsiders, and even suicide bombers. Yet few accounts actually discuss the experiences of the women wearing the veils, and the freedom and anonymity coverings can afford if worn voluntarily.

Born in Pakistan and educated in America, Rafia Zakaria is the author of Veil, a new book which explores the history and shifting meanings of female coverings in Islamic countries and Western secular society. In a wide-ranging conversation, she talks with Reason's Nick Gillespie about the theological underpinnings of veils, their use as a means of controlling female sexuality, and how they have become markers of socio-economic status and virtue signaling.

Veils present a particular conflict for Western feminists. On the one hand, veils—especially burqas—are emblematic of regimes that are particularly oppressive to women. Feminists and others have moved to ban the wearing of veils in public in the name of female empowerment. But if a Muslim women wants to wear one, is she endorsing patriarchy and setting back the women's rights movement or simply owning her own choices, especially in a culture that might itself be anti-Islamic?

Audio production by Ian Keyser.

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This is a rush transcript. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.

Nick Gillespie: This the Reason podcast, and I'm your host Nick Gillespie. Please subscribe to us at iTunes and rate and review us while you're there. Few things are more symbolic of Islam than head, face, and body veils, right? Well, today, we're talking with author, Rafia Zakaria, whose most recent book, Veil, questions the meaning of burqas, hijabs, and niqabs, both in Islam and in the West. 'Indeed,' Zakaria writes, 'one of the most crucial and most ignored truths about the veil is that, independent of context, it does not have much meaning.'

Rafia Zakaria, welcome to the Reason podcast.

Rafia Zakaria: Thank you for having me.

Gillespie: Let's start by discussing the role of veiling women in Islam, which strikes many people in the United States, and I think more broadly in the West, as a bizarre kind of phenomenon. Those of us who are old enough and Catholic enough to remember women always wearing a head covering when they went to Catholic mass well into the late 60s and even the mid-70s, forget about that. But what is the theological rationale for veiling women in Islam? And then, what are some of the social and historical functions that that veiling serves?

Zakaria: Well, one of the key things, I think, to remember when the topic of the veil comes up as it pertains to Muslims and Islam, is that this is a contested issue within Islamic theology. So there isn't consensus on whether veiling is required or not required or obligatory or optional, and beneath the idea of the veil and beneath this sort of contestation, is that the central idea or the central prescription within Islamic scripture is towards modesty. And so it's an interpretation of how you see modesty. There are instances, traditions, from the prophet Muhammad that essentially say that women should cover their hair and they should cover their arms and have long garments, but the interpretation, again, the larger kernel is modesty.

The other important thing, I think, to remember is that the prescription to modesty is not only for women. It is also for men, in that men are also not supposed to dress in a way that's flashy, that attracts attention to their bodies or to what they're wearing in terms of gold or silks or precious metals, are not prescribed or not encouraged for men either. It's a similar story, I think, in most religions in that the interpretation of faith has largely been in the hands of men, and so there's an undue attention to the prescription toward modesty for Muslim women and very little attention to the prescription for modesty for men. There's also, what you see in contemporary terms, a sort of distillation of the idea of modesty, which has arguable very anti-materialist, anti-consumerist kinds of roots.

Islam was a very poor religion when it started. Its adherents did not have a lot of resources. To this idea that if you dress modestly, it's okay if you're then driving a Ferrari or living in a palace.

Gillespie: There's a lot of that going around in Catholic, Christian, Protestant circles in the West, right? Where you can be a minister and you wear a shabby suit, but you live in a mansion and all that. So maybe that's something that Muslims and Christians can get together on, right? Looking at the hypocrisy of the people telling them 'live a simple and purpose-driven life.'

Veil is a phenomenal read, and I highly recommend it to anybody who wants to understand veiling from a person who is experienced. Can you describe … And veiling happens when a girl meets puberty, right, typically?

