Monday 29 June 2009

The great French Niqab Debate

Since we last last discussed, President Sarkozy has been speaking publicly against the Burqa. There seems to be a lot of confusion on what is being banned. Well, France wants to outlaw anything that covers the face (not the head). So the Burqa or Niqab would be banned. On a personal level I do not think Niqab is required by Islam but people are free to make their own choices.

How would it feel if we start banning Goths? Even though they have a weired dress sense which serves no real purpose, there would be an outcry if someone tries to ban that. Or how about banning catwalk on the fashion arena? Ex-president Chirac said that "Hijab was a sign of Agression" so not to be outdone, Sarkozy said "Burqa is not welcome here".

There have been lots of reactions worldwide about this French debate and here is a selection.


At my health club on the campus of a Chicago university, I recently watched a young Muslim woman covered in head-to-toe religious garb -- head scarf, long-sleeve tunic and long pants -- as she played basketball with her boyfriend, a tall, black-haired youth dressed in jeans and a striped button-down shirt. All around them, shapely women in skimpy shorts and tight tank tops cavorted on treadmills and Stairmasters, but the black-haired youth had eyes only for his head scarf sweetie. Pretty and slender, the girl moved with the grace of a natural athlete. When her boyfriend missed a shot, she caught the ball on the short bounce, then, planting her sneaker clad feet firmly on the court, launched it toward the basket, where it whooshed easily through the net. Her boyfriend gave her a high five, and she grinned proudly.

Though loose fitting, the girl's clothes were far from frumpy. With delicate embroidery on the front of her tunic and a floaty elegance to the soft trousers, the outfit recalled the kind of casual, boyish chic pioneered in the Jazz Age by Coco Chanel. Her hair and flesh were hidden completely, but hints of her lovely, willowy form were suggested in the contours of her clothing. What's more, she seemed as confident in her attractiveness and as comfortable with her body as the half naked, pony-tailed coeds sweating around her.

As I watched the girl leave the club, her boyfriend trailing behind her carrying his backpack and hers, I had a startling thought. Hijab ("modest wear") doesn't have to mean female subservience and sexual repression.


Westerners who tsk, tsk over hajib clad women, convinced that religious dress always reflects repressive, sexist attitudes, should consider their own history. In the west, fashion has often seemed like a torture foisted on women by misogynistic men. It was a male doctor in France, after all, who during the Napoleonic Wars invented the laced, S-shaped corset that allowed generations of women to cinch themselves to near suffocation. Couturier Charles Frederick Worth followed with filth collecting skirts, seat cushion bustles and catering tray hats laden with frou- frou and dead birds. Now we have Marc Jacobs's mini-skirt rompers that look like something your toddler wears, and Christian Louboutin's disaster-in-waiting eight inch high heels.

High Fashion, Oscar Wilde once said, "is a form of ugliness so unbearable that we are compelled to alter it every six months."

Western women are slaves of fashion. Muslims, meanwhile, answer first to God

Here 10 British women explain to Andrew Johnson why – to varying degrees – they choose to cover up

Saleha Islam

45, from London. Head of the NSPCC's Asian Child Protection Helpline. Wears the hijab – usually a headscarf to cover the hair and shoulders – and Western clothes

"I started wearing hijab properly about 15 years ago. I've worked in social work for over 20 years and have worked with all types of people and I've learnt what's oppression and what isn't. I'm not an oppressed woman. I head a large service in the NSPCC; I'm one of the few women trustees of a mosque. Wearing the hijab is just saying 'I'm a Muslim'. It's part of my identity. I like looking smart, I like looking good. But it's modest. I'm not going to say there aren't any problems in Muslim families. I lead the Asian Child Protection Helpline in the UK and we suffer the same sorts of issues as anybody else. It took a lot of guts for me to wear the hijab. There were few Muslims who were wearing it at the time, so I had a lot of questions from my own community."

