October issue 2010

By | News & Politics | Opinion | Viewpoint | Published 14 years ago

Amidst the growing tide of Islamophobia, the West’s obsession with the Muslim woman’s veil seems to have reached a new height. “Go Burn Your Burqa,” “Kill the Veil,” or so read some of the sign boards at a protest demonstration against the ‘Ground Zero’ mosque here in New York. The French Parliament has just approved a law to ban the veil from public spaces. Earlier, Belgium became the first country to put a ban on the burqa. Similarly, the Swiss minaret ban is also being described as an imminent precursor to a ban on veiling.

Interestingly, these European states now join Iran and Saudi Arabia in an exclusive, but unenviable, rare club of countries which impose a dress code for women in the public domain. All of these states invariably cite the ‘protection of dignity’ and ‘freedom of women’ to justify the unjustifiable — the restriction of individual freedoms.

Discussion on Muslim women’s rights is always welcome. However, it is only meaningful when discussed within a well-grounded framework. The reductive interpretation of veiling as the quintessential sign of the Muslim women’s lack of freedom feels inherently wrong. It is also safe to say that any woman, who is forced to wear a veil against her will, faces issues that will not be solved by simply prohibiting the garment. Denouncing the veil as a ‘medieval imposition’ is a gross violation of the Muslim woman’s own understanding and convictions. Personal freedom, which in many ways is central to self-respect, excercised through veiling is just as valid and important a choice as the freedom to be unveiled.

However, the West has not yet grasped the fact that the freedom to wear whatever outfit they want is not exactly the zenith of personal liberation for every Muslim woman. It is unfortunate that contemporary discussions on Muslim women have become stuck in a vicious cycle, with the western media, feminist lobbies of the West and their sister enterprises in the East consistently berating the position of Muslim women, and the Muslim groups subsequently responding with much anger and emotion. Amidst all this hullabaloo, what is exceedingly unfortunate is that there is usually little said or done to address the actual issues facing Muslim women.

That the Muslim women’s clothes are the subject of such intense interest that they can inspire extensive devotion to the subject may seem ludicrous, but it is an unfortunate reality. Simplistic assumptions and stereotypes have reduced Muslim female identity to a single article of clothing — the veil. And the veiled Muslim woman has come to represent the ultimate visible marker of the ‘differentness’ and ‘inferiority of Islamic societies’ in the discourse on the Muslim world. In the words of Leila Ahmed, a noted scholar at Harvard Divinity School, “Veiling, to western eyes, has become the symbol of both the oppression of women and the backwardness of Islam.”

The Belgian legislators took pride in being “the first country to spring the locks that have made a good number of women slaves,” even as they decided to impose a minimal fine on women caught wearing the veil in public “because these women are often victims.” The ‘Muslim woman as a victim’ litany is hauntingly familiar. And it is rather unfortunate that the West is returning to its old colonial aspirations by using the ‘liberation of Muslim women’ excuse to exert social control and political power. By refusing to acknowledge that some Muslim women may actually be willing to veil, the West is doing Muslim women a big disservice. Ultimately projects that profess to save ‘other women’ also reflect a sense of superiority by the West, a form of arrogance that deserves to be challenged.

In her though-provoking article “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others,” eminent anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod describes the “dangers of reifying culture” which is apparent in western tendencies “to plaster neat cultural icons like the Muslim woman over messy historical and political dynamics.” What is most informative about Abu-Lughod’s argument is her discussion on ‘cultural relativism’ which recreates ‘an imaginative geography of West versus East, us versus Muslims, cultures in which First Ladies give speeches versus others where women shuffle around silently in burqas.’ Such ‘cultural relativism’ was manifestly evident in the vigorous assault on the burqa by Laura Bush and Cherie Blair after the 2001 war in Afghanistan.