Zakaria: Typically, yes. That is when you're supposed to start covering your hair. Of course, sometimes there's little girls want to wear the veil, because they want to look like their moms or their sisters, so you'll see little girls going around with the headscarf as well. Technically you're only supposed to wear it where there might be men who are not related to you. So women who veil must veil in front of anybody who is not their brother, their maternal uncle, their father, their son. Other than those, their husband.

Gillespie: There's a theological explanation for it. Is it also or is it made explicit or is it implicit that female hair, and you know this not just in Islam. There are parts of Judaism that kind of talk this way, as well, but that female hair is an excitement to sexual aggression or sexual appetites. You know, that the arms. I mean, is this pretty transparently an attempt to control female sexuality?

Zakaria: Well, I mean, like I said, within the Quran there is no explicit direction of what the clothing should look like or that hair is somehow part of this kind of untethered female sexuality, but, like I said, the traditions and interpretations that make up the corpus of the Islamic understanding of the veil were, more often than not, derived by Muslim male scholars who wrote on and on since the seventh century. So you have a development, definitely, a development of the idea that these parts of a woman's body are not to be seen and the hair is included among them.

It's an interesting idea, because … And this why I wanted the book to focus so centrally on the veil as it exists today. And the veil as it exists in a kind of a catalytic reaction with the context in which it is found is, because in, for instance, in Pakistan in a good part of the 20th century, the emphasis really was not on covering your hair. It was always on covering your chest, and so we always wore a big scarf that we wrapped around the top half of our body, over your tunic or your shirt, and didn't really cover your hair.

To the extent that within urban Pakistan, urban Karachi where I grew up. And, like I said, I grew up in a fairly conservative family, but the emphasis, again, was just wearing that, not on covering your hair. To the extent that, at the time, there were women who would go around specifically covering their hair, and that was seen as a very political move, which sort of reflected a sort of burgeoning Islamic movements within Pakistan.

Gillespie: Can you describe your experience with veiling briefly? And we're going to get to what does veiling mean in Islam or in countries like Pakistan, and then what it means in the United States or in Western Europe. One of the things that's great about the book is that it's exactly the same thing. It's the same object, and it takes on radically different meanings, and one of the things that's fascinating about your book is that the experience of the women in the veil or behind the burqa or under the burqa is often left out of any analysis whatsoever. So describe your experience with veiling a bit.

Zakaria: Well, the book begins with this observation from contemporary Pakistan, which is, I was in a waiting room in Karachi in a hospital, and I had to spend a lot of time there. My mother was in the ICU, and there isn't any kind of legally-enforced gender segregation in Pakistan. So this was a room that's kind of a public space, but that there are men and women in it, kind of forced there by their circumstances. I was fully covered. My head was covered, but not with a formal headscarf, with just a loose scarf. That is kind of the traditional Pakistani outfit to show our commune.

It was difficult to spend a lot of time there with a lot of men. And, of course, there are men who come from all different kinds of backgrounds. Pakistan is a rural-urban country. In this case, there were these attendants, male attendants, of someone who was a religious elder who was also in the ICU. They were in there and, obviously, they were not used to having women around, especially women whose faces weren't covered.

The book begins then, because there was another women there who was fully veiled, wearing a garment that came up all the way to her feet, and I remember her just … She would pace up and down the room. She would loudly have snacks. She would have loud phone conversation. She was just free in that space in a way that I didn't feel. That made me really question what even my own assumptions of the veil and freedom and public space and claiming public space for women was all about. It made me undertake this investigation into what the veil was and what it is now.

Growing up, like I mentioned, the emphasis was really never on covering your hair, but there were all these other ways in which public and private space was separated. So, yeah, we didn't cover our hair, my mother, myself. My grandmother did, but, again, just loosely. She didn't wear a headscarf. But it was also true that we didn't really have any interactions with the men that we didn't know. They might not strictly have been the definition of related male, but if not they were just you know … Like, so maybe my mother would see her sister's husband, or someone like that, but it wasn't … I mean, it was definitely just family. At the most, maybe someone who came to the house to sell something or something like that. It was not that they were out in the public sphere where they would meet men that they didn't know on a regular basis.

