Monday 8 February 2010

Thinly Veiled Misogyny

...written for The Samosa, 08.01.2010

The Islamic veil is the most symbolically loaded item of clothing in the world. In the nine years of war that have followed the World Trade Center attacks of 2001, the various forms of Islamic female head-covering - hijab, niqab and full-body burqa - have been condemned as oppressive, celebrated or shunned as representations of cultural difference, denounced by those who claim to defend women's rights and defended by those who advocate religious tolerance.

The veil has been used to justify cultural conflict, to explain state attacks on civil liberties, to placate opponents of America’s war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and, just recently, as a basis for cultural persecution of French citizens by their own government.

President Nicolas Sarkozy joins a litany of male world leaders with a strong opinion on the veil. His version of a solution is to attempt to force through a partial ban on the full veil, currently worn by an estimated 1,000 French women. For Sarkozy, like many world leaders and commentators, asserting symbolic state control over the way in which women dress is more important than, for example, pursuing a comprehensive strategy to support the tens of thousands of French women from every cultural background who are victims of domestic violence.

That doesn’t matter to Sarkozy, who is more concerned with “sending a message” to “extremists” – most of whom, one suspects, will be other men. Nor did it matter to David Aaronovich, who in an article for the Guardian in 2003 expressed his confusion over how to “understand” the dress code of some Islamic women: “Take the hijab – now ubiquitous in many British cities ... I really do not know what is being demanded of me. Is it saying, ‘Don’t look at me’, or ‘Look at me’?”

Aaronovich may not have considered the possibility that the hijab isn’t trying to ‘say’ anything to him at all – the possibility, upsetting to many men, that what women wear and how they behave is not necessarily to do with him. In her recent polemic One Dimensional Woman, feminist academic Dr Nina Power hypothesises that the veil, for Western men, represents an attack on the internalised ideology of misogynist capitalism. “Aaronovich's confusion is interpretable in terms of a generalized imperative that all femininity be translatable into the logic of the market,” explains Power.

It may come as a shock, but for individual women across the world, the way in which we dress is rarely the defining quality of our human experience. The fact that our clothing choices and the ways in which we present ourselves are understood by society as the sum total of our personhood is a difficult and dispiriting reality for women today.

Anyone who has had the traumatic experience of growing up female in a culture that diminishes the personhood of women understands that the way in which they choose to dress is compromised by cultural mores, and will inevitably affect how they are judged as human beings. Context is everything, as Tehmina Kazi, the director of British Muslims for Secular Democracy (BMSD), explains:

“As well as it being a religious choice, many women find the veil really liberating, in that they feel it allows them to be judged and spoken to as a person first, especially in a culture that over-sexualises women. I do not wear hijab myself, but I respect those women who choose to do so, and who knows, I may make that choice myself someday, if I become more devout.

“But of course, in places where women are forced to wear hijab or burqa, the garment is no longer liberating. Forcing women to go veiled destroys the real purpose of wearing hijab. It destroys the beauty of a woman reading the texts for herself and making an informed spiritual choice.”

For many women living in Islamic cultures, whether in Europe or in Asia, an independent, informed choice is difficult to come by. Maryam Namazie, spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, questions the assumption that all women who wear the veil outside Sharia countries do so out of choice: “Australia’s senior Islamic cleric recently compared unveiled women to ‘uncovered meat’ implying that they invite rape and sexual assault. Whilst misogynist sermons are the norm in mosques across the world … a climate of intimidation and fear makes many a woman ‘choose’ the veil even in places where veiling is not compulsory.”

Women wearing the niqab

For every woman wearing hijab because of personal religious conviction or comfort, there is another going veiled because of social or state pressure – and this is where feminist and liberal thought often fails to make a subtle enough case for personal freedom. In the course of writing this piece, I spoke to many white Western women who questioned the difference between women wearing the Islamic veil and women going out ‘bundled up in a hat, scarf and long coat’. The answer, of course, is that there is every difference.

For secularist activists like Namazie, the veil is more than just a piece of clothing – it has become a symbol of women’s oppression under Islam, and deserves to be treated as such: “The veil, more than anything else, symbolises the bleak reality [of life for women in strictly Islamic countries]: hidden from view, bound, gagged, mutilated, murdered, without rights, and threatened and intimidated day in and day out for transgressing Islamic mores. And this is why the veil is the first thing that Islamists impose when they have any access to power.”

British columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown agrees, citing Rahila Gupta's assertion that “we cannot debate the burkha or the hijab without reference to women in Iran, Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia where the wearing of it are heavily policed and any slippages are met with violence ... This is a cloth that comes soaked in blood."

