Voile la difference?

For various reasons, that would seem to have more to do with political positioning and opportunism than any genuine sense of urgency, Nicolas Sarkozy spoke out the other day against the wearing of the burqa and other extreme forms of Islamic veil. It was, he said, not welcome in France:

The problem of the burka is not a religious problem, it's a problem of liberty and women's dignity. It's not a religious symbol, but a sign of subservience and debasement. I want to say solemnly, the burka is not welcome in France. In our country, we can't accept women prisoners behind a screen, cut off from all social life, deprived of all identity. That's not our idea of freedom.

The numbers of French Muslim women wearing burqas or niqabs is said to be fairly low: lower than in Britain, certainly. Some have accused Sarkozy, and other politicians who have raised the issue recently, of creating a problem where none really exists, perhaps as a diversionary tactic. This may be true. But even in secular France such dress would appear to be spreading. The niqab at least. The true burqa, the all-encompassing shroud familiar from Afghanistan and tribal regions of Pakistan, in which a mesh prevents even the woman's eyes from being seen, is thank goodness vanishingly rare in both our countries.

There are obvious parallels with the French ban on headscarves (and other religious apparel and symbolism) in schools and public offices five years ago. Then, the debate in France was followed on this side of the channel with a mixture of bemusement and smug confidence in the British way of doing things, which is generally imagined to be more liberal but might equally be characterised as apathetic. Most British commentators explained the strange (to them) French headscarf ban as being somehow connected to the tradition of laïcité (republican secularism) and, more broadly, to a view of citizenship which stressed conformity and assimilation. But while we congratulated ourselves on our greater national "tolerance", few noticed that a much larger Muslim community in France seemed to produce far fewer terrorists or radicals, and almost no-one seemed aware that the strongest supporters of the ban had actually been Muslim feminists.

The cross-channel difference still exists, as Agnes Poirier (in The Times) noted:

For someone like me, firmly on the Left, the defence of secularism is the only way to guarantee cultural diversity and national cohesion. One cannot go without the other. However, when I get on Eurostar to London, I feel totally alien. To my horror, my liberal-left British friends find such a position closer to that of the hard Right.

But the tone this time has been slightly different - partly, perhaps, because in the case of the burqa it is more difficult to pretend that the wearing of it is no more than a simple matter of personal choice.

Even natural supporters of multiculturalism find themselves compelled to admit that there's something deeply unsettling about a garment whose primary purpose appears to be to turn its wearer into an anonymous object. Perhaps, too, the 7/7 London bombings shook people's confidence that the British way of doing things was necessarily the correct one. After all, for all the official talk of pluralism and tolerance, Muslims are conspicuously less well integrated and less content with the political status quo than in either France or Germany, as recent surveys show. There may also have been shifts in the cultural balance of power, as demonstrated by the fall of the Muslim Council of Britain from its formerly dominant position as representative of Islam in the UK. Recent scenes from Tehran - where the attenuation of the veil has appeared to express, for many, a desire for wider political liberation - may have played their part. For whatever reason, there are more public commentators in Britain this time prepared to admit that the French might actually have a point.

For example, Sophie Morris, writes in The Independent about her personal reaction to a woman in a black niqab:

I also felt depressed – depressed that here was a woman entirely shrouding her identity in public. Depressed that she was denied even that most basic social interaction with strangers that comes with walking down a busy street. Most of all it depressed me off because it reminded me of what no one – Muslim, misguided liberal or anyone else – can dissuade me of, which is that the burqa is a tool of oppression.

It may be that the uncompromising nature of French (and Dutch) proposals to ban the burqa has given British columnists permission to voice their own doubts - to admit the truth of what Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (a Muslim herself, of course) has been saying for some time now, for example in May:

There have been enlightened times when some Muslim civilisations honoured and cherished females. This is not one of them. Across the West – for a host of reasons – millions of Muslims are embracing backward practices. In the UK young girls – some so young that they are still in push chairs – are covered up in hijabs. Disgracefully, there are always vocal Muslim women who seek to justify honour killings, forced marriages, inequality, polygamy and childhood betrothals. Why are large numbers of Muslim men so terrorised by the female body and spirit? Why do Muslim women encourage this savage paranoia?

