The Many Riches of Human Flourishing: On the Veiled Agent in Veil Narratives
Kuzhiyan, Muneer Aram
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This paper critiques what it calls the parochial conception of agency animating the narrative of the Malayalam writer Khadija Mumthas' novel Barsa (2007) that is anchored in the notion that acts of resistance to relations of domination exhaust the field of human action. Following contemporary cultural anthropologists Talal Asad (1993), Saba Mahmood (2005) and Charles Hirschkind (2006), I argue that if unveiling of a Muslim woman in the spirit of liberatory endeavour constitutes one modality of action, the religiously-inspired programme of moral formation, including adopting the veil, practiced by many Muslim women in Kerala, as elsewhere, often decried for their patriarchal proclivities is also a speech act that makes up agency, no less. I find particularly useful here the idea of 'docility' that Mahmood (2005) develops out of Foucault (1990): rather than being a synonym for passivity, 'docility' in this line of thought takes on a meaning of 'teachability' that demands will, effort and perseverance. This understanding brings to sharp relief the Foucauldian insight that specific relations of subordination enable and enact modes of human agency. Lost in Khadija Mumthas' monologue of agency is the fact that divergent conceptual understandings of a practice create divergent subjectivities and social and political life worlds and it would be a mistake to privilege one over the other. The novel, I argue, betrays the author's dis-ease with the modalities of agency other than subverting norms and belies the burden of proving Islam's compatibility with the ideals of liberalism-a burden she shares with many contemporary Muslim reformers who fit the bill 'liberal Islam.' Finally, by way of comparison and contrast, I call attention to the anglophone Sudanese writer Leila Aboulela's two novels The Translator (1999) and Minaret (2005) which, even as they exploit as one of their key thematic concerns the role of religion in the protagonists' identity formation and personal development, do not however, unlike Barsa, commit the mistake of reducing the agency of the female Muslim subject to disrupting relations of domination.