The politics of symbolism are precarious, even if one’s eventual goal is liberation. Ariel Levy’s recent essay in the New Yorker decries the exchange of symbolic for systemic identity politics – a perennially tempting strategy for anyone working to enfranchise women or ethnic, cultural or sexual minorities. Feminism in particular is prey to the same confusion of the symbols and substance of oppression expressed by the French premier, which is why bra-burning - although the practice never actually occurred - has become such a tenacious image. In the same piece, Namazie advocates veil-burning as a symbolic gesture of resistance, but pro-woman activists cannot be satisfied with symbolic resistance if we want to change the world.

If a real strategy of global resistance to the oppression of women is to be built, it is profoundly anodyne to question whether the Islamic veil is a symbol of religious choice and cultural pride or an emblem of the second-class status of women in Islamist cultures. The veil is consummately both of these things, and the liberation of women across the world will not begin with veil-burning any more than the long march to freedom in the West really began with bra-burning.

In fact, the closer one looks at the extreme arguments both for and against the veil, the more one suspects that this issue isn’t really about concern for women at all. Footage recorded in 2008 of a speech by a representative of the fascist British National Party articulates this attitude perfectly. In it, the young BNP speaker expounds upon the right of average working men in Leeds to “look at women wearing low-cut tops in the street”; he declares that the right of men to objectify and consume the female body, is “part of British history - and more important than human rights”, and laments that “they” - variously, Muslims, foreigners and feminists - want to “take it away from us”.

Never mind the rights of the women in question to wear what they want or, for that matter, to walk down that Leeds street without fear of the entitled harassment made extremely explicit in this speech. This is not about women. This is about men, and how men define themselves against other men. Even Alibhai-Brown agrees that part of the problem with the veil in the West is that it has come to represent “a slur on decent Muslim men, portrayed as sexual predators who cannot look upon a woman without wanting her.”

In the dialect of male-coded cultural violence, whether it takes place on a street in Leeds, in a Middle Eastern valley, or in the minds of a generation raised on sectarian squabbling and distrust, women are valuable only and always as a cultural symbol. The furore over the veil dehumanises Islamic women, turning them into symbolic territory over which men can thrash out their cultural differences. And this is a strategy that goes right back to the playground; there are suggestions that in one school in North West England, male students from Islamic backgrounds have been bullying female Muslim pupils regarding dress codes and segregation.

Shocking as this might sound to non-Islamic sensibilities, it is just one more iteration of the everyday terrorisation of female students into following a dress-code – the pulling up of skirts, pulling down of tops and snatching away of cultural signifiers that goes on in every playground across Britain.

Competing male ideals of femininity have long been used as an ideological basis for militarism, colonialism and social control, and powerful men have long mouthed the noises of feminism to justify their militarism. George W Bush has never been a friend to the women of the world, having used his first days in office to establish his anti-abortion agenda as a condition of American aid to the world’s neediest people. Journalist Katharine Viner noted in the Guardian in 2002 that, just as President Bush used the premise of liberating the “women of cover” from their men in the days leading up to the bombing of Afghanistan, Lord Cromer, who was British consul general in Egypt from 1883 to 1907, declared that the veiling and seclusion of Islamic women was the “fatal obstacle” to the Egyptians’ “attainment of that elevation of thought and character which should accompany the introduction of Western civilisation.”

Cromer expounded on the notion that Egyptians should be “persuaded or forced” to become “civilised” by disposing of the veil. But on his return to England, the “civilising”, veil-burning Cromer saw no contradiction in founding the Men’s League for Opposing Women's Suffrage – a group which tried by any means possible to prevent the women of Britain from gaining the right to vote.

Wars have always been fought by men over the bodies of women. Today, Islamic women in particular find themselves in the unenviable position of understanding their bodies as an ideological battleground, whether they live in Southend or Saudi Arabia. Hawkish leaders have long approached the Islamic veil as a tool in the symbolic politics of colonialism and repression; feminists and pacifists must not fall into the same trap. If we want to win the argument for the emancipation of women across the world, we need to counter the savage politics of symbolism with a mature politics of liberation – because wherever we live and whatever we wear, women are more than pawns in a cultural war between violent, intolerant men. We are fully human beings, with battles of our own to fight for the future of humankind.


  1. is Maryam Namazie, like Sarkozy, tiny tiny imperialist scum, in your opinion?

  2. This is exceedingly interesting and thoughtful. Thank you.

  3. It's not even about the veil being a *symbol* of oppression so much as an active tool which creates and reinforces oppression continuously. Women will never have a voice in countries where its use is compulsory, because their faces have literally been removed from sight and therefore easily from mind. They do not have to be regarded as individuals.

