Marieme Hélie-Lucas on 'Veil-S'

WLUML Networkers
Whoever today does not add an S to 'veil' and, even worse, refers to ‘The Islamic Veil' (singular), wittingly or unwittingly, promotes the fundamentalist agenda. In these troubled times of history, I have become finicky about concepts and epistemology, writes sociologist and founder of WLUML, Marieme Hélie-Lucas
Where are the veils - and the non-veils - of my childhood? Where has their religious, geographical, cultural, social and political diversity gone? Into which grave of history? With what political consequences?

In Algeria alone, from north to south, one could see the veil of Algiers, a white piece of cloth, which, in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the mischievous Algerian cartoonist Slim raised to expose stylish women's legs in his drawings. It was worn with white, fluffy, laced fabric over the lower part of the face, covering the mouth, but highlighting irreverent eyes darkened with khol. In Kabylie, where women were never veiled, they wore colorful dresses and head scarves (imagine an attractive blossom of colors elegantly perched on the head, tied in various ways, depending on villages or families – a far cry from the Islamist nun outfit). The outspoken women of Ouarsenis, wore equally colorful dresses and were decked out with all their jewelry even while ploughing their lands. The black forever-mourning veil from Constantine hid women from head to toes. The secluded women from Mzab, making rare visits to their female relatives, turn their heads to the walls when they pass a man in the narrow streets. Their white woolen veils allow only one eye to peep out. The flowery, thin cotton cloth used on the northern border of Sahara, protects from the sun and occasional sand winds and is loosely worn over the head and shoulders, like the veils in Christian iconography, depicting women and men of the Bible. Veils, scarves, shawls were functional for men and women, regardless of their creeds, in the climate of the Middle East.

So many different veils, so many traditionally unveiled women, in one 99-percent Muslim country.

Clearly, if such diversity of dress appears in a single country, it should go without saying that there is even more variety in the whole of the « Muslim world, » which expanded from the Middle East into Asia and Africa, and is now moving into Europe and the Americas: saris and boubous, dresses and loin cloths, salwar kameez, bare breasts among some Muslim women in parts of Asia alongside jeans and T-shirts, which until recently, did not seem to clash with their faith.

Let us also look at class and the contradictory ways to live and display social status. In Algeria, veiling was primarily an urban tradition; peasant women were mostly unveiled. When women followed their men promoted to city jobs -- from villages where tradition allowed women to walk out freely unveiled -- it was common for the wives to subsequently start veiling. And even when they returned on occasional visits to their villages, they continued veiling as a display of urbanization, sophistication and their husbands’ social position.

Yet just as frequently, one saw women who traditionally veiled in their villages remove it when they moved to town, then re-veil when visiting the family in the village. This was also a sign of urbanization, modernity and rank. The bare head was a sign of women's emancipation for a growing number of school girls and young working women during Algeria’s seven-year struggle for liberation struggle of Algeria and even more so after independence in 1962. Rare photos of women in the guerilla movement show them wearing either military uniforms or, at least, comfortable men's clothes; while those who planted bombs in the heart of the city during the Battle of Algiers in 1957 were clad as Westerners – a far cry from the outfits of female suicide bombers in today's Middle East.

However veiling was also used as camouflage to hide the identities of women freedom fighters (and of men, as set for posterity in one sequence of Gillo Pontecorvo’s film, The Battle of Algiers). Frantz Fanon, in glorifying this « revolutionary » veil, unwittingly planted seeds of confusion, about the potentially positive side of veiling. This ambiguity was further fueled by the brutal move of French troops for « modernization » and « integration, » which, in 1960, both induced and forced some women to publicly unveil during the « putsh of the generals, » an episode that pro-veiling forces in France today do not hesitate to recall and manipulate. We recently witnessed the same ambiguity and manipulation of women's interests by right-wing forces and regimes, when the Bush administration bombed Afghanistan purportedly to rescue "poor oppressed Muslim women."

Veiling has long been the focus of high social and political stakes and that it is still the case today.

The long, greyish so-called « Islamic dress » that fully covers arms and legs was imported into Algiers by fundamentalist groups in the mid-1970s. It had never been seen before in any area of the country. « It is the costume of students. » « We give it to poor families, because otherwise fathers would not allow girls to go to university. » How clever! Few people objected: who would dare impede girls’ education in revolutionary Algeria? No one challenged the assumption that, in a freshly independent nation, so proud of its struggle, fathers were likely to deprive their daughters of totally free schooling. The argument of poverty is still used today as fundamentalist groups distribute the « Islamic dress » to women in Bosnia or Turkmenistan, with total impunity, in relief packages after war or natural disasters In Snow, the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk [1] describes Islamists as they recruit voters by going from door to door, men talking with men and women with women, offering pots and pans, soap and food, courting the poors ' votes – and at the same time, explaining that poverty and misery are a punishment for having forgotten God – just as they did in Algeria after earthquakes and tsunamis.