The same with me. I went to an all girls' school where there were literally no men allowed inside. And that is definitely a very middle class, upper-middle class life in Pakistan. There is a class dimension to the veil in Pakistan, in the sense that the women who are in that class, their class protects them, in a way, from having to veil, because they don't have to be out in public spaces very often. Or, if they are, they're public spaces which largely are controlled environments.

For instance, even now in malls in Karachi, on most days a group of two or three men who don't have any women with them cannot go in to these malls. You are not going to be admitted.

Gillespie: Why not? Because there's too many women there?

Zakaria: Yeah, because there are a lot of women there and they don't want men harassing women, because, ultimately, that's going to reduce the number of women that are going to come out there to shop. So it's in their interest to police that to the extent that they can. Now, as Pakistan has … So this is, again, like I said, a class thing. But if you are, I would say, in Pakistan even then, this has changed from when I was growing up where two things have happened.

One, in the large urban centers there are a huge number of women who are now part of the workforce in a way that they weren't in even the early 90s, mid-90s, late-90s. The other thing this is that it's a vastly urbanizing country. It has changed from being a 60-40 rural urban to the opposite, to 60-40 urban rural. So you have huge numbers of women who are coming in from the rural areas who are also, then, participating in the workforce.

With that many women in the public spaces, and this has intensified both the battle over public space in Pakistan, and it has also created a kind of veil revolution of sorts, where women now know that they have to be in these public spaces. If you gotta get to work, you either drive a car or you have to take public transportation or you have Careem, which is kind of Pakistan's version of Uber. You have to take a ride and go in there.

So what are you going to do to protect yourself in a country where, first of all, men are not really used to having women around in public spaces, where there's a huge number of men from rural areas who are really not used to it, and finally, that doesn't really have a lot of legal protections of what could be done if something does go wrong.

For all of those reasons, the veil has become weaponized in a way, because any time women come out into the workforce, there's a saying in the West, there's a moral gray area. Because there is this impression that they have to push through against, that they're somehow morally lax or questionable, because they're out there in these public spaces. What the veil does is that it, first of all, it's literally, as I saw in that hospital environment, is like a physical protection. It's one more layer that separates you from the grit and grind and the gaze and the touch and the groping. So it's that. It's a moral kind of protections as well, because, traditionally, the veil is associated with being very pious and devout. So you can kind of signal with that that you're not there to flirt. You're there to get your stuff done. It's a very crucial, moral signaling within that environment.

Gillespie: You also, in the book, at one point you note that there had been some studies done that when people are listening, say in court cases, and you talk about interesting cases in the West where women are asked to remove their face veils in order to testify, et cetera. That actually that it turns out that when people, especially men, are listening to women who are veiled or scarved or whatever, that when they're scarved, they actually pay more attention to the substance of what the woman is saying. So in a way, and I want to get to the intersection of veiling and kind of Western feminism, that the veil actually foregrounds the substance of a woman in a way, of what she's saying or what she's thinking. Is that correct?

Zakaria: Yeah. I mean, the studies that I talk about definitely found that, which is counterintuitive, as you said, because the usual argument is that without seeing your face, I can't pay attention to what you are saying and really get your facial expressions that are necessary for me to make a judgment. And that might be true in terms of judgements. It's not necessarily true in terms of substance, because I think the idea is that when you can't see their face, your attention is distilled to what they're actually saying and you tend to pay more attention. So yes, that's absolutely correct.

It hasn't prevented, particularly western governments that are banning full-faced veils, it hasn't prevented them from doing so, nor has it prevented them from banning them within the courtroom whole context, but-

Gillespie: You were veiled, right? Or you veiled yourself during a marriage? Is that correct or … Have-

Zakaria: Yes, but that was only-

Gillespie: I was going to say, how did you feel … Because on the one hand, again, in the West especially we look upon the veil as, I mean you talk about this at length, that simultaneously the veil is a sign of the worst form of patriarchy that we in the enlightened West have left behind. Some of us believe, 'Oh, it's never as bad in the West as it is elsewhere in the world,' but then it's also simultaneous that it's this ability to obscure who's really behind that. It becomes a way that Islamic women or Muslim women can become terrorists. We don't know who they are. It has all of these mixed meanings.

