Veils of ignorance and fear

What does loathing of the hijab really mean?

Peoples of all faiths and of none should cheer news that Egypt's religious authorities are expected to issue a ban on the wearing of the niqab, or face veil. During a visit to a girls' school in Cairo, says the BBC, "Sheikh Mohamed Tantawi, dean of al-Azhar University, called full-face veiling a custom that has nothing to do with the Islamic faith." He instructed a pupil to take off her niqab, a move that has provoked predictable opposition from other clerics.

According to al-Jazeera: "Sheikh Safwat Hijazi, a scholar and preacher, said he would personally sue anyone who prevented his daughter or wife wearing full niqab from going about her daily life, including entering government offices. "Preventing a woman from wearing what she wants is a crime," Hijazi said. "Whoever says the niqab is a custom is not respectable."

That there can be a debate about this, however, is an advance in itself, especially when the Islamic credentials of the al-Azhar dean are so strong. (I was going to say "not open to question", but a) people are already questioning them and b) debate has to involve questioning, so it is another advance that no one's authority should be considered so absolute that it cannot be challenged.)

It is hard to argue that covering a woman's face does much to benefit her in any way at all. But what about the hijab? More specifically, what about western attitudes towards women wearing the headscarf here in Europe? Reading one passage in Brian Whitaker's new book, What's Really Wrong With the Middle East (which I will be reviewing for the NS), made me think about this.

When armies move on the ground to conquer and subjugate, they need moral and ideological cover. It is this that gives the dominant narrative of the "Muslim woman" its raison d'être. No wonder that the "Muslim woman" liberation warriors, the likes of Nick Cohen, Christopher Hitchens and Pascal Bruckner, were the same people who cheered American/British troops as they blasted their way through Kabul and Baghdad, and who will no doubt cheer and dance once more should Iran or Syria be bombed next. Soldiers shoot with their guns; they with their pens. They are hegemony's apologists.

Whitaker was quoting an article by Soumaya Ghannoushi, which you can find here. She was dealing with the situation in the Middle East, but it seems to me that those who are most vociferous in their opposition to the wearing of the hijab in Europe are taking, whether they realise it or not, an equally hegemonistic approach. For the underlying assumption is that no woman could ever freely choose to wear such an oppressive item of clothing, and that any who claim to have made such a choice of their own volition are suffering from some sort of false consciousness.

This very clearly represents a particular western, liberal vision of what freedom for women is, and as such is a perfectly valid view. What is not valid, however, is for this view to become so set that it is no longer open to argument; for the hijab to become an object of fear and hatred, utterly alien and "other", and subject to legal restriction. Last month the Flemish authorities banned the wearing of the hijab in schools, producing this reaction from the Antwerp imam Nordine Taouil: "We are getting the signal of 'you are not welcome'."

It doesn't help that those who view the headscarf in this way seem to listen only to the likes of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has said that she sees no difference between Islam and Islamism. (For good measure, her view of the Prophet Muhammad is that: "By our standards, he was a pervert. He ordered the killing of Jews and homosexuals and apostates, and the beating of women.") She doesn't call for the hijab to be banned, but she obviously doesn't see it as a choice anyone should make. "You can wear whatever it is that you want, you can give out whatever message that you want to give out -- but you have to understand that if that message is rejected, then you can't call people Islamophobic and expect to be taken seriously. If you choose to wear a veil, people might ridicule and oppose you," she said in an interview with the Independent's Johann Hari.

That, frankly, sounds to me exactly like an encouragement to ridicule and opposition, and to Islamophobia. And all of this is loaded into the wearing of the hijab -- when one doesn't have to look very far back in European history to find plenty of Christian women whose heads were covered by scarves, too (you could find many in villages in the Balkans and eastern Europe today where that is still the case).

Now it would be fair to admit that I would be surprised if my wife, my sisters-in-law, or any of my bare-headed, female Muslim friends, chose to start wearing the hijab. I would certainly ask them why they had chosen to do so. I hope, though, that I wouldn't be horrified. Why should I be, if I feel no such thing when I see the hijab-wearing girls walking to school near me in north London, or the similarly clad woman who looks after the crèche at my gym?

