‘Travels in a Veil’, could perhaps be described as a social anthropological study, although it does not intend to be this exactly. April Fonti writes about her travel experiences in Pakistan, Sweden and Iran. Her encounters with Muslims are described and more specifically the book centres on her experiences and observations of Muslim women and the issues faced by them. But I found that this book was not only a journey of discovery of Muslim women, but also a journey of discovery of herself and her own views regarding Muslims in general and women in specific.
Now, we all know that issues regarding Muslim women have become a very controversial and much debated discussion, and it is for this reason that I find books like these to be extremely important to read. As a Muslim woman myself I obviously have a vested interest in this topic and a need to know what is being discussed. This book has reminded me of something crucial and that is, that it is extremely dangerous to make generalizations about Muslim women. I have to admit that some of the things that April describes in her book are alien to me, which further emphasises the need for understanding, even amongst Muslims from different countries and regions. I like that April makes mention of the fact that generalizations cannot be made, and she backs up her own experiences with other studies and expert opinions, which I felt grounded the book within a broader context.
The book is divided into 3 parts, and the chapters are named after women that April met in her travels, thus each chapter focuses on the experiences of those women.
The first part discusses April’s travels as a single woman travelling through conservative Pakistan. Here she experiences intense seclusion of Muslim women in a way that seems to really disturb her. She also experiences what it is like to transgress the social and cultural laws. Of significance is that this is the place where she meets Shaheen, an Iranian man who is someone who she initially admires for his liberal views. Shaheen is an important person in this book, not because of the relationship that develops between April and him, but because of how he allows April to come to certain conclusions about Muslims and gender issues.
The second part of the book focuses on April’s time spent living in Sweden with Shaheen, and mixing mainly with his Iranian friends. She becomes a sort of participant observer in Sweden, because as much as she is part of the Iranian Muslim community there, she still largely ends up feeling like she doesn’t exactly fit in.
The third and final part of the book I regard as a sort of re-discovery period. Here April travels alone to Iran and through Pakistan and India again, and she sees things through the eyes of someone who is older and much more experienced.
I have to admit that I liked reading the book, it was sort of like reading someone’s travel diary and it had a personal touch to it. I also like that the complexities involved in the discussion of Muslim women and liberation, freedom, seclusion and so on, was highlighted through experiences. Nonetheless, I still have some issues with this book.
My biggest issue with this book is that at times I find that April tends to judge women a bit too harshly. As much as she attempts to be open-minded and ready to empathize with the experiences of Muslim women, she still tends to view them from a Western ideological perspective. Her own ideas of empowerment and liberation still seem to take the foreground even when she makes mention of the fact that perhaps Western liberation is not such an easy answer.
I would have liked it more if she had met and observed these women without prior ideas of what it means to be a liberated and independent woman, but of course, I understand that this is not easily achievable. The reason that this is one of my biggest issues though, is that it is generally expected that everyone’s ideas of liberation and empowerment should be similar. However, studies have proved that people from different cultures have different understandings of what empowerment means. In my own Masters study conducted on the empowerment of Muslim women, I found that the Muslim women I studied generally would not be regarded as empowered in accordance with dominant empowerment theory, and the reason for this is because they see empowerment in very different terms. For instance, for the women in my study empowerment was not about individual independence but about being part of a group and giving back to the community through this group interaction.
I understand fully that April’s travels took her to particular parts of the Muslim world and she thus came to view Muslim women in a certain way. Perhaps if she had traveled to other parts and met different Muslim women then her ideas would have differed vastly. But, be that as it may, her encounters have left her with the belief that a reinterpretation of Islam is necessary in modern times. This again is a topic which has become debatable, I personally am of the opinion that Islam needs to be understood for what it really is, instead of observing Muslim practices (which most of the time are so closely linked to cultural practices that it’s hard to tell the difference between what is religious and what is cultural). I think that a true and unbiased understanding of Islam in its entirety and not the way Islam is being practiced by certain people is essential before making claims of the need to reinterpret, but this is just my opinion.
I admire April because unlike many other people, she has decided to write based on experience, but as a Muslim woman, I do not believe that the actions or reactions of the people that she encountered is representative of the real teachings of Islam. Islam emphasizes respect for women, it insists on no compulsion in religion, its rules and punishments are the same for both men and women (despite what many people practice and believe). In Islam it is not acceptable for a man to take advantage of any woman, it is not even permissible for him to touch an unrelated woman. Men are also not supposed to be mixing with women on an intimate level, and men also have a dress code. There are so many other things I can mention here, but I think it diverts from what is relevant to this book.
I will end by saying that there were certain parts of this book that left me feeling uneasy, and I couldn’t understand why it did, because after all, this is a book about someone’s experiences and it shouldn’t have to match my understanding of things, in fact, I wouldn’t learn from it if it did match my understanding. I took some time out to try and make sense of why I felt this way and I realized that it’s because for me and the women I know, Islam is about our personal religious beliefs, rather than only being a social, cultural or political system. So you will find me wearing the black abaya and not finding it stifling at all (yes even in the midst of summer), and you will find me content when I am wearing my headscarf, and you will find my friends happy to cover their faces, and many of us have made the choice to be stay at home mothers and wives without regarding ourselves as dependent, but the difference here is that we have made the choice ourselves. I think that these choices we have made is the defining thing, perhaps if we had not made the choice ourselves then we wouldn’t be regarding these things as liberating while other Muslim women regard it as stifling or oppressive.
So again, one of the biggest things that this book has reminded me is that generalizations are extremely dangerous; just like generalizations of Muslim women are dangerous, so are generalizations of things like empowerment, liberation and independence. I’ve written this before on my blog and I will mention it now, I do not feel the need for any particular ideology to be “The Standard” by which everyone in the world lives their lives. I think that people should be allowed to make their own choices of what makes them happy, and I think that people should be allowed to define their own “Standard”.
All in all, I would recommend that you get this book and read it, look how much discussion it has generated in just one review. If anything, it is a book that brings about discussion, a book that has an intention of asking the difficult questions and a book that focuses on experiences instead of simply accepting hearsay, and for these reasons I recommend you to read it.