When you were veiled, did you feel freer or is it much more ambivalent than that, because in one way you're in a religion that really circumscribes what women are allowed to do, but then it also, as you were talking about, it gives that woman in the waiting room, like she had the ability to kind of just do her shit, right?

Zakaria: Basically, and I have to correct you. I was only veiled for that one ceremony.

Gillespie: Okay.

Zakaria: And then I did wear a headscarf for a time during my teens, but it was only a headscarf. It was never a full-face veil.

Gillespie: And you describe, by the way, for the listeners before they read the book, and I think it's an inducement, too. You describe a couple stories that are straight out of … These were comedies. I'm thinking of things like 'The Trouble With Angels' and 'Where Angels Go Trouble Follows', but, inevitably, you describe a couple of scenes that could have been said in a Catholic girls' school in the 60s or an all-girls school where you lead a bunch of girls in unauthorized outings where boys are coming by. You guys are wearing your headscarves, et cetera.

For me, one of the things that your book really did, which I think is extremely helpful in a contemporary climate, is that I could recognize a lot of the experiences, either that I had or the America that I grew up in, in what you are talking about. It familiarizes something that seems so foreign and so threatening and so off putting. I apologize for interrupting you while making a pitch for people to buy your book, but … Yes.

Zakaria: No. No. Not at all. Yes, please buy my book. Please do buy my book.

Yes. I think the way to think about is that people use whatever they have and Muslim women, at this point are, the veil is one among a variety of tools available to them. It's impossible, I mean there are different aspects of the veil that are important to different people. Within the West, for instance, I think it's absolutely impossible to dislocate the veil from its political meaning. So you having Muslim populations that feel, particularly in Western Europe, places like France, where they feel that they've suffered disenfranchisement and they're culturally invisible in that their identity isn't really culturally acknowledged as French. And then obviously, also, spatially invisible, because of where they're located in these ghettoized suburbs. And then you have a government that is legislating what people can wear in the public sphere, and the two of those things come together where the veil then becomes a very political symbol of rebellion against the French state and against the French system.

Now that is … You wouldn't get the same meaning from it, obviously, in a place like Pakistan where you could wear a headscarf and you're blending in. It leads to interesting questions, both for feminists and for theologians. Because then, from a theological perspective, if you are wearing a headscarf to attract attention in a way, or a full-faced veil, to yourself then is that still a modest act? Is that still part of a prescription to modesty?

Feminists, of course, face a huge dilemma, because on one hand they want to argue for the freedom to do anything. On the other hand, how much choice is it is going to be something that you're going to support? So if I support a woman wearing a full face veil, do I then also support that aspect of the Taliban's tradition and state politics?

Gillespie: How do you answer that? Because that's one of the questions that I think when I say feminists in the West or western feminists, I don't even mean simply women. But I know a lot of mostly everyone I know believes in, obviously, in an equality between the sexes or we might say now among the sexes. Are women choosing to veil themselves? How do you answer that from a feminist perspective? If you want to grant as much autonomy and freedom to individuals, individual women, to do whatever they want, but then is that an acceptable choice? How do you walk that line and look at all the ins and outs?

Zakaria: Well, first of all, the one thing I am sure about is that there should not be any government, whether it's the Iranian or Saudi forces forcing women to wear veils.

Gillespie: Or the Canadian. Or the Canadian government saying you can't.

Zakaria: Or the Canadian government. Right. Yeah, exactly. Or the French or the Canadian who say you can't. So I think that as a feminist that is the first order of business is that-

Gillespie: And I want to point out that, while you wouldn't call yourself a libertarian, as a libertarian, also true that this should not be a matter of the state. It should be something different, but … So that's the first step. We're not talking about state intervention here.