Even if they consider the veil to be a projection of culture, are western societies deciding that they would much rather support some elements of cultural projection over others? If that is the case, it is far more honest to outrightly say so rather than toy with notions of supposed liberalism, egalitarianism and republicanism. If France, for instance, believes in enforced secularism, it should admit that such secularism is compulsory and possibly disenfranchising to the individual. If it believes in state control and conformity, then differences in ideology, culture and sartorial choices obviously cannot be tolerated. But if one argues for personal freedom, then any choice, sartorial or cultural, must be allowed to stay unless it can be proved inimical.

In this context, it is also interesting to note the arguments of Caroline Sagesser, a religious expert at the Université Libre of Brussels, who compares the Belgian ban on the burqa to “using a hammer to kill a fly.” “In Belgium there are very, very few women wearing a full veil in public. It is a non-problem,” she says. The aggressive amplification and over-statement of this non-issue is perhaps the real issue here. Not only does it place a fringe group at the centre of the debate on Muslim women, this obsessive perception of threat from the scarce Muslim population of Europe also excessively distorts reality.

02Veil10-10This can be observed in the symbolic representations of the Swiss minaret ban such as the official government-sponsored banners which projected this ban. The poster shows numerous minarets shaped like missiles tearing through the Swiss flag and a burqa-clad silhouette of a Muslim woman to reinforce the message. Judging from this image one would imagine the country being overrun by burqa-clad Muslim women with a minaret erected at every other corner of the country. In reality however, according to Amnesty International, less than a few dozen women wear the burqa in Switzerland and only half the number of mosques exist in Switzerland than were actually shown in the poster. In reality, most Swiss people are likely to never have seen a woman wearing a burqa. Such exaggerated posturing against an envisioned Muslim threat will only lead to further alienation of the Muslim communities and of the Muslim women who constitute half of these communities.

Needless to say the European discussion on Muslim women is taking a very interesting direction. The Belgian law will create a new offence of incitement to cover the face or hair for “reasons of gender.” Similarly President Sarkozy pointed out that the veils “do not pose a problem in a religious sense, but threatened the dignity of women.” Such statements suggests that the veil is not considered to be a religious symbol but rather a feminist one. However, although such rhetoric is being doled out under the garb of women’s rights, as can be observed from Sarkozy’s statement, it is quite evident that this issue is as much a political one. This emphasis on feminism rather than Islam is obviously hypocritical because the Swiss example clearly shows that the two issues are inextricably interconnected.

The veil has also been described as “a visible statement of separation and of difference.” But what, one may argue, is wrong with a mark of separation? And isn’t fashion (religious or not) a means of self-expression that encourages difference and separation? Many in the anti-burqa camp call it “a weapon of subjugation,” a “flexible mobile prison that cuts the wearer off from the rest of the world” or a “walking prison” for women. Anthropologist Hanna Papaneck, who worked extensively in Pakistan, also describes the burqa as a “portable seclusion” but she saw it as a “liberating invention because it enabled women to move out of segregated living spaces while still observing the basic moral requirements of separating and protecting women from unrelated men.” Papaneck asserted that for many Muslim women such forms of dress have become so conventional that they gave little thought to their meaning and ultimately they became merely a sartorial choice.

The veil, as a sartorial choice, is no more or less relevant than bikinis and mini-skirts. All of these forms of clothing offer clues to the wearer’s worldview and can be enforced implicitly through peer pressure and a collective desire to look and behave a certain way. And just as these can be personal choices, so can the veil. But when judged by the western standard of liberation and women’s freedom, which is actually somewhat measured by how ‘uncovered’ women are and how closely their clothing approximates western notions of dress, many Muslim women obviously fall short of such requirements.

In reality however, misguided actions towards supposed ‘emancipation’ and ‘liberation’ are therefore futile — particularly because they cannot be enforced from above. As scholar John Esposito famously put it, “A modern Muslim woman isn’t necessarily wearing western clothes and a veiled woman isn’t necessarily oppressed.”