Alice Walker and her views on Muslim women

Guardian Unlimited: No retreat

Sara Wajid interviews the novelist Alice Walker, best known for writing The Color Purple and - uh, not much else. They discuss the recent elections, 9/11 and the reaction to it, her affair with Tracy Chapman, and the supposed connection between FGM, the niqab and high heels.

I ask what she makes of the controversy that has been rumbling in the UK regarding the wearing of the niqab. She immediately plugs into the political nuances. “In Possessing the Secret of Joy, there is an African woman who comes from a society where female genital mutilation is practised, and, because her home has been destroyed, her people have been dispersed, she feels like she’s lost her connection to who she is. She decides she has to be genitally cut. Women have to be extremely careful about choosing something that they consider an act of defiance that can really be used to further their enslavement.

“I’m not convinced that women have the education or the sense of their own history enough or that they understand the cruelty of which men are capable and the delight that many men will take in seeing you choose to chain yourself - then they get to say ‘See, you did it yourself’. Like we wear these high heels that hurt us, well it’s foot-binding, you know, but we think by now, ‘that’s very sexy’ … “It’s very, very dangerous, that’s all I would say. I’m for women choosing whatever they want to do but they have to really know what they are doing. If I had to offer any counsel I would say [to British Muslim women] ‘Use some of this time not just to be on the defensive but to interrogate your own culture and see how much of it you really believe yourself in your heart and how much of it you can let go of. You don’t have to be a prisoner of your religion.’”

So, asked about women who choose to wear niqab, she starts talking about her own fictional character who undergoes FGM as some sort of act of cultural resistance. She regrets it, as you might expect, and ends up killing the woman who does the job for her.

Did the interviewer think to tell Walker the importance between FGM and niqab: that the first is painful and irrevocable while the second is neither? You can choose not to put the niqab on when you go out and you can choose to stop wearing it altogether. You can’t do this when you have had bits removed from your body. Comparing high heels to foot-binding is similarly idiotic. Of course, very high heels are harmful, and wearing them all the time often makes it difficult to walk in anything else. But it does not involve breaking a woman’s foot and curling her toes in so that she cannot walk properly. Footbinding is painful and takes years.

And this woman thinks women don’t know enough to make such choices for themselves. But I’m sure most of them know the difference between high heels and niqab on one hand, and footbinding and FGM on the other.

The article does not mention whether the following two questions were asked:

  • Why are all the characters in The Color Purple, other than the black women, either evil or stupid?
  • How did Olinka, the village referred to in Nettie’s letters in The Color Purple, become a country and a language in Possessing the Secret of Joy?

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