Zakaria: Yes. Beyond that, I think that the questions are a little easier. I don't think that girls … They can experiment with the veil, like I did. I was not yet 18. But I think that the choices have to be interpreted from within the context. And that requires, frustratingly for some, a more case-by-case analysis. You cannot say that no girl X, Y, Z should be allowed to wear a veil, because there are girls who come from families where really there is no pressure in either direction. That's why I say this.

I would even go so far to say that the veil right now, in the world that we're living today really … I'm not sure. I think theology is probably the lowest order of reasoning for wearing the veil. I think that there a lot of other political issues that have completely overshadowed whatever kind of theological or spiritual meaning that there was behind it, simply because it's a symbol that has taken on such inordinate power in relation to this physical reality that the context and the politics of where they are and what they want to signal is so crucial.

Even in the West, I would say … And I'll confess, it's very frustrating even to be the subject of that, because I don't wear the veil and I know that the second I'm speaking in any kind of a public forum, the fact that I don't wear the veil is then … There's a list of interpretive judgements that happens right away about my politics. Whereas it's the same thing is that if I did wear the veil, then there would be a succession of interpretive judgements and those are frustrating, because there are people who …

Then, of course, you have to add to that the fact that brown people are still exoticized within Western contexts. In some cases there are people that would add a greater degree of authenticity. They want a Muslim woman in a veil at their event, because that is the real Muslim woman while the rest …

There aren't any clean lines in this issue, simply because so many political contexts have recognized its value as a political tool, and often that has to do almost nothing with women to be really honest. It has absolutely nothing to do with women or respecting their autonomy or their desire to control what goes on their bodies.

Gillespie: It's amazing you can get out of the house in the morning, to be honest, with all of that. In different ways we all face that kind of thing, but that seems extremely strong. One of the contexts that you write about in the contemporary West, and let's talk about the United States especially, you write about the veil as security threat. Talk a little about that, because I think that's for a lot of Americans, and it's ridiculous to be … The 21st century is practically over as far as I'm concerned, but we're still encountering Islam for the first time.

Zakaria: Right.

Gillespie: But the veil as security threat, how is that governing so much in an American context?

Zakaria: Let's face it. Islam has become the front and center enemy of the age, enemy of the day, in America where so much of American politics is now pivoted against this very tiny religious minority in the country. Again, banning Muslims and registries and all of this kind of inordinate, crazy making fear, and any time you have that you have the appendage that comes with it that is well, first it was just the Muslim men that were dangerous. Now the beast has to be fed. You have to keep feeding it, and so now it's Muslim women as well, particularly veiled Muslim women.

A lot of this, of course, has been imported from Europe. The rhetoric and imagery used by far right groups in Western Europe who have very much pawns. It's easy, but it's kind of crazy, because you've got that coming from places like France and the UK, which have over 10% Muslim populations. It's a different dynamic and a very different demographic of Muslims make up their minorities. Most of them are from areas that they colonized, and so it's migrants who are from their colonies, but even the-

Gillespie: Whereas in the United States, you have cities like Dearborn or Hamtramck, Michigan, which they might be Muslim majority, but they also have more little league baseball teams than the typical American cities the same size.

Zakaria: Right. So you have a demographic that's largely educated, middle class, and not from any particular country, which actually, within the Muslim community in the US, it's always interesting. We don't necessarily all have a lot in common, because I don't know a lot about Somalia and Somalians don't necessarily know a lot about South Asia or Pakistan.

But, of course, we're all Muslims, so we're all dangerous and awful and sinister, and that has definitely become a huge symbol where now any time that the veil … It's gone if you come from 2001 where people like Carolyn Maloney stood on the floor of the House of Representatives, put on a burqa, and talked about how America has to go to war to save these women who are under the burqa, and then all the way now to 2017 where it's like everyone under a burqa is a terrorist, okay? They've got suicide belt under there, and that is definitely the assumption.