    Women saying "but I choose to wear it" isn't even enough to balance the damage it does, because of COURSE they feel safer wearing it. I'm sure it's very reassuring to be invisible, and to be doing the things which will prevent possible violence to you in the street. That doesn't mean it's not mentally and socially damaging to yourself and others.

    The only excuse I can even begin to entertain is that women should be free to choose to wear it as a religious observance, and that quickly runs up against what kind of religion would demand it. Women's place in Islam is absolutely indefensible.

    The veil degrades both women and men, reinforcing the idea that men are helpless against their urges and women should protect themselves so as not to tempt them in the first place, that sex is dangerous, and all the other reactionary responses you get from a misogynist religion phobic about sex, bodies and impurity.

    Women ARE more than pawns in men's problems, and for that reason the veil should be argued against in any society which calls itself liberal. As for Sarkozy's ruling (which as you say affects a vanishingly small % of women) I agree with you completely - he could be spending time on much bigger issues which affect a lot more people.

  4. who am i to tell any woman what she should or should not wear? telling someone they must remove it is just as dictatorial as telling someone they must wear it - but Sarkozy fails to see the parallels.

    all i can do is fight for a society which allows women to choose freely without reprisal, then hope that they are empowered to do so.

  5. Me no understand the point of these 2000 words, doctor.

    I get the default assumption about the evil chaps controlling and dominating, 6000 years of patriarchy and all that. Wouldn't expect anything else. And, to be fair, it does approximate to reality, although I don't think it's helpful to look at it through your particular prism.

    "For every woman wearing hijab because of personal religious conviction or comfort, there is another going veiled because of social or state pressure"

    Yes, we understand that. It's OK if sisters are wearing it for themselves, bad if someone's making them. I'm with you there.

    But ... and this is the big but ... how do you tell ?

  6. I have to admit the issue is going over my head a bit and as a man I'd have problems expressing an opinion on it aside from "If they want to wear it and aren't forced into it, then fine by me". But it seems to me these days that the veil issue is becoming like that of the abortion and creationism issue in some parts: Used as a firebrand to stir up support rather then dealing with the issues.

    We've all seen various Christian groups go nuts over the issue of abortion and creationism v. darwinism when there are plenty of other, more important issues to deal with in the religious and political spheres (For example, domestic abuse as you mentioned above Penny.). And then there was the Spanish Prime Minister's move to bring up the abortion issue to save his daughters from flack from the media after a photo of was leaked of him, Obama and their family showing they were quite goth, and he's worked hard to protect his family from the tabloids.

    Because as we all know, focusing on the real problems and making promises you can keep is hard. Much easier to go use the same old lines to get people worked up.

    Laban: How do we know? Short of Totalitarian regimes watching their people the whole time, how about by building a more liberal society where putting such pressure on women is a big no-no and women do not feel threatened or guilty for reporting to the proper authorities about a situation that they are forced into wearing a veil (or any other situation, like an arranged marraige for instance)?

  7. "Laban: How do we know? Short of Totalitarian regimes watching their people the whole time, how about by building a more liberal society where putting such pressure on women is a big no-no"

    Well France recently barred someone from becoming a citizen because they forced their wife to wear the veil...

  8. Wearing a veil is, in my opinion, stupid, but it is nothing like as stupid as trying to ban it. That is beyond stupid.

  9. There is no injunction in the Holy Qu'ran concerning women being veiled and in western culture there is no tradition in respect to women having to mask themselves or disguise themselves before men.

    When I worked in Saudi Arabia I was not allowed to drink alcohol. I enjoy a drink but, as a guest in another country, I respected and adhered to the cultural tropes and modes of behaviour expected from me by my hosts. Likewise Islamic women living in European countries should respect and adhere to our values, none of which involve wearing a disguise other than at a fancy dress party!

    The veil is an alien and unnecessary construct specifically designed to subjugate women that deserves not place in western society.

    As such the veil should be banned and Muslims who wish to settle permanently in Europe should obey the law or move to a more civilised Islamic country... like Pakistan, for example, or Saudi Arabia where the behead people caught in a state of drunkeness.

  10. @ George Annear, sorry, exactly who gets to decide on "our values"? Why do so many people who talk in these "us and them" terms have no problem with Christianity, which is clearly imported from the Middle East? In the interests of consistency, shouldn't you declare Xianity is alien too.

  11. @George: Are you arguing for a revival of the guillotine on the basis of "improper clothing"?

  12. You are well named, Illogic, my friend. I will say no more and will restrict my pen... hmm... metaphorically speaking... now as in my previous comment. I than' you.

  13. Love this piece, very insightful, concise, and as always, stirring and inspirational.

  14. I wonder if George's "respect" for his Saudi Arabian hosts in not drinking might have more to do with his last point about the penalties for being drunk.


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