Letters to the Editor
Undecided about legislating dress
I question banning the niqab and burqa if a woman actively and freely chooses to dress in this way. May I just say, firstly, that my own personal opinion on the veil and burqa is that it is ultimately a manifestation of male power which eschews responsibility for male sexual behaviour and places it upon the shoulders of women. It is part of a sexual double standard that ‘blames’ women for ‘tempting’ men and even for being sexually assaulted by men – women are somehow seen as ‘asking for it’ (the sexual double standard is a worldwide phenomenon not just a Middle Eastern one). No comment on men having any responsibility for their own personal, sexual behaviour, of course, (does this mean men are little better than dogs?). Can I also say that, for me, what makes us special as human beings is our capacity to communicate and so much of this is done by the eyes and face of another person – the burqa, in particular, looks abhorrent to me.
However, my quandary is – what of the Muslim women living in Western society who choose to cover up through no pressure beyond their own active choice (yes, you can argue they have somehow been brainwashed by familial/cultural expectations). Have we a right to ban their choice? Have I the ‘right’ as another human being and (western) woman to say – don’t cover up! Does this not sound the same as some imam saying – cover up!
I would like to live in a world (also for my two daughters) where women truly dressed as they pleased without all the crap that goes with what women wear. I am undecided about the issue of legislating women’s dress… (but hate the double-standard involved).
Do not fight the flag alone
Marieme Helie Lucas responds
We are all as concerned with liberties. And we are also fully aware of the fact that right and extreme-right traditional parties and organisations are trying to make the best possible use of our defence of secularism in order to further their xenophobic agenda. We need progressive forces to join us in the unveiling of the broad fundamentalist political agenda of the Muslim-right, in order to step out of the dilemma: speak up and be used by the classic far-right, or not speak up and our silence will be used by the Muslim far-right.
This is precisely why we need to link up the question of the Muslim fundamentalists’ ‘flag’ with their broader political agenda. The real question cannot be limited to the veil per se; it has to take into account all the other demands that are made simultaneously (parallel legal systems establishing different laws – not democratically voted but ‘divine’- and different rights for different categories of citizens ; limitations in the teaching of evolution in science classes; bans on art classes; the imposition of supposedly religious rules on an entire population branded Muslim regardless of their individual beliefs; attacks on dissenters under the pretext of ‘Islamophobia’; etc..)
All of those are part of a theocratic political project of the Muslim extreme-right which goes against secularism, democracy, fundamental rights – the veil/burqa/niqab being only the visible tip of the iceberg, the ‘flag’ of their political project. Banning the flag alone is obviously not enough to target their political agenda as a whole: there is an urgent need for a political analysis that clearly identifies the ways to counter their global political project, and to do that without fuelling the racist agenda of the traditional European far-right. And it is not by accident that I repeat ‘political’ in this sentence, as so many people still talk about religion when trying to grapple with the problem.
Women wearing the burqa in Europe today are instrumentalised by the Muslim extreme-right, whether or not they realise it. They display their ‘difference’ and ‘identity,’ which is exactly what the traditional far-right needs in order to fulfil its xenophobic agenda. Both the traditional xenophobic extreme-right and the Muslim extreme-right want a violent confrontation and need it in order to recruit fresh troops. This is not a reason for shying away from addressing the proliferation of burqas everywhere, but it should be an incentive to not isolate the ‘flag’ from the broader issue of the growing far-rights in Europe, including the Muslim far-right.
Progressive people in Europe should link up and support the struggles of progressive secular people in so-called Muslim countries and communities. Struggles against the burqa, or against religious courts, or for secularism are waged everywhere in Muslim-majority contexts. We need to uphold citizenship – together – and do away with divisive ‘communities’ and communalism.
Marieme Helie Lucas is an Algerian sociologist and founder of Secularism is a Women’s Issue.