Like I said, neither of those have anything to do with the truth, because the US didn't raid Afghanistan to get rid of the Taliban. They wanted a presence there for the war on terror. That didn't have anything to do with the women, but it was a good poster moment. Right now, first of all, I would be hard pressed to say that there are maybe, what, a few hundred, thousand total women, and that's being generous, who would wear face veil in the US, Muslim women.

But then it goes from there. You start with that, and then you say, 'Well, no. the headscarf ones are also terrorists.' And that has become a huge problem. I mean you saw the incident in Portland. There's lots of other incidents, some of whom which don't even get reported, where women with headscarves have headscarves pulled. Other women will pass them in stores and start yelling all these slurs, and that has become a real problem. It has become to the point that now mosques have to have these safety classes for Muslim women who wear the headscarf, because they now are subject to so much negative attention and so much Islamophobia.

That is a true tragedy. I can honestly say even maybe five years ago I would not ever have predicted that would happen in the US.

Gillespie: It is amazing how hair, and I use that loosely to also include scarves, what a powerful signifier throughout history. When you look at the Cavaliers in the English Civil War with long flowing locks versus the roundheads with kind of proto-punk haircuts, punk in America. I used to work at a magazine where my editor would dye her hair, and this was back in the 80s when this was kind of cutting edge, but she would dye her hair magenta or bright green and people would go ape on the street. When you mess with hair, it really gets under people's skin. It is a bizarre and kind of fascinating fact of life I guess pretty much everywhere.

Can I ask … You also, in the book, you've said that Western feminists tend to see Muslim women who are suffering under kind of a more obvious and repressive patriarchies in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan, India, as their lesser sisters. How does that change and does it need to change?

Zakaria: Well, yes, it needs to change, because one of the worst legacies, I would say, of colonialism that we have is this idea that the white people of the world have been this benevolent force that has gone out and civilized the rest of the world without any kind of idea of the heritage or the struggles of the people who lived in those societies or the idea of matriarchal societies and emancipation movements that were already in existence long before then.

And so as someone who writes, you're always kind of working up against this wall, because while we're no longer in the colonial era, we are arguably in a neo-colonial or neo-imperialist moment where a lot of the same sort of rhetoric is regurgitated in, for instance, aid discourse. In the way foreign aid is dispersed and the way projects for women in other parts of the world are conceptualized. So it's very much understood as this 'we are the vanguard of feminism here in the white, Western world,' and we're going to export that to these women out there who are imagined as not having political identities, as not having really any sort of complexity within their own politics or their own existence.

And so that's where that comes from and I think that the obstacle has been is that in sort of conceptualizing this global sisterhood, there's always been a thread that if I talk about that, if I talk about the fact that I don't agree with you on these things or that you're being patronizing or condescending, that the sisterhood will crumble. That has enforced this silence particularly on women in the non-west, in the non-white, Western world.

I think it's the basis … I mean, it has enfeebled ] the movement. I would say that in particularly reference to Muslim countries, because it's precisely that attitude, I would say, that has facilitated … I wouldn't say it's solely responsible or a dominant force, but it has been a force in pushing women towards Islamist discourses where they feel their identity is more …. They have a greater affinity or they're recognized for who they are and what they can contribute as opposed to these women you parade on the stage at your gala or whatever. Here's my sister from Afghanistan, and so on. Whereas you don't really have any kind of concern or any kind of equal intention in terms of having a conversation.

Gillespie: So this is an old problem, too? This is a more positive version, or it's an attempt to help, but, when you were talking about in France, doing things like banning the burqa or banning headscarves in public spaces, one of the things that happens to that … And we assume that that's done out of, and maybe this is too broad an assumption, but it's done because France wants true equality coming out of the French Revolution, egalite. But then, when you're doing that in such a way, you kind of force people to make a choice. It's like if you're talking about me and my culture as a threat, I'm going to give you the most Islamic Islamist Muslim that you can find, and I'm going to double or triple down on an identity that is just opposite of yours.

