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
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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.