Some women who wear the hijab may be oppressed, but others are not. For many it may be no more arduous a convention or choice than the expectation that men working in the City of London should possess a pinstriped suit and a pair of smart shoes. Western liberals are right to argue for women's rights, but there are far more worthy battles than this. Equally, it would be a useful step for them to consider that, for some women, wearing the hijab is perfectly normal.

Should this be a battle they engage in at all? They may conclude that it is. It would be better, however, if they stopped to ask this of themselves occasionally, rather than contenting themselves with demonising a piece of cloth.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Getty.
Show Hide image

Angela Merkel's call for a burqa ban sets a disturbing precedent

The German chancellor's plan for a partial ban of the full-face veil is a clearly political move, which will do more to harm those women who wear it than protect them.

 

In these febrile times, women’s freedom and autonomy has become a bargaining chip in the poker game of public propaganda — and that goes double for brown, Muslim and migrant women. Angela Merkel should know as well as any other female politician how demeaning it is to be treated as if what you wear is more important than what you say and what you do. With the far-right on the rise across Europe, however, the German chancellor has become the latest lawmaker to call for a partial ban on the burqa and niqab.

We are told that this perennial political football is being kicked about in the name of liberating women. It can have nothing to do, of course, with the fact that popular opinion is lurching wildly to the right in western democracies, there’s an election in Germany next year, and Merkel is seen as being too soft on migration after her decision to allow a million Syrian refugees to enter the country last year. She is also somehow blamed for the mob attacks on women in Cologne, which have become a symbol of the threat that immigration poses to white women and, by extension, to white masculinity in Europe. Rape and abuse perpetrated by white Europeans, of course, is not considered a matter for urgent political intervention — nor could it be counted on to win back voters who have turned from Merkel's party to the far-right AFD, which wants to see a national debate on abortion rights and women restricted to their rightful role as mothers and homemakers.

If you’ll allow me to be cynical for a moment, imposing state restrictions on what women may and may not wear in public has not, historically, been a great foundation for feminist liberation. The move is symbolic, not practical. In Britain, where the ban is also being proposed by Ukip the services that actually protect women from domestic violence have been slashed over the past six years — the charity Refuge, the largest provider of domestic violence services in the UK, has seen a reduction in funding across 80% of its service contracts since 2011.

It’s worth noting that even in western countries with sizeable Muslim minorities, the number of women who wear full burqa is vanishingly small. If those women are victims of coercion or domestic violence, banning the burqa in public will not do a thing to make them safer — if anything, it will reduce their ability to leave their homes, isolating them further.

In the wake of the Brexit vote, racist and Islamophobic attacks spiked in the UK. Hate crimes nationally shot up by 42% in the two weeks following the vote on 23 June. Hate crimes against Muslim women increased by over 300%, with visibly Muslim women experiencing 46% of all hate incidents. Instances of headscarves being ripped off have become so common that self-defense videos are being shared online, showing women how to deflect the “hijab grab”. In this context, it is absurd to claim that politicians proposing a burqa ban care about protecting women: the move is transparently designed to placate the very people who are making Muslim women feel unsafe in their own communities.

When politicians talk about banning the burqa, the public hears an attack on all Islamic headscarves — not everyone knows the difference between the hijab, the niqab and the burqa, and not everyone cares. The important thing is that seeing women dressed that way makes some people feel uncomfortable, and desperate politicians are casting about for ways to validate that discomfort.

Women who actually wear the burqa are not invited to speak about their experiences or state their preferences in this debate. On this point, Islamic fundamentalists and panicked western conservatives are in absolute agreement: Muslim women are provocative and deserve to be treated as a threat to masculine pride. They should shut up and let other people decide what’s best for them.

I know Muslim women who regard even the simple hijab as an object of oppression and have sworn never to wear one again. I also know Muslim women who wear headscarves every day as a statement both of faith and of political defiance. There is no neutral fashion option for a woman of Islamic faith — either way, men in positions of power will feel entitled to judge, shame and threaten. Either choice risks provoking anger and violence from someone with an opinion about what your outfit means for them. The important thing is the autonomy that comes with still having a choice.