I guess you're kind of suggesting that within feminism there's something similar at work, where if you're a Muslim woman, but your price of admission into a sisterhood is that you're always the little sister, at a certain point your going to be like, 'Screw that. I'm going to hang out with these people, because they get me more than you do.'

Zakaria: Right, and there's also not this kind of imputation of being behind. So that, 'We already had our women's movement. You've not had yours.' But there is this assumption that that is the template, that is going to apply to every society. A template, which puts so vast in French society or Quebecois society at a headstart-

Gillespie: And without getting a lot of angry mail from our Quebecois listeners, only in a 21st century that is bizarre beyond belief could a Quebecois people ever think that they are at the summit of Western civilization. Can I ask, because you brought up intersectionality, if not explicitly, implicitly, and we'll close out with this. There is a feminist or a feminist sensibility and a sentiment. It's particularly strong among women, but it also is men. People who see … We can debate the definition of feminism, but there's a feminist worldview. Then is it also partly when you talk about developing world women, which is already a loaded term, but say Muslim women, as they're treated by an archetypal, white, heterosexual feminist, and I'm getting ahead of myself. How much does sexual orientation, how much does birth origin matter? How much does religion? How much does gender? How much does education level?

Intersectionality claims that effectively there is no single total identity that controls a person, that is most important. Is part of what you're talking about here kind of a recognition of the limits of feminism as a way of uniting people? Not because feminism isn't wrong and not because women don't have broadly similar experiences that they can share that creates a bond between them that are among them that is distinct from ones that they might have with men. But it's also that we live in a truly postmodern age where we know that no one theory, no one identity, no one idea is actually going to explain very much.

It's just that what might be considered a crisis in feminism or a feminist unity around the globe is simply a reflection of the fact that maybe an educated lawyer from Pakistan has more in common with an educated lawyer from America than they do with their nextdoor neighbors who are plumbers or are Catholic and they're Protestant, et cetera.

Zakaria: Well, I agree with you to the extent that identity is conflict and there are many demands on how we negotiate that within different contexts. I do think that feminism can be at the forefront of your politics. The critique from the global south toward white Western feminism is that it talks the talk, but it doesn't … So for instance, I'll give a very concrete example that I've been studying. Canada says it now has a Feminist International Development Policy, which means that they're going to give 95% of their development aid to programs for women. But, at the same time, they continue to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia, for instance, and participate in other military adventures, which directly impact women and their lives.

So it's that sort of thing that is problematic, because if we want, as feminists, to place gender identity front and center as the basis of our political decision making, then you have to consider those conundrums and then you have to talk about them. You can't just use feminism as this sort of selling point or this wrapping paper for all sorts of other things. That involves some very contentious conversations. It also involves taking a backseat, which I think is genuinely hard for Western women, because their idea of inclusion for a long time has been, 'Okay. Well if I give an award to an Afghan woman, then it's fine if they're not at the policy making dinner the next day.'

That's the problem. The problem is that women are being included, the women from different backgrounds and religions in the global south, but they're not being included in meaningful ways. Because that involves necessarily ceding power, at least to some extent, and that's the challenge before the feminist movement right now.

Gillespie: Well, we will leave it there. At the risk of making a 1960s era sitcom joke, if you're telling American women to take a backseat, you're going to be sleeping on the couch for a long time. But, we will-

Zakaria: Well, there's a lot of American Muslim women. They could take the front seat still.

Gillespie: Yes. There you go. Well, thank you so much. We have been talking with Rafia Zakaria. Her most recent book is Veil She also wrote a history of Pakistani marriage called The Upstairs Wife, which is highly reviewed and wonderful book. She writes widely in places like The Baffler and Boston Review and elsewhere. Rafia, thanks so much for talking to us.

Zakaria: Thank you, Nick. This is awesome.

Gillespie: The new book is Veil. Check it out. This has been the Reason podcast and I have been your host, Nick Gillespie. Please subscribe to us at iTunes and rate and review us while you're there.