Great Hijab Coverup, The

Great Hijab Coverup, The

Winter, Bronwyn

“If you take uncovered meat and put it on the street… without a cover and the cats eat it, is it the fault of the cat or the uncovered meat? The uncovered meat is the problem…. If the woman is in her boudoir, in her house and if she’s wearing the veil and if she shows modesty, disasters don’t happen…. Satan tells women, ‘you’re my weapon to bring down any stubborn man.'”

So spoke Sheikh Taj al-Din al-Hilali, “Mufti of Australia,” to a congregation of 500 in Sydney at the end of Ramadan in October 2006. A public controversy has ensued, with most Muslim women-from the secular to the devout-outspokenly criticizing Hilali, but a disturbing number have nonetheless stood up for him.

The Contemporary European Hijab Controversies

Controversies of this type, fairly new in Australia, are now familiar throughout much of Europe. While the timing and intensity of the debate over “Islam” and “the West” in Europe and the extremity of positions taken vary greatly from one country to another, they have one thing in common: Muslim women’s dress and behavior are at the center of the “culture, religion and ethnicity wars” being fought largely by men.

In the United Kingdom, not long before the Hilali debate erupted in Australia, Jack Straw, former British Foreign Secretary, reignited the controversy over veiling with his insistence, made public on October 5, that Muslim women remove their face veils (niqab) when meeting with him. Prime Minister Tony Blair backed him up, stating that face veils are a “mark of separation.” The same month, on October 29, it was revealed that Aishah Azmi, a support worker in a British primary school who had been suspended on full pay in February for refusing to remove her niqab, had been obeying a fatwa issued by a local hardline Islamist cleric, ordering her to wear it. (Afatwa is technically an Islamic legal opinion and not a binding rule or sentence, although hardline Islamists are increasingly using it as such.) Azmi, who had been helping Pakistani immigrant children learn English in the school, had been asked to remove her niqab because her pupils found it difficult to understand her when they could not see her lips move. The employment tribunal to which Azmi had appealed ruled that the school had been within its rights to suspend her, but awarded her £1,100 compensation for stress.

Earlier this year, in July, a court in Baden-Wuerttemberg in Germany overturned that region’s 2004 law forbidding “outward expressions [by staff] that undermine the neutrality of the government or peace between political and religious creeds in school,” because it was applied to hijab-wearing Muslim women but not to nuns. Some regions of Belgium have recycled older legislation relating to the wearing of carnival masks to outlaw face veils in schools and the public service, and the Netherlands is considering extending already-existing legislation against the burqa in public transport and schools, to a total ban in public places, although there is some concern that such a law would conflict with existing legislation on religious freedom. Italy is so far opting for a “tolerant” approach, although Prime Minister Romano Prodi, commenting on the British debate, told the press on October 18 that forbidding face covering in public places was “a matter of common sense.” Meanwhile, Spain is still scratching its head and wondering what to do about what is a relatively new issue there. France, where the hijab debate has gone on the longest and been waged the most fiercely, is the only Western country so far to have adopted a national law, in 2004, to outlaw all “conspicuous” religious insignia in schools (whether worn by students or teachers).

The Traditions Around Hijab

Yet, hijab-wearing and veiling remain uncommon phenomena in France as elsewhere in Europe, even if there are signs in some countries that they are on the increase. So why all the fuss? And what, exactly, does the hijab “mean”? To take the second question first: veiling or headcovering are not required by Islam, contrary to what is claimed by religious conservatives. Many devout Muslim women do not cover their heads and would not dream of covering their faces. Nor is the hijab as it is worn today a “traditional” or “authentic” garment, but a modern and usually “imported” one, appearing as the visible feminized emblem of Islamic revivalist movements from the 1970s. However, some form of head-covering of women was practiced in ante-Islamic societies and is still practiced in traditional and rural communities both within and outside the Muslim world today-it has often had class-related meanings. The primary meaning of the hijab today is the same as that of these more traditional head coverings: that under it is a woman and she is treated differently.

