Neither Veil nor Submission

 

Maryam Namazie

 

 

 

The niqab (and burqa) must be banned to protect women’s rights and secularism – and not just out of concern for security. It’s a shroud, strait jacket, and mobile prison for women and girls who are bound and gagged and made invisible.  According to Algerian writer Karima Bennoune, the veil represents ‘the ever-encroaching fabric erasure of women’s bodies.’

Calling it a ‘right’ and ‘choice’ is as formal as formal can be when it is often deemed compulsory and imposed and policed by Islamists - often using brute force. Also, let’s not forget, the veil is a tool like many others to control and restrict women and girls. To me, saying it is a right and choice is like saying FGM, the chastity belt, foot-binding, or Suttee are such.

A ban is not a violation of the right to religion. Whilst the right to religion and belief is absolute, the right to manifest and express one’s beliefs can be and is at times restricted for a number of reasons, including protecting public security, health, order, and the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

Men in Shi’a Islam might have the ‘right’ and ‘choice’ to marry four permanent wives and unlimited temporary wives, for example, but it is nonetheless banned in many places because it is deemed to be exploitative. Uniforms are another way in which the right to dress is restricted in society for health reasons.

The European Court of Human Rights confirmed this when it ruled in favour of Turkey’s right to ban the veil at universities (now under question due to Erdogan’s efforts to Islamicise the country). If dress can be restricted to protect health or public safety, why not to protect women’s rights and secularism?

Moreover, rights often conflict with one another. What about the adverse impact of the niqab and burqa on the rights and choices of unveiled or differently veiled women? It is not as harmless as is often portrayed. In the Shabina Begum case, the House of Lords granted that restricting Shabina from wearing the jilbab to school was permissible in order to protect the rights of others who feared being coerced into veiling. As Algerian sociologist Marieme Helie Lucas says: “The ‘right’ to veil is always followed with the right to beat up women who do not.” Clearly, the right to veil has a corresponding right to unveil or not veil at all. The unveiled or improperly veiled woman is always held up adversely in comparison to the chaste, veiled woman. 

Moreover, this is more than merely a question of ‘dress.’ It is important to remember that the niqab (as well as the burqa and the veil in general) is a highly contested political and social symbol. Many Muslims or those labelled as such are at the forefront of the fight against the burqa, niqab and veil - often at great risk to themselves.

In Iran, the slogan ‘neither veil nor submission’ has become a rallying cry in the ongoing fight between women and Islamic regime’s morality police. In another recent case in Sudan, Amira Osman Hamed who faces flogging for refusing to wear the hijab says: ‘I’m Sudanese. I’m Muslim, and I’m not going to cover my head.’

In this day and age, the veil in general and the burka and niqab in particular are associated with Islamism’s efforts to limit rights and impose Sharia law. The enormous increase of veiled women and girls across the world and in Europe is a direct result of the rise of the contemporary Islamist movement and the ensuing pressure on women and girls to veil. Women are always the first targets of Islamism. And veiling restrictions on women is a particular signifier of things to come. The lawyer putting forth Turkey’s case for restricting the veil at universities said it well: ‘the hijab is not just a dress but a sign of political conviction; it shows near and present danger.’

 

A good case in point is Madani Free school in Derby where girls as young as 11 have to wear the burqa; all teachers, including non-Muslims, must wear the veil. Those who criticise the fuss over a ‘piece of clothing’ miss the point. The niqab and burqa are the most visible signs of Islamism’s war on women. It also represents sex apartheid and Sharia law and all that follows. In Madani School, burqa-clad girls must sit in the back of the classroom. On school trips, they must give way to boys and male teachers who cut in front of them in queues. Music is banned... (As an aside, child veiling is tantamount to child abuse. In the same way that children are not labelled Conservative or Marxist children because of their parents’ political beliefs, children should also be free of religious labels and faith schools until they are ready to make a choice of their own upon reaching 16.)

Calling for a ban on the niqab or burqa is not about criminalising Muslim women anymore than banning FGM criminalises girls and women who are mutilated. Whilst a ban won’t solve everything (there has yet to be a single prosecution with regards FGM) changes in the law, including bans, are important steps in changing culture and attitudes and defending rights.

Moreover, calling for a ban is not about cultural imperialism or colonialism. Islamist efforts in many places are forms of colonialism too. The burqa and niqab are not traditional forms of dress but newly imposed ones for a majority of contexts. Plus there are bans on the niqab or veil in a number of countries outside of Europe. This is not about East versus West. In Egypt, the Ministry of Health has prohibited the wearing of the niqab by nurses in hospitals. Egypt's top Islamic school, al-Azhar, has issued a ban on wearing the niqab in classrooms and dormitories of all its affiliate schools and educational institutes. Al Azhar also obliges women to show their faces in court via a decree issued in 1880. In Iraq, the niqab has been banned by a fatwa. In Kuwait, women wearing the niqab have been banned from driving. In Azerbaijan and Tunisia, veils are banned from public buildings and schools. In Syria, until recently, teachers were banned from wearing the niqab...

Unfortunately, many secularists in Europe have shown a lack of clarity and moral courage when it comes to banning the burqa and niqab. Secularism is a human right (as philosopher AC Grayling says) and one that needs to be actively defended, promoted, and articulated; it is a fundamental precondition for women’s rights and equality.

Secularists have a responsibility to seize the initiative (particularly given the far-Right’s attempts at hijacking the issue to promote their anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim bigotry). Calling for a ban is not in and of itself racist though racism and prejudice are very real and need to be opposed on par with sex discrimination.

A ban has nothing to do with a ‘clash of civilisations;’ it has everything to do with a global struggle between secularists, including many Muslims, on the one hand and theocrats and the religious-Right on the other.

A Manifesto against Totalitarianism which I signed in 2006 with 11 others including Salman Rushdie on the Danish cartoon controversy still applies today:

“We reject the ‘cultural relativism’ which implies an acceptance that men and women of Muslim culture are deprived of the right to equality, freedom and secularism in the name of the respect for certain cultures and traditions.

“We refuse to renounce our critical spirit out of fear of being accused of ‘Islamophobia,’ a wretched concept that confuses criticism of Islam as a religion and stigmatisation of those who believe in it.”

And to that I must add the wretched concept that confuses a criticism of the niqab, burqa and veil as a stigmatisation of those who believe in it and wear it...

 

 

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