Unfortunately fundamentalists also add « the Islamic dress/veil » to the various goodies that were and are still distributed to poor families, and the subsequent obligation to honor the donor by wearing it, going to mosque, praying the required times a day, fasting, etc.

This is how is spread, the world over, a freshly invented, transnational, 'Islamic' outfit, and meanwhile the various traditional costumes that women have worn for centuries are labelled « un-Islamic. »

Indeed, the rise of fundamentalism builds upon the growing poverty, powerlessness and discontent of the people. Subsequently, many progressive people, failing to recognize the real political character of fundamentalism, see it as a legitimate response to corrupt, undemocratic governments, as well as to imperialism. What a short-sighted analysis.

Traditionally, one piece of cloth was wrapped around the waist to the knees. Women wore a top of their choice and the second piece of cloth was carried rolled under the arm, occasionally worn on the shoulders or the head, depending on needs against wind or sun. She demonstrated how, over time, the skirt was lengthened to reach the feet and the second piece of cloth gradually had to be worn at all times, first around the shoulders to cover the breast, then over the head, then more and more tightly around the face. This was only a first step toward veiling and the general enforcement of « Islamic dress » now taking place.

Similarly, Pakistani friends testify to efforts of fundamentalists to ban the sari, a traditional outfit of the region. Such transformations can be seen all over the world. One witnesses the rapid spread of more and more covering outfits, from « the student costume » -- Iranian style -- to total burqa. The diversity of attire in Muslim countries and communities throughout Asia, Africa and the Middle East is in the process of being totally eradicated. Fundamentalists are rarely challenged by our governments and are blindly supported by various « progressive » -- but indeed ignorant -- groups in Europe and North America, as well as by Third World intellectuals, in the name of respect for cultures, tolerance for religions and anti- imperialism.

Not only is our cultural diversity at stake, but also many other traditions. For instance, veiling takes place at younger and younger ages. In January 2004, during the World Social Forum in Bombay, I was living in a mixed Hindu-Muslim suburb. For the first time in the twenty-odd years I’ve been visiting India (and cosmopolitan Bombay), I found little girls, aged four or five, playing in the courtyard, wearing headscarves. One sees this more and more frequently elsewhere, too, including in the United States. Yet, in the not-so-distant past, in countries where women are traditionally veiled and secluded, little girls that age were never subjected to veiling. It is another invention of fundamentalists, spreading the unique « Islamic dress » around the globe.

In her pamphlet, Bas les Voiles! (Down with Veils!), Iranian writer Chahdortt Djavann -- who lives in exile in France – focuses on the rights of the girl child:

To impose a veil on a minor is, strictly speaking, to violate her, to use her body, to define it as a sexual object meant for men. … The shame of inhabiting a body full of shame, a veiled body, the anguish of inhabiting a body full of guilt, guiltyof existing. ... What does veiling do to the girl child? It turns her into a sexual object: an object, since the veil is imposed upon her and that its materiality is now part and parcel of her being, her look, her social existence; and a sexual object: not only because her hidden hair is a sexual symbol and this symbol has a double meaning (what one hides, one displays, prohibition is the reverse of desire), but also because veiling puts the girl child or the teenage girl on the sex market, on the marriage market, it defines her essentially by and for men's eyes, by and for sex and marriage.[2]

Far from representing a « return to tradition, » the « Islamic dress » has no ground in most of our cultures: it largely kills them.

Dress code is not the only terrain where fundamentalists invent a new, homogeneous, transnational « Muslim»culture. Under their interpretation of Islam, they also impose only one way to be a Muslim believer -- praying, burying the dead and so on. And although there is an extraordinary wide range of different and often contradictory so-called « Muslim laws » from one country to another,[3] fundamentalist organizations attempt to impose a single shari’ah throughout the Muslim world -- far from the original spiritual meaning of shari’ah as « the way to God.» Just as with the veil (singular), there is no such thing as the shari’ah (singular): there are many veils and many non-veils, many supposedly Muslim laws, which in fact are manmade and draw not just from various interpretations of religion, but also from local customs and traditions, and even from colonial laws when patriarchy saw fit..