Sarah Joseph

38, from London. Editor of Emel, the Muslim lifestyle magazine. Wears the hijab

"I wear straightforward Western clothes with it. It was very much a feminist standpoint for me. It's saying I reject beauty fascism and aspiring to bodily perfection. I was brought up in the fashion industry, where looks were predominant and I didn't want that. I became a Muslim 21 years ago. The hijab is also religious obligation and part of a spiritual journey. You try and wear clothes which are part and parcel of your spiritual life."

Sanja Bilic

33, from York. PhD student. Wears the hijab with Western clothing

"I'm European: I'm from Bosnia, but I'm British. I came to England for a two-week holiday when I was 16 in 1992. The war broke out and we couldn't go home. It was a very traumatic time. When I first put on the scarf, it was commented on for about five minutes as if I'd changed my hair. I wouldn't wear the niqab as I don't believe it is justifiable for me, but I'm not going to condone it or condemn it."


In the northern Paris suburb of Saint-Denis, with its busy market, fast-food joints and bargain clothes shops, Angelica Winterstein only goes out once a week – and only if she really has to.

"I feel like I'm being judged walking down the street. People tut or spit. In a smart area west of Paris, one man stopped his car and shouted: 'Why don't you go back to where you came from?' But I'm French, I couldn't be more French," said the 23-year-old, who was born and raised in bourgeois Versailles.

Once a fervent Catholic, Winterstein converted to Islam at 18. Six months ago she began wearing a loose, floor-length black jilbab, showing only her expertly made-up face from eyebrows to chin. She now wants to add the final piece, and wear full niqab, covering her face and leaving just her eyes visible.


Human rights groups warned this week that the row over niqabs risks exacerbating the growing problem of discrimination against women wearing standard Muslim headscarves. Five years on from the heated national debate over France's 2004 law banning headscarves and all conspicuous religious symbols from state schools, there has been an increase in general discrimination against adult women who cover their heads.

"Women in standard headscarves have been refused access to voting booths, driving lessons, barred from their own wedding ceremonies at town halls, ejected from university classes and in one case, a woman in a bank was not allowed to withdraw cash from her own account at the counter. This is clear discrimination by people who wrongly use the school law to claim that France is a secular state that doesn't allow headscarves in public places. It's utterly illegal and the courts rule in our favour," said Renee Le Mignot, co-president of the Movement Against Racism and for Friendship Between Peoples. "Our fear is that the current niqab debate is going to make this general discrimination worse."

Samy Debah, a history teacher who heads France's Collective against Islamophobia, said 80% of discrimination cases reported to his group involved women wearing standard headscarves.

He had rarely seen any instances of women wearing niqabs, even in the ethnically mixed north Paris suburb where he lives. "From our figures, the biggest discriminator against Muslim women is the state and state officials," he said. "What people have to understand is that the concept of French secularism is not anti-religion per se, it is supposed to be about respecting all religions."

The current initiative against full Islamic veils began in Venissieux, a leftwing area on the industrial outskirts of Lyon. Its communist mayor, André Gerin, led proposals for a clampdown, saying he saw increasing numbers of full veils in his constituency.

"I call them walking prisons, phantoms that go past us, it's that visual aspect that's an issue," Gerin said. "There's a malaise in the general population faced with the proliferation of these garments. I sense that on the part of Muslims, too."

Gerin said women in niqab posed "concrete problems" in daily life. "We had an issue in a school where a headteacher at the end of the school day didn't want to hand back two children to a phantom," he said. Gerin has refused to conduct the town-hall wedding of a woman wearing niqab. Another woman wearing a full veil was refused social housing by a landlord in the area. The mayor said that when women haven't removed their face covering, it has resulted in conflict with public officials who often felt insulted or under attack. But he denied stigmatising the wider Muslim population.

"The current situation [where women wear niqabs] is stigmatising Muslims," he said. His aim was to "establish a debate with the Muslim community, integrate Islam properly into French life" and expose fundamentalist practices.

Two previous calls for a law restricting full veils have been left to gather dust. This time, the debate is gathering force. There are divisions in the government itself – the feminist Muslim junior minister, Fadela Amara, supports a niqab ban while the immigration minister, Eric Besson, warns it would create unnecessary tension.