To answer the first question, we need to look to Muslim countries before turning back to Europe. Turkey, for example, which is set to become the European Union’s first Muslim country, will be, paradoxically, among its most rigidly secularist ones-perhaps even more so than France, with which it bears striking historical similarities in its development of secularist nationalism. Turkey is, however, not the only secular Muslim country to ban the hijab in government buildings, schools and universities. Tunisia has a similar law, adopted in 1981, which continues to be enforced despite growing Islamist-backed campaigns against it. In other countries such as Egypt, there is no national law, but in a climate of Islamist reveiling campaigns there-and at roughly the same time as Jack Straw was making his comments in the UK-the provost of Helwan University Abdul Hayy Ebeid ordered that niqab-weanng students not be allowed into the dormitories of the institution unless they agreed to be checked by security women to verify their identities. On November 10, upon a request for clarification by the American University of Cairo, following a number of contradictory tribunal decisions, the Egyptian Council of State ruled niqab bans illegal in Egypt. Muslim countries in West, South and Southeast Asia are also facing the phenomenon of the “new veiling” or “new burqa,” with varying governmental responses depending on which party is in power at the time.

Egypt in particular has historical reasons to be vigilant. Just as France is both the “eldest daughter of the Catholic Church” and the birthplace of Western secularist nationalism and the concept of “human rights,” Egypt is the birthplace of both Islamic modernism (and modern Arab feminism) and the mobilization of conservative interpretations of Islam to political ends, known variously as Islamic fundamentalism, Islamism and political Islam (although the last term is understood by many to refer specifically to Islamist political parties such as the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, the now outlawed Ennahda in Tunisia, or now-ruling Hamas in Palestine). I will use the term Islamism, as it covers a range of movements, from fundamentalist groups to political parties.

The Politics of Hijab

It is in Egypt that the Muslim Brotherhood was founded, in 1928 (five years after modernist feminist Huda Sha’rawi founded the Egyptian Feminist Union to campaign for women’s suffrage). The Brotherhood, along with the Saudi World Islamic League, has been a decisive influence in the resurgence of Islamist movements in the Muslim world and diaspora since the 1970s. In Europe, most of the Islamist groups that have flourished since the 1980s, including political parties (which the Brotherhood and Islamist League are not), have some sort of historical or current link with one or the other, or both, of these organizations.

France and the UK have been prime sites for the development of European Islamism, partly because of their significant Muslim minorities (particularly the case in France, which has Western Europe’s largest and most diverse Muslim population) and their historical association with the Muslim world. The London-based European Council of Islamic Organizations, the Union des Organisations Islamiques de France (founded in 1983), from which the former grew, and the European Council for Fatwa and Research (created in London in 1997 and now based in Dublin) were all mentored into existence by members and allies of the Muslim brotherhood, notably Yussuf Qaradawi. These organizations and others like them (there are many) have become vocal lobby groups within Europe, although they do not represent the majority of Europe’s Muslims. In France, for example, according to estimates based on survey data, over two-thirds of Muslims support French secularism and almost half declare themselves to be non-practicing.

Yet the hijab issue has been to a large extent engineered by Islamist groups in order to hijack the “race debate” while reasserting their role as the deciders of what is “appropriate” behavior for women. Since the first “headscarves affair” in France in 1989, and in France and elsewhere since, Islamist “counsellors” have made their presence felt beside the hijab-wearing girls and young women and their fathers, brothers and husbands. They have dishonestly claimed that head-covering is required by the Koran (it isn’t), and implied that bareheaded Muslim women are somehow “inauthentic” or impious. Their often charismatic leaders, such as Tariq Ramadan in France and Switzerland, proclaim themselves the reasonable defenders of a vilified Islam and of Muslim minorities against a hysterically racist and economically and politically imperialist West.