Neither is the veil religiously grounded. Practicing Muslims in the past never felt the need to change the ways they had dressed for centuries in the name of religion. The Qu’ran, does not impose veiling, but merely recommends modesty to both men and women. Feminists in all parts of the Muslim world make fun of their men who wear suits, not to speak of their immodest shirts in summer, often open down to their waists, showing their chests – with apparently no urge to dress either according to their national culture or their religion -- while women, as the guardians of tradition, culture and religion, are asked to permanently stand for both (at least before culture and religion became an internal contradiction!) in their everyday behavior and dress.

As in all religions, various interpretations of the text lead to very different interpretations of how a Muslim woman should behave. Islam, like other religions, is hugely diverse: there is a wide range of theological and political positions in Islam, stretching from liberation theology to fundamentalism. In recent history, progressive interpreters of the Qur'an have been persecuted, jailed, exiled or killed, and their written work censored, banned and disappeared from libraries and book shops. Nevertheless, despite lack of visibility today, liberals always existed and fought courageously for an enlightened approach to the sacred texts.

In his book, Marianne and the Prophet -- Islam in Secular France (unfortunately not yet translated into English), the French theologian -- imam and mufti -- Soheib Bencheikh describes the veil as an ancient custom of the Middle East,that perdured in the times of the Prophet, which discriminated between slave women and « respectable » wives: slave women were forced to go bare breasted and were only allowed to wear a loincloth around the lower part of their body, while « respectable » women were allowed to cover themselves. Covering was a sign of respectability and a warning that no man should interfere with them when they ventured out of their houses. It was the sign of their dignity (or rather the sign of the dignity of their male owners!). Bencheikh [4] quotes Assyrian laws of King Taglatphalzar (1115-1077 BC): «The non-sacred prostitute will not be veiled, her head will be uncovered. Whoever spots a veiled prostitute will arrest her and she will be prosecuted. » In the same way, the Qur'an suggests veiling to the wives and daughters of the Prophet and his companions, and justifies it by arguing that: «they will be identified more rapidly and therefore they will not be harrassed.» [5]

A strong believer who stands for secularism and advocates total separation between state and religion, Bencheikh humorously reflects on what could be a modern equivalent of the veil, a visible sign that would confer Muslim women respectability today in France: it is not a piece of cloth on one’s head, but education that gives women dignity, respectability, independence.

'One should avoid ridiculing God in interpreting His words. If the Qur'an recommended veiling, its only aim was to preserve women's dignity and respectability, with the means that were available at the time of the Revelation. If today the same means do not acheive the same aim, one should not focus on these means, but look for others. Paradoxically, it is schooling which today preserves the personality and ensures a girl’s future. It is through learning that a woman can defend herself against any attack on her femininity and dignity. Today, the equivalent of the veil for the Muslim woman in France, is the secular, free and compulsory schooling'. [as note 4]

There are two major trends in ijtehad (reinterpretation) that stand against fundamentalist interpretations. One uses linguistics and looks at the letter of the text: it goes to the roots of words and concepts, in search for their initial meaning -- for instance «Adam » is not the name of a man as we now understand it, but it refers to the human being in general including both genders. Therefore, it follows suit that the injunctions now believed to be made to men only and the privileges granted to men only, were in fact addressed and granted to both men and women. This school of reinterpretation is well represented by Riffat Hassan, a Pakistani Muslim scholar and woman theologian. [6]

The other, to which Bencheikh belongs, takes an historical approach that looks at the spirit of the text, the direction indicated by the Qur'an and goes further in the same direction. For instance, when the Qur'an incites believers to be kind to their slaves at a time when slaves could be slaughtered by their masters, it indicates a humanistic direction. For these progressive interprerters, it thus makes sense to infer that today the Prophet would not advocate slavery, even with a kind master. Similarly, when the Qur'an tempers believers regarding wife beating (as a last resort, after suggesting to stop talking to her, and to stay away from her bedroom), at a time when wife beating and worse was perfectly tolerable, the direction indicated is toward restrain from physical punishment, a direction that progressive interpreters believe should be pursued further today, until wife beating becomes a criminal offense in all Muslim countries.

In the past twenty years, women have begun occupying the terrain of reinterpretation. Women imams now exist in the United States and Canada, in China and the United Kingdom. While in Morocco the training of women imams is state organised and state sponsored , women theologians and women imams elsewhere trained themselves independently, sometimes facing hostility from male religious authorities. Moreover there is an increasing number of women jurists of Islam and prominent Muslim women theologians. [7]

Increasingly, voices from within Islam are speaking against the veiling of women, despite the many anti-women provisions fundamentalists try to enforce. But secular voices as well, from within Muslim countries and communities, from believers to atheists, are growing louder, refusing forced religious identities.

