Saturday 29 May 2010

A modesty slip for misogyny.

Slip away the modesty cloth of faux-feminist posturing over the veil and you'll find an ugly skin of nationalism, male intolerance and misogyny.

In his article Thinly Veiled Threat, Mehdi Hasan impressively fails to assume that the debate over the niqab and burqa - recently outlawed in Belgium, with similar laws tabled across Europe - is all about him. This sets him apart from nearly every man writing, legislating and proclaiming about this most symbolically loaded piece of clothing.

Hasan's piece is learned and thorough, but it misses perhaps the most fundamental question about the veil debate. The question is not to what extent the veil can be considered oppressive, but whether it is ever justifiable for men to mandate how women should look, dress and behave in the name of cultural preservation.

Male culture has always chosen to define itself by how it permits its women to dress and behave. Footage recorded in 2008 shows a young member of the British National Party expounding upon the right of the average working man in Leeds to "look at women wearing low-cut tops in the street". The speaker declares the practice 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 right 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. [read the rest at New Statesman]


  1. You can't sell or drink alcohol in Saudi Arabia although women are expected to wear the niqab and burqa whether they want to or not. In Europe men AND women can take a drink if they want to and, by and large, can dress any way they want to, excluding the niqab and burqa in a few secularly disposed European countries like Belgium and France. Saudi Arabia bans and proscribes so many things as to make life for women tantamount to slavery: a few countries in Europe ban the niqab and burqa but allow complete freedom and liberty in respect to all other behaviours on the part of their female residents and their men.

    Which policy do you consider the most enlightened?

  2. George, that has to be one of the most pathetic attempts at straw man-cum-"if you like it so much why don't you go live there" I've ever seen. If you like arguing with people who prefer Saudi's treatment of women to France's, why don't you go find some?

    Laurie: excellent article, as usual. I find the idea of states determining, under the banner of liberation, freedom, and equality, which clothes women can and cannot wear, brain-meltingly contradictory. But it's always worth bearing in mind the strange contortions of logic a brain atrophied by racism and xenophobia is capable of.

  3. @ George Annear: the phrase that springs to mind in answer to your question, apart from pointing out that you seem to mean "more" rather than "most", is "false dichotomy".

  4. I read Mehdi's piece over the weekend and I thought it was very balanced. I don't think it was about 'him'. What he was writing about, how the veil can be interpreted as a slight against Islam as a whole, is quite true. Also, where do you stand on women choosing to wear the veil? My position on this topic is clear cut. When France outlawed the use of religious symbols in civic buildings and educational institutions, I did clap along. Why? Because first of all we're human, and that's primarily the way I would like to relate to other human beings. Not because I'm black, or atheist, or Cuban. But this new law of prohibiting the use of the niqab or burka publicly will backfire. And it's nothing to do with Muslim women or whether they're oppressed by men (some of them are not, we do have to learn how to make a distinction between violence against women and women who choose to wear the veil without any male influence). As Mehdi correctly asks: what's going to happen when Saudi women visit Paris? Will we see the French police arresting them on the spot and fining them?

    There's a hell of a lot more to the whole veil vs no veil debate. And why is it that everytime the veil is mentioned, someone has to include scantily clad women in the discussion? It doesn't even beg for a response. They're not related and it's only conducive to lazy thinking. Fully covered Muslim vs midriff-baring western 'gal'. As one of the Simpsons would say: 'Duh!'

  5. I love this article. There is not enough examination of men, masculinity and power. Keep turning the camera back at them!

    I don't know if I would use the term 'male power'or 'male culture' so blatantly myself. It is a sensibility thing with me, in terms of how I prefer to talk about discourse and dominant ideologies. I think how we present 'male power' depends on how we view 'patriarchy'. I would love to discuss this issue further with you.

  6. A Cuban in London wrote:

    And it's nothing to do with Muslim women or whether they're oppressed by men (some of them are not, we do have to learn how to make a distinction between violence against women and women who choose to wear the veil without any male influence).

    It is, and it isn't. The problem is that one can't tell how oppressed a veil/headscarf-wearing woman is by looking at her, unless we assume she is oppressed simply because she is religious (and compounds her oppression by 'choosing' to wear the headscarf as an expression of her belief). If it is indeed 'all about the menz', then that would be because religion itself would also have to be 'patriarchal' - which neatly sidesteps Western women's own relationship to colonialism and imperialism,* let alone the tension between a secular feminism and religious belief in general. But does that mean that any female hostility re. the veil is also the result of the patriarchy? Or do women get a pass on this issue because of their gender?


    *See Franz Fanon's 'Algeria Unveiled'?

  7. @ Anon Cuban; can we tell how oppressed a woman is just by looking at she is dressed, even if she is not wearing a veil or headscarf?

  8. Redpesto,

    I was intrigued by your response. Not in a negative way, but because you've opened a whole can of worms here. Especially your inclusion of western women and their (unintended, sometimes) relation to colonialism and imperialism. It's been very well documented, for instance, how US women conspired against radical racial reforms for blacks around the turn of the 20th century. faced with the choice of lobbying for the right to vote for women or widening up the scope to include black woman and men, they fought fervently for the former whilst at best ignoring the latter. Angela Davies's 'Women, Race and Class' was an eye-opener many years and continues to be nowadays.

    Many thanks for your comment.

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