A law which treats women like children who cannot be trusted to make basic decisions about their bodies and clothing is a sexist law; a law that singles out religious minorities and women of colour as especially unworthy of autonomy is a racist, sexist law. Instituting racist, sexist laws is a good way to win back the votes of racist, sexist people, but, again, a dreadful way of protecting women. In practice, a burqa ban, even the partial version proposed by Merkel which will most likely be hard to enforce under German constitutional law, will directly impact only a few thousand people in the west. Those people are women of colour, many of them immigrants or foreigners, people whose actual lives are already of minimal importance to the state except on an abstract, symbolic level, as the embodiment of a notional threat to white Christian patriarchy. Many believe that France's longstanding burqa ban has increased racial tensions — encapsulated by the image earlier this year of French police surrounding a woman who was just trying to relax with her family on the beach in a burkini. There's definitely male violence at play here, but a different kind — a kind that cannot be mined for political capital, because it comes from the heart of the state.

This has been the case for centuries: long before the US government used the term“Operation Enduring Freedom” to describe the war in Afghanistan, western politicians used the symbolism of the veil to recast the repeated invasion of Middle Eastern nations as a project of feminist liberation. The same colonists who justified the British takeover of Islamic countries abroad were active in the fight to suppress women’s suffrage at home. This is not about freeing women, but about soothing and coddling men’s feelings about women.

The security argument is even more farcical: border guards are already able to strip people of their clothes, underwear and dignity if they get the urge. If a state truly believes that facial coverings are some sort of security threat, it should start by banning beards, but let's be serious, masculinity is fragile enough as it is. If it were less so, we wouldn't have politicians panicking over how to placate the millions of people who view the clothing choices of minority and migrant women as an active identity threat.

Many decent, tolerant people, including feminists, are torn on the issue of the burqa: of course we don't want the state to start policing what women can and can't wear, but isn't the burqa oppressive? Maybe so, but I was not aware of feminism as a movement that demands that all oppressive clothing be subject to police confiscation, unless the Met’s evidence lockers are full of stilettos, girdles and push-up bras. In case you're wondering, yes, I do feel uncomfortable on the rare occasions when I have seen people wearing the full face veil in public. I've spent enough time living with goths and hippies that I've a high tolerance for ersatz fashion choices — but do wonder what their home lives are like and whether they are happy and safe, and that makes me feel anxious. Banning the burqa might make me feel less anxious. It would not, however, improve the lives of the women who actually wear it. That is what matters. My personal feelings as a white woman about how Muslim women choose to dress are, in fact, staggeringly unimportant.

If you think the Burqa is oppressive and offensive, you are perfectly entitled never to wear one. You are not, however, entitled to make that decision for anyone else. Exactly the same principle applies in the interminable battle over women's basic reproductive choices: many people believe that abortion is wrong, sinful and damaging to women. That's okay. I suggest they never have an abortion. What's not okay is taking away that autonomy from others as a cheap ploy for good press coverage in the runup to an election.

This debate has been dragging on for decades, but there's a new urgency to it now, a new danger: we are now in a political climate where the elected leaders of major nations are talking about registries for Muslims and other minorities. Instituting a symbolic ban on religious dress, however extreme, sets a precedent. What comes next? Are we going to ban every form of Islamic headdress? What about the yarmulke, the tichel, the Sikh turban, the rainbow flag? If this is about community cohesion, what will it take to make white conservatives feel “comfortable”? Where does it stop? Whose freedoms are politicians prepared to sacrifice as a sop to a populace made bitter and unpredictable by 30 years of neoliberal incompetence? Where do we draw the line?

We draw it right here, between the state and the autonomy of women, particularly minority and migrant women who are already facing harassment in unprecedented numbers. Whatever you feel about the burqa, it is not the role of government to police what women wear, and doing it has nothing to do with protection. It is chauvinist, it is repressive, it is a deeply disturbing precedent, and it has no place in our public conversation.

 
 
 
 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.