Horia Demiati, 30, a French financier who wears a standard headscarf with her business suits, said: "I really fear an increase in hatred." She recently won a discrimination case after she and her family, including a six-month baby, were refused access to a rural holiday apartment they had booked in the Vosges. The woman who refused them argued that she was a secular feminist and didn't want to see the headscarf, "an instrument of women's submission and oppression", in her establishment.

Demiati said: "This niqab debate is such a marginal issue, yet it risks detracting from the real issues in France."


Increasingly, veiled young women chose to look inwards, withdraw from society and benefit from the networks of solidarity offered by salafism, rather than fighting for their choice in the political sphere. The choice to wear the niqab is often linked to the breakdown of the French social model of integration, rather than religious radicalisation stemming from disadvantaged neighbourhoods under the control of extremist or terrorist movements – which is the alarmist argument of Ni Putes Ni Soumises, the group founded by Fadela Amara, who joined the government when Sarkozy created his cabinet and whose street credibility is greater among politicians than it is in the banlieues.

The terms of the debate have changed since 2004. The feminist movements and the left, in particular, now say they reject the ghettoisation effect a ban on the burka would have on women wearing it. France's official position appears isolated when Denmark and Belgium are welcoming their first veiled elected politicians and Obama is reminding the world, in his Cairo speech, that western countries should not tell Muslim women what to wear. France's European neighbours debate the burka with more caution. In those countries, it is not the cultural or religious values of the burka that are being discussed, but legislation around security issues and identification.

What the burka crisis underlines is that the debate on Muslim women's empowerment is crucial. But it has to be conducted with the participation of those who are primarily concerned and also be useful to citizens as a whole, rather than simply reinforcing the political class and its electoral objectives.

There are several points of contention with the arguments of those who see the banning of the burka as a desirable move.

Firstly, there is the assumption that women wear the burka because they are “forced” into it. The article mentions that if a pending government inquiry into the matter found that the burka was “forced” it would “contradict republican principles”.

In phrasing the issue as such, it creates a false dichotomy: either you are free or you are oppressed, in which republicanism is associated with unbridled liberty and social and religious practices are reduced to a stifling fundamentalism. And there is no middle ground. We are encouraged to think that the mater is completely black and white, devoid of any murky shades of grey reflect the complexities of layered identities and social expectations. Which, as any vaguely perceptive person can comprehend, is not an accurate reflection of social reality.
No individual identity comes into existence in a vacuum.

We are all products of our environments: of value systems, institutions, expectations, cultures and traditions that precede us. Through our families, we are constructed in this world through series of interactions (family, friends, authorities). Therefore, because of the fact that we are socially constructed, the notion of a completely pure choice can only ever be a fictional idea because it denies the social forces that surround us. We, as fundamentally social individuals, will always bear an element of our environment in our behaviours, decision and desires. These factors need to be borne in mind in any discussion of choice vs. imposition

Secondly, the article mentions that “Many see the burka as an infringement on women’s rights and is being increasingly imposed by fundamentalists”. It echoes the argument that says that the burka, and even the less encompassing hijab (veil) are de facto examples of gender oppression and patriarchy. It leaves no room for arguments about why the burka can be desired by women, for example in that it conveys an culturally-contingent image of an ideal femininity, one based on humility and faith.
By the same token, it also encourages us to forget about the ways in which patriarchy manifests itself in different yet comparable ways in Western secular societies. For example, the practice of cosmetic surgery, which pushes women, often young girls, to adhere to a sexualised feminine ideal that is unnatural, often ethnocentric. Or other societal and family pressures, such as the institution of marriage or heterosexuality.

No society is completely devoid of sexism, racism, homophobia or other prejudices; to pretend so is delusional. There are many examples in our own cultures of how gender values still form, even weigh upon, women. Therefore, when faced with the demonisation of Islamic forms of dress, I am compelled to ask: Why is it that western women feel more affronted by a woman who is humbly covered than one who is exposed? Why do we not repel in disgust at the way the sexualised female body is used shamelessly to sell anything: from fabric softener to metro tabloids (The Sun’s page 3 anyone?).

By signaling out the ways in which a cultural Other is perhaps experiencing injustice, we suspend criticism of the ways in which our own societies perpetuate similar injustices, but in different ways.

