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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Britain's niqab debate - Channel 4 by Spyros A. Sofos and Roza Tsagarousianou

The debate about the face veil is not a novel one. Muslim notions of modesty, have often been subverted and colonized by patriarchal practices seeking to restrict women's autonomy. As such, the veil issue has mobilized social forces inspired by liberalism and western feminism and generated valuable criticisms of patriarchy in Muslim communities. On the other hand, Muslim women in Europe (but also in parts of the Middle East, North Africa and Asia where secularist forces have been able to inform or determine state policy) who choose or are forced to cover their bodies and faces are often subjected to state regulation and disciplining. Focusing on Europe, it is undeniable that the 'out of place' look of veiled women in public spaces all over the continent has provided fertile ground for the transformation of the veil issue into a potent mobilizing symbol for xenophobic, right wing forces only too happy to jump into the bandwagon of the secular, liberal and feminist opposition to the veil and, often, to incorporate these discourses into their own arguments. 

We have discussed here how the dignity of Muslim women has, predictably, become the rallying point of the European Right as it provides a respectable vehicle through which it can deploy its xenophobic discourse. Shockingly this obsession with the way Muslim women dress has not been confined to Europe's populist Right; it has been taken up by forces of the broader Left which have been at the forefront of struggles for human, political and social rights. In the burqa ban vote at the French National Assembly not one single voice was raised to doubt, let alone protest at, the institutionalization of the violation of several fundamental rights of Muslim women through the regulation of how they can dress in public.
A veiled woman next to the minarets
both potent symbols of the 'islamization'
of Switzerland in the recent minaret referendum 

As we have argued 
in the UK the niqab, has been posited in public discourse as the visible symbol of the perceived lack of integration of the Muslim community into British society and has therefore been associated with the whole debate over the perceived failures of multiculturalism as Jack Straw’s (who was at the time leader of the House of Commons) 6 October 2006 column in the Lancashire Telegraph indicated when he described the veil as "such a visible statement of separation and of difference". 
In most interventions of this sort, proponents of the ban use arguments that identify in the veil patriarchal oppressive practices that are detrimental to the dignity of Muslim women, or safety and security problems or, finally, barriers to intercultural communication and social cohesion. Without disputing that there are Muslim women who are coerced into, or feel they have no choice but to cover up, I believe that it is arrogant and dangerous to assume or suggest that the face veil is taken up by Muslim women in Europe just because of social pressure from within their communities or as a result of more material forms of coercion (French legislation for example has inbuilt in it a 'cherchez l'homme' clause as it provides for enormous fines for the men who force women to cover).

What is remarkable however, and should be noted, is that this debate is also one conducted over the absence of the women in question, as it largely leaves the affected women in a position of aporia, voiceless and powerless in the midst of a cacophony of opinions offered by western politicians, human rights activists and feminists on the one hand, and Muslim community leaders on the other: veiled women constitute the battlefield between abstract discourses of emancipation and discourses of cultural autonomy that emphasize the lack of competence of the part of liberals and feminists to criticize an essentially reified 'muslim' culture and tradition. It is true, that behind the veil one can find women that are isolated, lonely, abused and oppressed. In such cases, the veil can dissimulate suffering and silence cries for help. In such cases we need to devise ways of listening, of intervening and of empowering. On the other hand, considering the veil simply as a means and symbol of oppression may be misguided as it decouples it from its social-historical context. In the course of our research we have encountered numerous young women who experiment with covering their hair or face who have stressed in very articulate ways that this was a matter of choice and not coercion. Women have mentioned numerous reasons for covering or veiling themselves: affirming their identities as young Muslims, protesting against assimilationist ideologies and practices, expressing their religiosity and protecting themselves from the objectification of the male predatory gaze.

Before resorting to the platitudes that are rehearsed time and again in order to bring about a blanket ban on the niqab, it is worth considering the voices of women who stress the right to choose as the primary reason for wearing it. The Channel 4 debate goes some way towards this direction as guests in the debate include advocates of banning the veil (Douglas Murray), moderates who try to argue that the veil is not universally accepted among Muslims (Yasmin Alibhai-Brown) and veiled women (Fatima Barkatullah, Sahar Al-Faifi, Shalina Litt). Having watched the debate, we were left with the feeling that the debate format, however useful, may make a disservice to the complexity of the issue. The binary logic that permeates the discussion has helped reify two opposing positions advocated by selected guests who have the necessary symbolic capital to frame the debate along these lines. As one of our Muslim friends has suggested, after watching the debate she was left with mixing feelings. She felt that ordinary Muslim women who do not quite fit into the 'boxes' the debate participants had constructed were left voiceless.

We will soon start to address this issue ...

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