I look out of my study at the common and see a wife fully burkaed on a sunny day. She sits still. Her children and husband run around, laughing, playing cricket. She sits still, dead, buried, a ghost. She is complicit in her own degradation, as are countless others. Their acquiescence in a free democracy is a crime against their sisters who have no such choices in Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

These are strong words, drawing a direct link between an article of clothing and more serious abuses of human rights. As it happens, I think Alibhai-Brown is right: the burqa is more than just a piece of cloth, it encapsulates a world view in which women are property and a source of dangerous sexual pollution; that men cannot control their lustful urges and "their" women are vessels of family honour, in the domestic sphere something between a housemaid and a baby-producing machine.

Why would any woman voluntarily choose to shroud herself in this way? Conformity with social norms - deference to male relatives, in other words - is likely to be the predominant reason, along with adherence to a particular (many would say extreme) interpretation of Islam. There are also political reasons for donning such garb: a desire to express Islamic radicalism or rejection of mainstream society. Far from being modest, it can be viewed as arrogant, or at least passive-aggressive. Far from being a rejection of excessive sexualisation it is, in itself, excessively sexual. Historically, indeed, it has often been considered erotic.

Legislating to ban the burqa would be difficult or even dangerous. I don't see how it could be implemented without also restricting people's right to walk down the street wearing V for Vendetta masks or other forms of fancy dress. To be able to dress offensively - within the law - is after all an important right in a free society. What I have a problem with is the notion that it be tolerated, even accorded respect. That opens a door to the radical elements in Islam who want to create religious apartheid in our society. The social stigma attached to the veil helps to restrict its spread, not least by giving reluctant women an excuse for rejecting it. Negative reaction also - as the French public debate recognises - makes a positive statement about the equality and value of women in our society.

If a woman genuinely believes that she is a better Muslim for wearing a niqab or burqa, it is in any case likely that she is labouring under a misapprehension. The Muslim Council of Britain, despite having nothing to say about events in Iran (who cares about Shi'ites, anyway?) has weighed in, accusing Sarkozy of "defying universal values" and "whipping up xenophobia". Spokeswoman Reefat Drabu is quoted as saying that "it is patronising and offensive to suggest that those Muslim women who wear the burqa do so because of pressure or oppression by their male partners or guardians". (What, any of them?) But other Islamic voices have been noticeably muted.

In the Telegraph, Cassandra Jardine quotes the ultra-liberal imam Taj Hargey as questioning veils of all kinds. He "describes the growing belief that Muslim women should cover their head, face and hands as 'doctrinaire brain-washing'", telling Jardine that Sarko "should be applauded for initiating this debate." A more conservative voice, Sheikh Mohammad Tantawi (head of Cairo's Al-Azhar university, whose role in Sunni Islam is somewhere between Oxford and the Vatican) has also come to Sarko's defence. According to Al Arabiya, he said that "every country has its own rules" - and that, in any case, the face veil was not required in Islam.

In a rather confused Comment Is Free piece the other day, Stuart Jeffries chided Sarko for not taking account of Hegel's distinction between abstract and concrete freedom. He even claimed that "a western fashion victim is as much a sartorial prisoner as a woman in a burka". This argument is scarcely original; nor is it entirely without merit (although men increasingly are subject to similar pressures). But to find in it a defence of the burqa is to miss the point: it is not a justification of the veil but rather a criticism of the beauty industry. What it is saying is that expecting women to look like Barbie dolls is almost as bad, almost as objectifying, as expecting them to walk around dressed like bats. It is a demand for social reform in our society, not for social regression in others (or among certain communities in our own).

Jeffries also admitted to feeling "depressed", even though he went on to say "that's my problem". Instead of worrying about Hegel, he should perhaps interrogate his own unease, which strikes me as being both natural and wholesome. His intellectual posturing can't quite overcome his intuition that there's something terribly wrong about the burqa. Veils arouse strong feelings. Much stronger than logic would seem to justify, or their largely marginal status would predict. In Britain, we have a tendency, officially at least, to deny, ignore or even try to outlaw such emotions; in France, they are subjected to exhaustive philosophical analysis and turned into matters of existential importance. That, in the end, may be the biggest difference between us.


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