Thirdly, ‘cultures’ are never insular, self-contained boxes. Since the ancient days of the Silk Road trading through to European colonialism and then ultra-modern technologies, people have been in contact with different value systems and living, which in turn impact on the form that cultural manifestations take.

Accordingly, it might be useful to ask how the social, economic and political tides of our own times have impacted on the notion of identity of, say, migrant communities in Europe. Or how decades of increasing Euro-western xenophobia, including Islamaphobia, impact on the way that new generations choose to express and articulate their ethnic/religious identities.

The burka, as a type of dress and a SYMBOL like all others, has no meaning in itself. It only comes to acquire meaning when in a given context, and that meaning can change over time as context changes. A classic example is the wearing of the hijab in 20th century Iran: during the rule of the Shah, it was publicly banned. Consequently, women who were opposed to the Shah’s ruthless dictatorship deliberately chose to wear the hijab as a means of expressing their discontent with the regime, of revolting against the established order. To them, wearing the hijab was an act of resistance. Fast forward ten years: after the 1979 revolution and the hijab was forcefully imposed on women, it became the means through which a paranoid conservative government pushed the population into submission. Therefore, it became a symbol of oppression. So within 20 years, the same piece of fabric worn over the head came to mean completely different things to the people wearing it.

By conceiving of the issue in this way, we open ourselves to explanations for Islamic dress that exceed the liberated West vs. oppressed East paradigm. We can come to realise that wearing traditional Islamic dress is not necessarily the manifestation of some age-old archaic tradition of backward desert-dwellers that has no place in today’s society, but a glimpse into deeper issues about forging one’s identity in an ever-changing world. It can, for example, be conceived of as a phenomenon of 2nd or 3rd generation immigrants from ex-French colonies in reaction to their interaction with a hostile, often racist and supremacist, European culture. The burka can also be a means of rejecting what many see as the hyper-sexualisation of women in western cultures, propagated by rampant consumer capitalism, in which the body is just another item used to sell or to be sold.

Fourthly, there is a multiplicity of reasons why a woman could chose to wear the hijab or the burka. Inevitably, will also be cases where women will be encouraged to do so by family members, most often because it conveys the values of ideal femininity and womenhood in some Muslim circles: piety, humility, integrity. By the same token, there are numerous reasons why a woman can chose to diet and to undergo cosmetic surgery, because she is succumbing to western societies’ ideas about ideal femininity, in which one who controls her body, according to certain superficial, even pathological, ethnocentric beauty norms, is also in control of her life. Both are incidents of behaviours that can come about as a result of family/social pressure, and are therefore both problematic, and need do be dealt with sensitively and intelligently so as not to patronize those women involved.

Banning the burka to combat integration problems is as senseless and unproductive as banning collagen lip implants to combat gender oppression.

The most productive tactic is engagement, encouraging public debate, to try to reveal the complex community dynamics and processes of identity construction that affect us all. That cannot be acheived by prohibition. Banning things, whether types of dress, or books or music, constitutes a types of censorship in which something is deemed unacceptable, illigitimate. By doing so, it denies a voice to people who are involved in such practices for complex reasons.
Banning the burka would also marginalize people, push them to the fringes of society which will invariably lead to increased isolation, alienation and bitterness. Instead of solving problems posed in the name of ‘integration’, it will backfire heavily, and, in the heated international climate of stigma surrounding all things Muslim, make the women and families involved feel like they are being discriminated against because of their beliefs and ways of life.

Within today’s extremely fragile geoplolitical situation, to ban the wearing of the burka or the hijab in the name of secular individualism is to accentuate the injustice perpetuated by religion. In doing so, we fool ourselves into thinking that those injustices committed within liberal secular societies are somewhat less serious, less in need of public critique and ban. To ban the burka in France is to perpetuate a myth about the superiority of a secular French identity when faced with religious social paradigms.

To ban anything is to deny people the opportunity to inhabit, explore and discuss all the myriad types of identity that exist beyond narrow tropes defined by fictional, and often politically-loaded, dichotomies.

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