They also reject presumed religious identities, imposed on them by virtue of having been born into a «Muslim» country or a Muslim family. Not only is it an insult to the freedom of consciousness of both believers and non-believers, but it turns religion into "race," as was the case with Jews in 1930s and ‘40s Europe – with well known consequences.

Why is it we so rarely hear these powerful voices, while the views of fundamentalists are accepted, as if they were the only legitimate ones, even by progressive forces?. We are silenced not just by fundamentalist Muslims, not just by our own governments, but also by those who should be our natural allies.. The confusion will perdure as long as fundamentalism will be seen as a religious movement, and not as a political one, of an extreme right nature. In the name of respect for religion, many unacceptable practices are tolerated, even encouraged, by the international community.

If the «Islamic dress,» the veil, is neither cultural tradition nor religious custom per se, then what is it but the symbol of the separation of the world of men from the world of women? It is a separate development, an apartheid that was condemned the world over when it meant discrimination of Blacks by Whites in South Africa. Yet apartheid seems acceptable, in the name of cultural relativism, when it draws a line between males and females. As such, it is part of an extreme right, global political project. [8] The fundamentalist objective is to impose onto the world political theocracies through its monolithic vision of what Islam should be and how women living in Muslim contexts should behave. Religion serves as a guise for political objectives, eradicating in the process all cultural and religious diversity.

We presently witness the manufacturing of a totally imagined transnational 'Muslim' cultural identity, in which the acultural, ahistorical invention of "the Islamic veil» plays the role of a flag for Muslim fundamentalism: it is the political uniform of a fascist internationale. [9] No longer do women veil, as they did when I was a child, for reasons of cultural and ethnic diversity, as indications of social class or because of personal religious choice. Those veil-S have vanished under the formidable push of a worldwide, very dangerous -- supposedly religious -- extreme right.

During the 1990s, 200,000 people were killed in Algeria in a war for political power between a corrupt, repressive government and fascist fundamentalists. We called it a "war against civilians," in contrast to a civil war. In this war, the entire population was taken hostage. A vast majority died at the hands of fundamentalist armed groups -- among them many women, who were killed simply for walking the streets bareheaded, taking their children to school, going to the market or to work. They paid for those liberties with their lives. Yet other women were killed despite their head coverings. The fundamentalist hatred for women [10] led to femicide. [11] This is presently happening in Iraq, where fundamentalist armed groups slaughter unveiled women in the streets.

Muslim fundamentalists have now opened a new front in Europe and North America. Their struggle to impose the veil on presumed «Muslim women» gives them visibility and reinforces their claim to be the only interlocutors and spokespersons for the so called "Muslim community."

And the battle of the veil is only the tip of the iceberg. Fundamentalists' demands in France also include inflicting sexual apartheid in schools, hospitals and at swimming pools, imposing a different curriculum for boys and girls, as well as the introduction of "Muslim law/shari’ah" (singular) for family matters. Demands for a separate family code for presumed "Muslims" were made in Canada (where they were defeated in 2005, after a difficult struggle, thanks to international pressure by transnational women's networks), the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, Australia and France. France is already under heavy pressure from Europe to change its definition of secularism, from total separation between state and religion, to the Anglo-Saxon notion of equal tolerance to all religions.

Why is the fundamentalists' demand for separate laws limited to family matters? Why not for criminal offenses? Why not claim the right to cut off the hands of thieves and stone adulterers to death? Because, just like the veil, family laws primarily affect women's rights within the family: marriage, divorce, custody and guardianship of children, polygamy and inheritance. A criminal code would concern everyone and encounter much more resistance. It is because the claim for the 'right to veil' and other subsequent fundamentalist demands target women first that they meet such little official opposition. But this is a short sighted vision of what is really at stake.

For while the laws of the people can be changed by the will of the people, God-given laws are by definition unchangeable. This is why Muslim fundamentalists abhor democracy. As Ali Belhadj, second in command of Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) told the press in 1990, "If we have the law of God, why do we need the law of the people?" [12]

The mere fact that leaders of extreme right political parties such as Le Pen from National Front in France and Haider from Freedom Party in Austria publicly supported Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, in the name of the right to difference, should be a warning sign.

European governments have a huge responsibility when, by bending to fundamentalists' demands, they trade not just women's rights, but also the future of democracy, in the hope of keeping «communities» at peace. Unconscious racism ("Muslims" being constructed as naturally backward and barbaric) as well as colonial guilt ("Muslims" being seen as passive irresponsible victims ) also play a role in European countries accepting or at least considering such demands.

Ironically, the very forces that kill diversity and democracy are being allowed to prosper and spread their dangerous ideology in the name of tolerance, diversity, multiculturalism and democracy!. Fundamentalists have learned to subvert and manipulate these very concepts that were fought for by generations in social movements.