Demonstrable Western racism and government actions that reinforce cultural negation and socioeconomic exclusion fuel the fires of resentment and create a fertile terrain for these organizations and their leaders to cultivate new followers, primarily although not only among young men. They are given even greater help by large sections of the white-European left-including, unfortunately, some feminists-who, through displaced guilt, naivety about the workings of fundamentalist movements, ignorance about the great diversity of identities and views among Muslims or active political collusion, are outspoken in their support.

What About the Women?

As for Muslim women, they are, as usual, caught between opposing unidimensional constructions of their “identity” by others (who may include other Muslim women), who claim to speak in their name or who want to “emancipate” them (from race oppression, from the oppression of “Islam,” from Western corruption, and so on). This does not, however, mean that every woman wearing a hijab is either a female foot soldier for Islamism or a manipulated pawn (although some may be: some Islamist groups have active women members and girls as young as 9 are being sent to European schools dressed in a hijab). Some are donning it as an expression of their piety. Others are donning it in reaction to Western racism, as a visible identity politic or as a reaction against Western objectification of women (also an argument deployed with great success by Islamist groups). Others, particularly teenagers, are undoubtedly donning it as a form of an immediately recognizable “ethnic chic”: it is very seductive for a teenager to get so much attention. And yet others, often prominent in Muslim and/or feminist communities, are donning it because that is what is expected of them by white European institutional and media interlocutors, otherwise they are not taken seriously as “real” Muslims.

The hijab debate is complex and, given its political mobilization, cannot be ignored-but at the same time, the lives of Muslim women are equally complex and cannot be reduced to a piece of cloth. Muslim-background feminists, even those who are ferociously opposed to the hijab, have frequently commented that they are tired of Western preoccupation with this issue while more issues of more significance for them are ignored. They ask why there is such scrutiny by white Westerners of their clothing and behavior (while at the same time, ironically, many of those same white Westerners only consider them truly “authentic” if they wear the hijab and behave in certain ways), and so little attention paid, for example, to physical, psychological, social and economic violence against them, whether perpetrated by men of “their” communities or by male and female members of the dominant ethnic group.

Hijab and Feminism

I do not believe there is a way to make the hijab “feminist,” any more than there is a way to make wearing hats in Christian churches or wearing Hasidic wigs “feminist.” They are all symbolic ways of hiding women’s sexuality, deemed to be aggressive and dangerous, and as such are stigmatizing: they punish women for being women. That said, just as there are Christians who identify as feminist, so there are Muslim women who identify as feminist, and a minority of these do wear the hijab (although many of them do not wear it all the time). It is important to separate out what feminism is as a system of values from the actions and behavior of individuals who identify as feminist. Not everything an individual does is “feminist” just because she says it is, but conversely, her commitment to feminism is not wiped out because of one act that is not feminist and may even be anathema to feminism. If that were the case, then not one woman anywhere would have the right to call herself “feminist.”

There is no doubt that the hijab issue is being used for political point-scoring by groups of men that definitely do not have women’s interests at heart, and we have good reason to be as vigilant about the political mobilization of a monolithically conservative interpretation of Islam as we are of any right-wing religious politics. It would nonetheless be unwise of Western feminists to fall into the same male-supremacist trap of constructing hijab-wearing women as symbols of women’s oppression, religious piety, Islamic fundamentalism or, alternately, “Muslim feminism,” or non-hijab-wearing women as more liberated, more feminist, or, alternately, less Muslim or less culturally authentic. The hijab debate lies at the intersection of Islamism, Western orientalism, race and identity politics, the contemporary geopolitical interaction of “the West” and “the Muslim world,” the symbolic appropriation of women in the name of culture, nation, religion or ethnicity, and, of course, feminism. As such, it is multi-faceted, complicated and fraught. Our responses to it thus need to be sophisticated: we really cannot afford to get this one wrong.

Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. 2006

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