Mainstream international human rights organizations, too, are ambiguous toward fundamentalism, and fail to recognize that human rights concepts are being manipulated to clear fundamentalist armed groups and parties from their crimes. Algeria's war against civilians has been a text book case in this respect : an exclusive focus on state responsibility and accountability led to seeing Algerian fundamentalist armed groups mainly as victims of state repression, rather than as perpetrators, too. Had fundamentalists succeed in coming to power, women's rights would have been severely curtailed, starting with compulsory veiling. By highlighting in their reports the repression against fundamentalists, and grossly underestimating the crimes committed by fundamentalists against the population in general and against women in particular, main stream international human rights organisations participated in destabilizing our corrupt and repressive but yet still republican state (in the original sense i.e. standing for a Republic and a democratic system), thus risking to promote the coming to power of a much more repressive, anti human rights and anti women's rights theocracy. [13]

How to face human rights organizations' unanimous stand for «the right to veil» in France, while our right not to be veiled is at stake in so many other countries, and now even in Europe? [14]

Neither the Left, nor the anti globalisation movement have not done any better.

Both the old Left and the far-Left being traditionally anti-state, they have turned a favorable eye to the fundamentalist race for political power, as if being against the state was a guarantee of bringing about social justice, let alone women's rights.

Similarly, because fundamentalists have displayed their anti-imperialism, they gained the heart of the anti-globalization movement, regardless of the content of their national and transnational political project. The European Social Forum in London or Athens, as well as the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, invited Muslim fundamentalists, rather than those, believers and unbelievers, who oppose their political project. [15]

The 'war on terror' is further increasing the ideological confusion between defending the human rights of migrants from Muslim communities in Europe and supporting the political agenda of self appointed fundamentalists leaders that pretend to speak for the 'community'.

In the past few years, the Left, anti globalisation and Muslim fundamentalist activists demonstrated hand in hand in European capital cities on various occasions: for instance against the war in Iraq, the occupation in Palestine, the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay, racist anti-Arab policies in the USA, etc... We are yet to hear anti-globalization leaders express some concern with these unholy alliances.

The influence of fundamentalists on the collective unconscious is clearly illustrated in France by the 1906 law on secularism (revised in 2005) -- originally designed to separate the Roman Catholic Church from the State – which is now known the world over as 'the law against the veil', thanks to efficient international fundamentalist lobbying. In actual fact, any Muslim woman can veil in France as she pleases, except on two very specific occasions: for students in state schools up to the age of 16 (i.e. while they are still legal minors), and for civil servants, when they represent the French secular state vis a vis the public.

Fundamentalists perverted the debate by accusing their opponents of 'Islamophobia', a concept that they devised to frighten the Coward Left: if one does not approve fully of their demands and their political agenda, one is immediately accused of being against Islam itself. [16]

Even the international feminist movement fails to have a clear-cut position on fundamentalism when it comes to the question of the veil. When veiling girls under age 16 in French state primary and secondary schools -- for that is what it was all about! -- was debated in France, despite the massive outspoken support of women from migrqnt 'Muslim' descent to secular laws, some French feminists [17] upported 'the right to veil.' just as other feminists in the ‘70s supported 'the right to female genital mutilation'- in the name of respect of difference, culture, traditions and identity. In this hierarchy of apparently conflicting rights, why do feminists put women last?.

Throughout France, during the time of ‘the veil controversy,’ many, many women from migrant "Muslim" descent came out publicly in defence of secularism. They demonstrated and spoke openly in the streets, they talked to French journalists, they spoke on French radio and television. [18] They were ignored by the international press, which meanwhile prominently featured the only two small demonstrations by veiled women flanked by cordons of bearded men that took place in Paris.

When the law on secularism was finally confirmed, one young woman, a social worker in her early twenties, said when she was interviewed on TV, 'For once, the rights of women will come first, before religious rights.'

In Algeria many women gave their lives refusing fundamentalists' orders, including forced veiling. Each year on March 8 in Algiers, despite threats and danger, these women are and have been celebrated, sometimes postumously, for the past ten years, during the feminist ceremony of Women's Award to Women Resisters to Fundamentalism.

These are the voices that need to be given visibility. Women should have at least as much right as fundamentalists to define their own culture, to define their own religion if they have one, or to have none and to decide for themselves what is their identity, without having to pay with their lives for exercising this right.

The veil per se is a non issue: it is only the visible sign of a political regression that is growingly affecting whole societies. If only out of self preservation, progressive people in Europe should revise their analysis and help promote alternative forces to fundamentalism that do exist in Muslim countries and communities.